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Design and Discovery

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Nancy Peter

Design and Discovery is a free curriculum that offers an inquiry-based and interdisciplinary approach to engineering. Students are introduced to engineering principles and guided through the design process as they identify personally meaningful problems and develop prototypes to solve these problems.

The Design and Discovery activities are rich in scientific content, promote inquiry skills, and include additional youth development components, such as problem solving, cooperative learning, and real-life applications. The Web site and curriculum materials are well written, well organized, and accompanied by multiple resources. Design and Discovery does require material resources, staff expertise, preparation and implementation time, and other elements that may not be available to all afterschool programs.
Full Review:
Design and Discovery is a free, interactive engineering curriculum developed by Intel and the Girl Scouts of America. It is available on the Intel® Innovation in Education Web site (www.intel.com/education/design). It takes an interdisciplinary approach to engineering and was developed primarily for use in informal learning environments and for use with students aged 11 to 15.

The Design and Discovery Web site is extremely comprehensive, helpful, and easy to navigate. It is organized into the four broad headings of “Overview and Benefits,” “Curriculum,” “Program Examples,” and “Implementation Strategies.” Within each of these larger sections the website provides explanations, suggestions, resources, and examples. For instance, the “Implementation Strategies” section includes program-planning information related to staffing, budget, mentors, and field trips.

The curriculum itself is organized into six logical and discrete sections: Understanding the Design Process; Engineering Fundamentals; Thinking Creatively; Making, Modeling, and Materializing; Prototyping; and Final Presentations. Each section is further divided into 18 individual sessions. Each session is 2.5 hours long and includes between two and four 20 to 90-minute hands-on activities. All activities include numerous written materials, such as facilitator instruction pages and student direction handouts. Many also include student reading and “Home Improvement” activities, to be completed at home with input from family members.

Design and Discovery does more than cultivate scientific knowledge, skills, and literacy. It also fosters meaningful learning, where science and engineering concepts are applied in ways that make them relevant to students (such as conceptualizing a better alarm clock); it promotes problem-solving to support students’ inquiry and critical thinking skills (such as designing a more user-friendly toothpaste cap); it addresses communication skills by providing opportunities that encourage participants to share their discoveries (such as presenting their design solutions to others in science fairs or a community showcases); and it nurtures systems thinking, so that students can build meaningful connections among skills and knowledge that are often the domain of discrete academic disciplines (such as reconciling the cost and durability of multiple materials).

In summary, Design and Discovery provides authentic and creative inquiry-based activities that will likely inform, engage, and stimulate the middle and high school students for which they were developed. The activities are relatively simple, low-cost, learner-driven, and flexible, which make them well suited to informal learning environments. There are ample resources ranging from detailed lesson plans to instructions for recruiting mentors and raising money. Moreover, the website and materials are extremely well conceived and well organized. The curriculum developers clearly put significant thought, and talent, into designing a program, which is both effective and user-friendly.

While the curriculum was developed for informal learning settings, the Web site provides few examples of informal programs in which the activities have been successfully integrated. As a result, it is unclear how thoroughly the program has been tested in afterschool programs, in urban as well as rural locales, and in impoverished as well as affluent communities. As a result, there are some aspects that may not work as well in afterschool programs. For example, many afterschool programs may not have the material, monetary, or human resources necessary to implement these activities. Program staff may not have sufficient time to prepare for these lessons and gather all of the necessary materials for their implementation or the funds to buy the additional materials that might need to be purchased.

Additionally, the curriculum is (ideally) designed for two staff members per every 10 students, and for programs in which there are 20 (or less) students, two facilitators, and several mentors—a situation rarely found in afterschool programs. The program may not work as well in circumstances in which there are more students, less staff, and a lower staff-to-student ratio. The curriculum is also best taught by knowledgeable and trained staff (or staff who have time to review the curriculum thoroughly and try it in advance). This could be challenging for afterschool programs in which there is often high staff turnover, minimal funding for professional development, inconsistent staff training, and inadequate staff compensation.

Finally, afterschool programs are often less structured, organized, and consistent (in terms of student attendance and staff retention) than would be ideal for use of this curriculum. Afterschool learning venues often experience scheduling difficulties, multi-grade lessons, inconsistent student attendance, and similar obstacles.

Design and Discovery has many wonderful assets. However, it requires significant time, resources, and staff expertise. Anyone pursuing it should consider and prepare for the energy expenditures involved.