When asked about how they deal with unforeseen problems, novice learners often describe a process of “trial and error.” This process might fairly be described as iteration, a critical step in the design process, but falls short of the practices that engineering education needs to develop. In the face of novel and multifaceted problems, future engineers must be comfortable and competent not just trying again, but identifying failure points, troubleshooting, and running systematic tests with relevant data.
To examine the abilities of novice designers to test and effectively refine ideas and prototypes, we conducted qualitative analysis of structured interviews, audio, video, and designs of 11 girls, ages 9 -11, working on computational papercrafts as part of a museum-based STEAM summer camp. The projects involved design and construction of expressive paper and cardboard sculptures with gears and linkages powered by servomotors. Over the course of one day, the girls generated designs inspired by a camp theme, then had to work with mechanics, electronics and craft to create working versions that would be displayed as part of a public exhibit.
Computational papercraft was selected because it lowers cost and intimidation. Our design conjecture was that by making materials familiar and abundant, learners would have more relevant knowledge, could easily modify and replicate components, and would therefore be better able to recognize potential faults and more likely to engage in testing and refinement. We also supported design and troubleshooting with a customized circuit board and an online gear simulator. In the first stage of this study, we looked at what engineering practices emerged, given these conditions. We asked:
What opportunities for testing and refinement did computational papercrafts open up?
What resources and tools do young learners employ when testing and refining designs?
Analysis showed that technical supports for testing and refinement were successful in supporting valued testing and refinement practices as youth pursued personal goals. Use of the simulator and customized microcontroller allowed for consideration of multiple alternatives and for “trial before error.” Learners were able to conduct focused tests on subsystems of their paper machines, and to make “small bets,” keeping initial ideas and designs fluid. Inexpensive materials also allowed them to test and refine at late project stages, without feeling that they were wasting time or materials. The analysis sheds light on young students practices of testing and refinement, and how to best support young people as they begin learning trajectories in engineering. The approach is especially relevant within making-oriented engineering education and other settings working to broaden participation in engineering.
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