Design Vs. Engineering in Schools

Design has become a very popular term in education these days.  It seems the term is used in a million ways, just to spice things up.  For example, I was recently at a local private school and I noticed a prominent display that said “Design Challenge: Create a catapult that can launch a golf ball at least 5 feet.”  Now, this, to me at least, is not a design challenge, but rather an engineering or a physics challenge.  Despite the fact that students are asked to design an object, children are not asked to identify real life problems, observe human behavior, or empathize with the user- all the core values of Design Thinking.

In the JCDSRI design lab, we have been working hard to teaching the invaluable design thinking process BEFORE attempting to build a machine.  Let me give you some examples:  In first grade, they noticed that one student frequently forget his diabetes bag whenever changes his class, so they are working on creating systems to help him remember.  In fifth grade, students noticed that we create a tremendous amount of waste during lunch and so they will be trying to devise ways to get families to use less disposable material and use more glass, metal, or reusable plastic packaging.

Design thinking, often referred to as “user centered design” or “human centered design” starts with looking for problems in the world, and moves on to interviewing and observing how people act, so that we understand people’s values.  Many of our design lab classes are actually about how to ask questions, observe and gather data- and not at all about building or engineering!

This is time well spent.  One thing that is exceeding difficult for children (and perhaps all people) is to NOT come up with solutions right away.  One of the design thinking mantras is “You’ve got to move slow to move fast!”  In other words- it is critical to really observe, empathize, and define a problem before thinking of an answer.  Sometimes this process feels frustratingly slow (especially for children), it is better than designing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Our fifth graders are eager to ‘invent’ products and systems to help families create less waste.  As Design Lab teachers, our job is to slow them down and get them to observe and empathize before they invent. The fifth grade is now sitting dispersed throughout the lunch room, observing and taking note of what kids bring to school in their lunch bags, what gets eaten, and what gets thrown away.  Their next step will be to interview parents about the process of making lunch, and why buying prepackaged, disposable bags is so attractive.  After they understand the practices, values, and marketplace around disposable materials, they will begin to design solutions to the problem.

The skills of engineering and design are complementary but very different. Where engineering is solving a pre-defined problem design is finding and understanding a problem.  Both are important, but where as engineering is geared towards “making stuff,” design is geared towards making the world a better place for human beings.

Boating in First Grade

FullSizeRender (1)What makes a boat float? First graders learned that the amount of weight a boat can hold is dependent on the shape of its bottom. They created boats out of tin foil, cardboard, duct tape and some other interesting materials. They are really good at utilizing the materials in the design lab!

Many people created flat-bottom boats and some created V-bottom boats. For example, Gev created a flat-bottom boat out of a cylinder and lots of duct tape. The next step was to add some weight to the boat, so we added pennies! One by one, we counted each penny that was put into the boat together. Can you guess how much money Gev’s boat held?


It held $1.02!

Second Grade Toy Store

Congratulations to the children and families of our second graders. They’ve been hired! They received this notification from the Design Lab today:

Congratulations! You have been hired to design and build a new toy! Your product will be marketed and sold across the nation (after many ITERATIONS, of course).

  • Step 1: Frame the problemIMG_7290

“How might we design a game, toy, or activity so that children will enjoy it, learn from it, and learn how to cooperate with others?”

  • Step 2: Empathize/Immerse

 We learn about the user of the toy we are designing and conduct focus group interviews.

  • Step 3: Ideate & Prototype!

Build it!

  • Step 4: Test

Try to sell your product. You will need an advertisement! Think about commercials, magazine & newspaper ads….


JCDSRI Featured by YU School Partnership!

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.45.47 AMWe are very pleased that our Head of School, Adam Tilove, was featured in a conversation about innovation in schools in the YUSP Spring 2016 Quarterly. While it was our billboard that caught their attention initially, JCDSRI’s reputation as a leader in STEAM and design preceded us: in fact, Mr. Tilove was mentioned in the YUSP Fall 2015 Quarterly, as well. Our commitment isn’t just to STEAM, though; we want our graduates to be good citizens, in both their local and global communities. That’s why we also have an ongoing partnership with the Islamic School of RI. We encourage our students to consider ideas from multiple viewpoints and to be respectful of different backgrounds and beliefs.

As the only school in southeastern New England with a Design Lab dedicated exclusively to elementary students, we believe strongly in a progressive curriculum that gives children plenty of opportunities to engage in authentic problem-solving. Our students, from Pre-Kindergarten through 5th grade, speak the language of Design Thinking: they employ empathy, they create prototypes, and they “fail fast” so that they can address the needs of a specific audience. Want to see our students in action? Call or email us and come for a visit!

Welcome to the Shark Tank

For students in grades 3-5, the design lab has been transformed into a Shark Tank. The TV show Shark Tank, regularly aired on ABC, inspired me to challenge students to create something worth selling and that would convince sharks to invest in. While many students created prototypes, others, like Ezra, were billionaire investors (aka “sharks”). Ezra took it upon himself to interview the designers in his class in order to get an idea of their products, past sales, current locations, offers, and valuations prior to their pitches.

The following video is brought to you by students in the fourth and fifth grade. Cooper is pitching his product, Your Home Security. Welcome to the Shark Tank!

Are Artists Designers?

Even when we have “free build” in design lab, we design for a reason. We have to think: who did I design for? What problem am I trying to fix? What does my creation do? Why did I choose it? Where will it be used?

During a lively discussion about different types of designers, some fourth graders were thinking about whether artists are designers. What does it mean to be a designer? Students came to the conclusion that designers usually aim to solve a problem. So, what problem do artists solve? Eitan responded, “Artists solve the problem of not enough beauty.”

