Engineering an award-winning TV program

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MIT faculty, students' perspective employed in PBS's 'Design Squad'

Several MIT faculty and students were recently delighted to learn that Design Squad, the PBS series created to attract boys and girls in their 'tweens and teens to consider engineering as a profession, was named a winner of the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. From hosting the show to advising behind the scenes, members of the MIT community have played an important role in developing and implementing this popular series.

It began in 2002, with Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Systems Daniel Frey, who served as the show's first adviser. In collaboration with series producers at WGBH-TV Boston, he created Design Squad's curriculum. Later, under Frey's guidance, MIT students (including Design Squad host Nate Ball '05, SM '07) participated in the show as part of the university's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

Frey, who holds dual appointment with Mechanical Engineering and MIT's Engineering Systems Division, played a central role in developing the design challenges during the program's piloting phase and first season--he and the students conceptualized the challenges, tested their feasibility and formulated kits of materials.

Frey notes that the National Science Foundation Career Development Award received during that time facilitated his thinking about experimentation, the development of a systems perspective through teamwork and the importance of engineering systems to the future of the engineering profession.

"Design Squad helps young people go beyond the stereotype of engineering being staid and analytic and demonstrates ways that it can be both creative and socially engaging. A hope is that it will encourage more young people to enter engineering," he explains.

David Wallace, Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Systems, has been involved with creating the series' design challenges for two competing teams of aspiring teenage engineers. During filming he oversees engineering preparation for the challenges and is the technical adviser on set, mentoring the teams and helping with troubleshooting. During postproduction reviews rough cuts of each episode for content. He also helps to identify educational opportunities and crafts explanations of engineering concepts that are accurate and meaningful, yet still kid-friendly. He develops the animation storyboards and provides technical advice to the animation team.

Because he is passionate about design and education, holding an undergraduate degree in industrial design and undergraduate and advanced degrees in mechanical engineering, Wallace says he jumped at the opportunity to work on the series. "It is a chance to reach a wide audience and hopefully help to inspire the next generation of technical innovators," he says.

Other members of the MIT community involved in Design Squad include Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering Woodie Flowers, MechEng graduate students Ben Powers, Helen Tsai and Mika Tomczak, and several UROP students. The oldest honor in electronic media, the Peabody Award recognizes distinguished achievement and meritorious public service by media organizations and professionals.

"What distinguishes WGBH's children's programming is that our format is curriculum-based, developed with leading educators from across the U.S. MIT's own Dave Wallace, Dan Frey and Woodie Flowers are perfect examples of this," says Maria Wolsky, Design Squad's executive producer.

Topics: Mechanical engineering, Faculty, Students

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