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.

Why We Need Design Lab

IMG_7610 (1)Here’s a challenge for you: quickly sketch a scientist. Easy, right? You might be thinking lab coat, eyeglasses, crazy hair, test tubes everywhere, computers, and oh… male.

While I may be making an assumption here, research has proven that this isIMG_7612 (1) how many people envision scientists. Here is an article explaining these findings. 

In design lab this week, students in preK, kindergarten and first grade were given the same challenge I gave to you: draw a scientist. Some drawings were consistent with what researchers have found.


Others were not so consistent.

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The article above suggests that “students who visit real scientists or engage in hands-on inquiry activities tend to draw less stereotypical images of scientists.” This is  why all schools need programs like our Design Lab and design thinking curriculum; so that we can change our stereotypes and create a brighter future. At each grade level, students are engaged in projects that involve hands-on inquiry inside and outside of Design Lab time. Students at JCDSRI aim to solve real world problems while learning that we can all make a difference in the world, whether you’re a girl, a boy, have crazy hair, wear a lab coat, or none of the above.

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.

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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!





A STEAMy week in First Grade

What a sensational week we had in First grade last week!

Gravity and Sir Isaac Newton’s 3 laws of motion were the theme of our jam-packed week.

The highlight of the week was a special visit from my dear friend Janna Kaplan. She presented a IMG_7437marvelous lesson based on her determination to be an astronaut even though she was female and a Russian Jewish Refusenick. Her life story is fascinating and the work she does as the head of the Zero Gravity Laboratory at Brandeis is inspirational. She was very impressed with our students and asked me to post this:

The kids were beyond amazing. I’m not just saying it because they were cute (they are!). The level of their knowledge and understanding of spaceflight was definitely above grade level! The discussions we had during my presentation, the quality of their questions, and just the avalanche of questions they “pelleted” me with, were all unmistakable signs of that. So were their genuine interest in spaceflight and their ability to sustain attention during a fairly long event (I think it lasted more than one hour!). At the end of the lecture, I want you to know how deeply impressed I was. As a parent myself of (now adult) Jewish day school kids, I know how important it is for parents to know that their kids are actively interested in topics of science and exploration. It is from those curious children that we get our best scientists.

CheIMG_7408ck out some of the amazing photos from last week, when we also celebrated 100 days of school and tested out the 3 laws of motion by attempting to make marble runs from plastic tubing and marbles…..


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We celebrated 100 days of School last week with an assortment of hands-on activities!


We made 100 bead necklaces…


and found out what does 100 drops of water looks like…


and the number 100 popped up in a note about kindness!






Our STEAM RISD/Brown Liaison, Anthony gave a fantastic workshop about animals adaptations that amplified oIMG_7440ne of the senses.

IMG_7441Above is a STEAM-inspired Lego creation.



Full STEAM Ahead

On Friday, March 4th, the fourth grade class visited the studio of Rhode Island based artist Donald Gerola. His sculptures can be seen in various locations around Providence and around the world! We were given the unique opportunity to see where he creates and learn more about his style. We explored his amazing steel sculptures (some of which are over 30 feet tall!!), his prototypes, and paintings made with mixtures of sand, pigment, and natural materials. It was affirming to see that “real artists” use some of the same strategies we use when creating. Just like us, Mr. Gerola makes models and plans for his work, shares his ideas with other people, and works in collaboration with others to bring his ideas to life.


It was such a privilege to spend the morning with Donald, and we are so grateful that he opened his studio to us!

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STEAM in Action: Laurence Humier Visit

In late January, Laurence Humier, a Be24306780639_1ff6d87552_klgian architectural engineer who works in Milan, presented to our parents on the topic “Science and Young Children.” Ms. Humier’s work has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art, and she was recently honored with the title of Knight of Merit Walloon by the Belgian government. Her work combines expressiveness, experimentation, science and art in unique ways.

Ms. Humier spent a full 24378947170_d217ae8c20_kday working with students in Kindergarten through Grade 5, leading them in an exploration of the properties of common household ingredients (such as baking powder, cornstarch, and talcum powder). After investigating the reactions and textures produced by combining various ingredients with colored water, the students created their own mixtures to construct self-portraits.

The students learned a lot, got their hands dirty, and had a ball! 24647497236_fc7bda4d3f_k

Building Up

At the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, the designers are small in size, but they can still build tall. Lately, it seems that our ceilings are too low because… well, our structures are reaching too high!

Our prototypes aren’t the only things being built up. Our confidence, cooperation, collaboration, empathy, optimism, and experimental mindsets are also growing, built upon a solid foundation of joy and excitement.

Children in kindergarten and first grade met a new friend named Harry. Harry wants to have the best view of the design lab, but there’s one problem… he is afraid of heights! We are working on empathizing with Harry and helping to create the perfect perch for him. We discussed how HIMG_6501arry probably feels scared, sad, and uncomfortable when he is in a bad spot.

With a bag full of simple and recycled materials, we created the perfect perch for Harry. We made sure that the perch was stable, not too high up, and comfortable.

In second grade, students heard the story, Jack and the Beanstalk. We wondered, “how might we build a beanstalk as high as possible, using only straws, wooden skewers, and tape?” The main focus of this particular lesson is that constraints drive creativity. This means that with limited resources, we must be extremely creative!

When class is over and it’s time to go to recess, children often ask, “Can we stay in and keep building?”

Meet Paul the Ping Pong Ball!

When you’re a kindergartner in the design lab, there’s something very important to keep in mind: teamwork. As young engineers, we know that by working together, we can accomplish more.

Students were introduced to my good friend, Paul the ping pong ball. There’s just one problem with Paul; he has TOO much energy! In order for Paul to release some energy, he needs to use his body and his mind at the same time. The children were challenged to create a maze for Paul to go through so that he is ready to focus on learning in school.

Using Legos, connecting Legos, and Keva blocks, students began designing their mazes… after some quick discoveries: “I made a Hebrew letter!” Malcolm exclaimed.

They also discovered that there are many different components that mazes can have. Nathan explained, “I’m putting in a trap.” Aeden noticed that his part of the maze was getting close to Malcolm’s. “How about if we connect them?” he asked.

Next came the testing phase, where they set Paul free in the maze. “Let’s test this baby out,” said Zemer, excitedly. The maze snaked through the design lab.

“We should be in the world records!” Ben said.


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.