Students at JCDSRI are thoughtful and curious about how they can impact the world.

An example of the ability of the young designers and artists at JCDSRI is shown in a recent design challenge. In making cardboard chairs come to life, students were given the design challenge: “How might we design these (very plain) cardboard chairs so that they display our unique quaIMG_6820lities as humans and demonstrate our learning outcomes from this year?” Below are some photos or the chairs that bring more beauty to the world, straight from the hands of young designers.

IMG_6818  IMG_6819

STEAM WEEK……in second grade


In the second grade we:128

  • celebrated STEAM week and experimented ALL WEEK with science, technology, engineering, art, and math 🙂
  • constructed and observed toys that spin.
  • explored and described some of the variables that influence the spinning of objects.
  • observed and compared rolling systems with different-size wheels.
  • explored and described the motion of rolling spheres and made homemade roller coasters inside the classroom125.
  • learned about how animals enhance their senses to adapt to their environment and designed and constructed our own “animal power” invention!
  • made musical instruments with everyday items such as; cups, elastics, spoons, H2O, paperclips etc.
  • learned about Antarctica and  the different kinds of Penguins that live ther122e.  We also began researching our penguin of choice.121
  • designed and painted an “international” chair made of cardboard.

We have had a great STEAM week and will continue to implement STEAM activities every day in the second grade!





Maybe we don’t need bridges anymore…

As it turns out, bridges are tough to build. Especially with constraints. Students were only allowed to use 100 popsicle sticks and white glue to build their bridges! Constraints drive creativity. Third graders persevered and learned to ‘fail forward fast’ and have a ‘bias toward action.’ Fail forward fast inspires designers to go with their instinct, build fast, and evaluate effectiveness of a prototype soIMG_6672 that they can move quickly onto making a better prototype. Similarly, bias toward action inspires designers to, again, go with their instincts rather than pondering the potential effectiveness of a prototype. In design lab, we do more and ponder less.

As of now, the bridges have been built, but not with complete success. In design lab, however, children know that they learn from failure and that it will only help them with the next prototype they build.

The innovative nature of the students in this classroom is evident. While monitoring the prototyping process, I overheard a small group of students whose building wasn’t going so well talking to one another: “If we were bridge builders, we would teach cars how to swim.”


Design Lab Update

In PreK, we designed an umbrella for Itsy, our spider friend. He was SO sick of getting wet every time it rains! We picked the materials we thought would work best. We had the choice of using plastic, tin foil, felt, or paper. Once we finished our umbrellas, we tested them to see if they could stand up to the rain. We also learned that if a prototype doesn’t work the first time, we can always build it again to make it better. Like Eli said, “It’s okay if it doesn’t work.”

Similarly to PreK, kindergarteners also designed an umbrella to keep Itsy dry. A few kindergarteners took a different approach and made our spider friend his own shelter! We learned that the plastic works best to protect Itsy from the rain.

First graders also worked together to come up with a way to keep Itsy dry. Working collaboratively helps us get lots of ideas from each other. We can accomplish so much more together! It can be so exciting when you come up with a solution as a team. “I think ours is going to work great, Moshe!” said Eliya.

Second graders are working on coming up with a solution to the design challenge, “How might we prevent habitat destruction and water scarcity in the Chihuahuan Desert so that we can protect animals?” Children in the second grade class love to build off of each other’s ideas.

In third grade, students learned about the 6 simple machines and how they help us do work. Students built structures that include at least two simple machines. Many children noticed that, interestingly, all of the structures incorporated an inclined plane.

Fourth and fifth graders began designing a Thanksgiving table made only out of 8 sheets of newspaper, an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of cardboard, and masking tape. Of course, our tables need to be able to hold a LOT of food, so we will be testing our tables’ strength by putting books on top. We can’t wait to see how much our tables can hold!

For an up-to-date explanation of what each grade is up to, come into the Design Lab and see our Bulletin Blog Board!

Mini Maker Faire

The Mini Maker Faire at BarnesIMG_5991 and Noble this past weekend was a success! Students in grades K-5 all had their hands on Einstein’s Wave Machine in some way. In addition to this time machine, we showcased the fourth and fifth graders’ shoe prototypes. People who stopped by our table were fascinated by what JCDSRI is up to in the design lab. 

In order to make the time machine, we started by studying Einstein’s theory of time travel. Einstein thought time was an illusion, and that it depends on the speed you are traveling through space: “Einstein’s theory of special relativity says that time slows down or speeds up depending on how fast you move relative to something else. Approaching the speed of light, a person inside a spaceship would age much slower than his twin at home.” (Howell, 2013)

Children in grades K-5 partook in the effort to make a time machine. “Well, actually… no one has ever traveled faster than the speed of light!” multiple students pointed out. Instead, we used the design process to answer the question: How might we build a time machine that connects our knowledge of the design process with Einstein’s theory of time travel?

Students built a prototype that was exactly ¼ of the actual size of the wave machine. Prototyping is an imperative (and our favorite) phase of the design process. Next, students transferred everything from the prototype to the large cardboard, measured, cut, and painted. Then, we added 3D features, a pendulum, and lights. This project was also eco-friendly, in that we used solar power for the lights along with battery power and circuitry. This allowed students to connect science concepts, theoretical reasoning, circuitry, mathematics, art, and design concepts while solving the design challenge.

Congratulations to JCDSRI for being the only elementary school invited to the Mini Maker Faire of 2015! Be on the lookout for the time machine in the future, because Mr. Tilove has a master plan.