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Introducing young students to engineering

Samiel Reyes worked on a project as part of the Design Squad Global program.
Samiel Reyes worked on a project as part of the Design Squad Global program.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

In just a few weeks’ time, the students in Kathy Wright’s Richard J. Murphy K-8 School STEM class have developed a keen grasp of Costa Rican culture.

“They don’t get snow there,” said Jayd’n Washington, a 12-year-old seventh grader at the Dorchester school.

Added fellow 12-year-old Fabian Riascos, “They have their own currency.”

Their burgeoning interest in the Central American country stems not from a recent geography lesson plan — it’s the result, instead, of a program called Design Squad Global, which pairs American middle-school classes with students from other countries in a kind of virtual pen-pal relationship.

Created by WGBH Boston as a spinoff of the old PBS television series “Design Squad,” the program serves, at its core, as a way to introduce young students across the globe to the importance of engineering-related projects.

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But another goal — and one that organizers seem to value as much as anything — is the program’s ability to connect children from various locations, backgrounds, and cultures. “With what’s going on in the world right now, I think there’s a real need for programs like this, that really expose kids to the global world,” said Marisa Wolsky, executive producer for WGBH and the DSG program. “A lot of kids go into this experience with stereotypes. They’ve learned a lot about other countries through the media — and there’s not a truly realistic portrayal of them.”

Founded earlier this year in conjunction with the PBS Kids website, the DSG program connects kids ages 10-13. Currently, it operates in 25 American cities — including Boston, Chicago, and New York — and eight countries, from Brazil to Jordan to South Africa.

At the start of the program, which can run either six or 12 weeks, two classes from different countries are paired together. In online correspondence, they tick off their names, nicknames, and interests — and as they tackle a collection of weekly projects, a virtual relationship blossoms.

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The groups exchange regular e-mails, photos, and videos, sharing tips and ideas on how best to complete that week’s task.

The focus is on real-world problem-solving. Participants are charged with designing and constructing scaled-down versions of a number of projects: a structure that can withstand an earthquake, an emergency shelter, an adaptive device for someone with disabilities.

“Middle school kids can come up with some amazing solutions,” said Mary Haggerty, who oversees educational outreach at WGBH. “It makes you feel very hopeful for the future, that there are these budding engineers out there, and they come from all kinds of locations, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and they’re boys and they’re girls.”

Kathy Wright with her class at Richard J. Murphy K-8 School in Dorchester.
Kathy Wright with her class at Richard J. Murphy K-8 School in Dorchester.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff)

And for a collection of students used to a more traditional classroom experience, it can represent a welcome break from the norm.

“In class, most of the time they’re sitting down with pencil and paper,” says Edwin Alfonzo, 24, a grad student at Boston University who assists with the local program. “But they have the opportunity to come in here and build something with their hands.”

Last Wednesday morning, inside a third-floor classroom at Richard J. Murphy K-8 School, Wright’s eight-person group gathered for its latest project — building a vessel that could safely land a baggie of dried pasta from a considerable height, without breakage.

To start, the class was split into groups of two or three. Each table was given a bin containing a small collection of materials — cotton balls, string, tape, a plastic bag — and after some initial discussion about the details of the task, each group got to work. For the next hour, their creations slowly took shape.

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One group worked to pad the bottom of a paper plate with cotton balls, in an effort to cushion the fall. Another fashioned a parachute out of a plastic grocery bag. And despite the occasional developmental hiccup — including a few disagreements — things progressed smoothly. Each group’s project grew increasingly complex.

Wright made her way through the room, offering up suggestions and encouragement as the groups began to field-test their products from a short height, dropping them from chairs.

“I didn’t even think of that,” she said, examining one group’s device. “Pretty good idea.”

“Didn’t even hear it land,” she said, after another attempt.

By the end of the hour, the moment of truth arrived. One by one, the groups hustled out of the classroom and down the hallway to a nearby stairwell, where they would release their vessels from a suitable height.

In the classroom, Wright worked with a pair of students who were making final adjustments.

“The challenge is to show them that they can be engineers — you don’t have to be an adult,” she said.

Soon enough, a 12-year-old named Demauryin Colon came bouncing back into the room from the stairwell, a smile spread wide across his face.

“Hey, Ms. Wright,” he called. “We did it, we did it, we did it!”

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Jhondell Smith-Young tested his project for the class.
Jhondell Smith-Young tested his project for the class.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff)

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.