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Feed Your Kids' Creative Spark with Engineering

by Nate Ball

Nate Ball

Nate Ball, host of PBS KIDS' Design Squad, is an inventor, entrepreneur, athlete and musician whose fascination with engineering and experimentation started early and made him the youngest winner of the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Read more »

Sorry, Nate Ball is no longer taking questions.

It’s National Inventors Month. Encourage the budding inventor and engineer in your life, just as my parents did for me.

Growing up, my parents generously supported creative excitement. They never set limitations or imposed too much structure. Instead they helped me find acceptable ways to get messy, make mistakes, and [safely] conduct every test run I felt was necessary for each project. Rather than focus on specific outcomes, they celebrated my inquisitiveness and creative process right alongside me. The result was that I developed a love for solving problems, a love for creating things that were new and challenging, and a love (though I didn't know it at the time) for engineering.

As a kid I became captivated by the idea of zooming around my neighborhood in a go-kart, but without access to the usual go-kart building materials (especially an engine), I had to figure out a different way to achieve that dream. Despite not having an engine, I did have some hand tools, scraps of wood, and four plastic lawnmower wheels that I found at the hardware store. One weekend project later, I was on a gravity kart—a steerable wooden platform of a vehicle—coasting down my sloped driveway and going as far as gravity would propel me.

Today, after earning two engineering degrees, I can explain in detail how each gravity kart I constructed was better than the last; each new model could reduce what was slowing me down (aerodynamic drag with the car body and rolling resistance with the wheels). I didn't understand in great detail what was happening, nor were all my ideas completely accurate. But this lack of understanding didn't stop me from making observations about what was affecting my kart's performance, and it definitely didn’t stop me from using those observations to try to improve my design. I didn't know it at the time, but I was engineering, designing, and inventing simultaneously. It was empowering; as I learned how to problem solve and make good observations about what I wanted to improve, anything and everything became possible.

Today, as a host on Design Squad Nation, I am lucky enough to constantly explore my love for engineering with kids. My goal is to provide all children with a passion for creativity the tools they need to design and build interesting things. It's a dream job for me and an extension of the things I enjoyed doing throughout my childhood: making something cool and then figuring out how to make it even better. This is what I hope kids will take away from Design Squad Nation—the TV show, the website, the hands-on engineering activities, and the upcoming video series: an engineering skill set is incredibly empowering, not just for its career potential, but for encouraging creativity and building essential life skills.

Here are some thoughts on how you can strive to do what we do on Design Squad Nation in your own home.

Tips for Facilitating Creative Engineering Learning at Home

1. Don't worry if you're not an engineer yourself. Helping children learn how to ask relevant and meaningful questions about what they've made and then translating those questions into new actions is an effective way to facilitate your child's creative learning process with any project. It's a fun learning process for you too—enjoy it alongside them.

2. There's no right or wrong answer. Helping your children learn to enjoy engineering activities is best accomplished by focusing on the design process, making observations and gaining new insights, and iterating—not about the specific outcomes and being "right." Help your children determine for themseleves whether or not a given modification was meaningful in the way that that they wanted it to be. If it wasn't, "how interesting!" is a totally appropriate response.

3. The process is fun! The real enjoyment comes from learning to use and enjoy the process of design. Assessing what you need to do in order to solve a problem is useful everywhere, not just for engineering.

Engineering. It is a passion and way of life for me. It also happens to be my job. And I LOVE MY JOB. I would be building and making things every day even if I didn't get paid to do it. But the best thing is…I do get paid for it!

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Try engineering and science activities or compete in contests on DESIGN SQUAD NATION's educational website for kids. Check it out today!

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