Backstage at PBS's Design Squad



What do you get when you cross reality TV with engineering?Shawn Jordan

A little chaos, a lot of fun, and a host of mind-bending technical challenges.
In other words, the PBS series Design Squad.
Each half-hour episode shows six students (high school seniors or college freshmen) competing in two teams that brainstorm, design, build, test, and redesign a product for a real client. At season’s end, the top individual scorer wins an Intel-sponsored college scholarship worth $10,000. Behind the scenes, a handful of producers and engineers are at work dreaming up challenges and serving as a resource for the rising engineers.
Engineering education doctoral student Shawn Jordan (striped shirt in photo at right) spent the summer of 2008 in that backstage role, working in Boston as an engineering assistant during the filming of Design Squad’s third season. “My job was a mixture of teaching and mentoring, interdisciplinary engineering, opportunistic problem solving, logistics—all of those and more,” he says. “It was a very dynamic and often unpredictable environment.”
sailboatAmong the challenges cast members faced were designing a dogsled on wheels (client: the Jamaican Dogsled Team), an unmanned robotic wheelchair rugby opponent (client: Kerri Morgan, a wheelchair rugby athlete), and a sailboat (for racing across the ocean).
Over the course of 12 weeks, Jordan, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical and computer engineering from Purdue and led the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers Rube Goldberg Team to two national championships, not only co-taught a quick course in interdisciplinary engineering but also found himself harnessed to a dogsled in the making (no dogs were available that day); wheelchair-bound while dodging the opposing robotic wheelchair; loading a barge at 5:30 a.m. (delivering materials to an island where cast members would build their sailboats); and supine in one of those same cast-built boats, steering the craft with one hand while holding a tow line with the other as a speedboat tugged the sailboat to the other side of the island, where the race would begin.
 Jordan with Design Squad participants
He found, too, a gratifying improvement in how the six budding engineers approached their challenges. “One of the big areas where they advanced was in their thinking about the client,” he observes. “The whole show is about client- and user-oriented design. This kind of design takes time and experience to learn. They also learned more about structural design—how to build things that are strong. They truly learned from the experience. It’s very satisfying to me as a teacher and mentor.”
A teaching assistant since his second semester as a freshman at Purdue, Jordan drew on that experience, his own interest in design, and his doctoral studies in the School of Engineering Education. “From a research perspective,” he says, “Design Squad gave me a glimpse into how you can teach design to people who haven’t done it in a process form and how they use that design process to generate and realize ideas in a short timeframe. It was an incredible experience.”

Photo credits: ENE home page blurb: Emily Howell. This page, top two photos: Don Pratt; bottom photo: courtesy Design Squad.

Engineering Education at Purdue. LEARNING to Make a DIFFERENCE.