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The Channel Island Fox

International Design Contest

New Research Into Dyslexia

Spider Web-making Stratagems
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SHOW 303: International Design Contest

Engineering becomes the universal language as students from four countries team up to compete in an international design contest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Teams have just ten days to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers as they work together to design and build a machine that can deliver the most ping-pong balls across a playing held into a plastic cylinder about six feet away. Students soon find out that cooperation is as important as creativity in this event.

Curriculum Links
Activity: Finding Fault With Design
Notes & Discussion
Report From the Field: Harry West, Contest Organizer/Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT



energy and work



Imagine being handed a box containing spare parts and being told you have just six days to build a machine using only the items in the box. Not just any machine, but a machine that can meet the challenge of delivering the most ping-pong balls into a container located across a playing field. There's another catch. You are part of a four-member team, and two of your teammates do not speak English! One is Japanese, the other German. How do you approach the task? Fortunately, design is a universal language. And good design is the best language of all.

Every day, we operate, manipulate and navigate our way through the world using an amazing number of things. Some of these things may have only one function (a light switch, for example), while some have several functions (like an AM/FM clock radio). Although these devices are designed for human use, they aren't always "people friendly." And sometimes they can be especially unfriendly to people with special needs. This activity asks you to develop your observation skills by examining everyday things and critiquing them on the basis of their design.

Your Assignment:

Find one example of an everyday device that you think is poorly designed. To get started, you might want to look around your school, your home, public spaces and buildings, roadways, restaurants or offices. Inspect signs, packaging, kitchen appliances, office equipment tools, toys, light switches, architectural features (such as doors, stairwells and elevators), vehicles, fasteners, faucets or furniture...anything that is designed and built for human use.

As You Evaluate the Items Around You, Ask Yourself the Following Questions:
  1. Is it easy to figure out the function of this device?

  2. Is it clear and easy to tell how the user is supposed to interact with the device?

  3. Does the device take human behavior into account?

  4. Is it logical?

  5. Is it safe?

  6. Is it pleasing to look at? (You may decide this is not an important consideration.)

  7. How flexible is it to use? Can people with special needs use it? Consider, for example:
    • left-handedness
    • speech impairment
    • visual impairment
    • differing physical size
    • hearing impairment
    • differing levels of physical strength
    • aged or disabled people

  8. Document your findings by sketching the poorly designed device or taking a photograph of it, and write a few sentences explaining why it is faulty for the "average" person or someone with a special need to use. What improvements would you suggest? Include a photo or drawing of your example(s).

  • "Finding Fault with Design" asks students to look for and present examples of bad design in everyday life. It's a simple exercise that can be performed by students at different levels, and it requires only observation skills and a pencil and pad to record and sketch the examples.

  • You may wish to assign this activity to students individually or have them work in small groups. Students should be prepared to talk about their example of bad design, where it was found, why they think it is poorly designed and any suggestions for improving the design.

  • Students with special needs are probably already sensitive to bad design in everyday life. You may wish to ask them to comment on their findings based on real experiences.

  • As an extension of this activity, consider having students look for examples of outstanding good design and organize selections from both categories into a presentation for another class or assembly. The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman (NY: Doubleday, 1988) is an insightful book that offers criteria for successful design.

  • As a preview to this story, you might want to watch the MIT 2.70 competition that aired earlier this season (Show 301). The contest seen in this episode is part of an experimental Joint Educational Project in Design organized by MIT Associate Professor Harry West. Engineering students at universities in Europe and Japan take the same engineering design course and send students to compete on international teams at MIT. In the future, West hopes to expand the project to include students from Korea and Brazil.

  • Even before the design process begins, some teams first poll each member about his or her primary objective: whether it's having fun or winning. This light-hearted dialogue raises an important point about teamwork and consensus-building. How would your students respond? Would their goal be to have fun or win? How would they communicate with their teammates? Would students employ a defensive, offensive or combination strategy?

  • Prof. West views engineering as a dynamic collaborative process that requires close cooperation. Through these contests, he observes how students naturally communicate when working together to solve a problem. "We see that they talk to each other all the time," he comments, "and they form friendships. All of this is vital to the process. People who know each other well communicate in a kind of shorthand. Getting to know one another lets participants form a consensus about the goal of the project by the team." Do you notice similar behavior in your students as they work on team projects? Students might enjoy a discussion about the nature of cooperation and their experiences working together as a group.


"The idea of engineers working as a team is a growing phenomenon," says contest organizer Prof. Harry West. West organizes international MIT-style contests to find out more about the collaboration process. According to West, "Design projects work because participants know each other and take the time to make social connections."

West has visited a number of high schools that have established successful 2.70-style contests for their students. He feels strongly that activities like this are a legitimate part of classwork in high school. "Building things is not just for students in a VocEd curriculum," he stresses. "Hands-on activities are often the best way to learn. If you're just reading about how things work, you deprive yourself of a powerful channel of information to the mind. You can learn things through hands-on activity that you can't learn in any other way. It gives students a visceral understanding for the plasticity of matter -- the very nature of things." As an example, West points out that "mass" is a difficult concept to grasp without picking up a weight. He feels strongly that the best way to learn, even at a university level, is to see the phenomenon in action, then learn the equation.

He also emphasizes that a contest at the high school level doesn't have to be as complex as those at MIT, where time and resources allow for more elaboration. A successful high school contest can be as simple as a tug-of-war involving two motors and a string, or a pulley with a string.

Finally, we asked Prof. West what he'd most like to communicate to high school students. His answer: "Engineering is fun! And it's creative! I'd like to encourage young people who are creative to think about engineering as a career."


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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