PBS Kids Show “Design Squad Nation” Hopes to Bring Out the Engineer in Kids

by Michael Sheehan on March 1, 2011

in Event, Family, Gadgets, General, How To, Video

This past weekend, my 7 and 9 year old daughters and I were introduced to an interesting new show that is on PBS Kids called Design Squad Nation. But we didn’t watch it on TV, instead, we headed over to the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California to meet with the co-hosts of the show, Judy Lee and Adam Vollmer. My kids and I visit the Lawrence Hall of Science fairly regularly throughout the year. It’s a great, interactive place to learn about science in a fun way. For example, one of the current exhibits about the physics of roller coasters, called “Scream Machines,” lets kids roll balls down different types of loops and hills to demonstrate why roller coasters are designed the way they are. Another favorite of my kids was called “Grossology” which explored puking, farting, sneezing and other things that always got kids giggling.

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So, it was appropriate to meet with the show producers and hosts of Design Squad Nation at the Lawrence Hall of Science since the premise of the show is to introduce Engineering to younger children. While originally targeted at older kids, the demographic of the show seems to have expanded to a much wider range. In speaking with various staff members, I learned that they tailor much of their work based on the age demographic. The show is about creating fun and engaging engineering projects, so with younger audiences, there is much more hands on provided by the hosts and the staff, but with older kids (e.g., high schoolers), there is less hands-on guidance.

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Is it a TV show or a Live show? Well, it’s a little of both and more. I happened to meet up with Adam and Judy as they were on a bit of road show tour. They are local to the San Francisco Bay Area currently so I’m not sure if they do other appearances in other states. They definitely do film episodes around the country. So what are these episodes about? Again, the premise is about introducing engineering to children. In many cases, kids don’t even know what engineering means.

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So, I asked them flat out – “what is engineering” and what does it mean to kids. You can hear their responses and learn more about the show in the interview I did with Judy and Adam is below:

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Prior to my interview, my kids and I sat through a short introduction to the concept of catapults, an elemental engineering device. Part of the “lecture” by Judy and Adam was to show how catapults work and even had some of the audience members come and build their own mini catapults. This is one of the many projects that can be found on the Design Squad Nation website, in which there are sections and video for children and an area for teachers, educators and parents. In the “adult section”, one can find various topics like: Electricity, Force, Energy, Simple Machines and much more. For example, there is a guide on how to create a Rubber Band Car out of cardboard, CDs, a skewer, tape, washers, putty and a rubber band. In fact, I saw one of these devices rolling around the floor of the auditorium where we saw the catapults in action.

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One of my kids’ favorite TV shows that I watch with them is MythBusters which has episodes where some pretty crazy engineering projects are built by special effects and engineering experts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. It’s an amazing show actually as the hosts try to debunk myths that are in the wild. Design Squad Nation does something similar, but instead of trying to disprove myths, they are trying to use engineering to create and explain to children why things are designed and built in that particular way.

The Episodes for Season 1 of Design Squad Nation are (from their Episode guide site):

Episode 101: Apache Skateboarders

On the premiere episode of DESIGN SQUAD NATION, Ronnie—a 17-year-old skateboarder from the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona—teams up with co-hosts Judy and Adam to build a skateboarding street course. Engineered to be modular, durable, and weather-resistant, this is the skate park of Ronnie’s dreams.

Episode 102: It’s Alive!!!

Judy and Adam join forces with Jennifer—a young pastry chef from Boston, MA—to create the cake of her dreams for the cast party of “Young Frankenstein: The Musical.” With guidance and inspiration from master baker Jorg Amsler of Truly Jorg’s Patisserie in Saugus, MA, the team engineers a cake that is part delicious, part electronic, and part mad scientist—wowing the musical’s cast and crew.

Episode 103: Garden–to–Go

Judy and Adam travel to London, England to meet Mariam and Bert, two young members of Global Generation—a community organization that grows fruits and vegetables in one of London’s largest construction sites. Bringing new meaning to the phrase “eat locally, build globally,” Mariam and Bert work with Adam and Judy to design and build a pedal-powered mobile garden that will help them sell their produce to nearby restaurants.

Episode 104: A Cut Above Part 1
Episode 105: A Cut Above Part 2

Judy and Adam travel to New York City, the fashion capital of the United States, to meet up-and-coming designers Eduarda and Juan. Eduarda and Juan’s dreams come true when fashion designer Christian Siriano challenges them to showcase their individuality and creativity by drawing upon Judy and Adam’s engineering know-how to re-interpret a gown from his collection. Their red carpet-worthy designs are treated to a surprise critique when two editors from Teen Vogue magazine join Christian at a fashion shoot.

Episode 106: Musical Bike

Judy and Adam meet Beatriz in her hometown of Emeryville, California to help her combine her passion for music and bike building. Working at The Crucible—a non-profit educational foundry and metal fabrication shop—they design and build a pedal-powered bike organ for Beatriz to unveil at her high school block party.

Episode 107: DIY Playground

Judy and Adam journey to the northern mountains of Nicaragua to work with the kids of Cusmapa to build the playground of their dreams. With the help of the Fabretto Children’s Foundation, a non profit organization that helps local children reach their full potential, the entire community pitches in, working from the ground up to build Cusmapa a playground.

Episode 108: One Giant Leap Part 1
Episode 109: One Giant Leap Part 2

Judy and Adam invite Felipe—an accomplished 15-year-old pilot from Miami, Florida—to compete in the 2010 Red Bull Flugtag competition. Together, they team up with NASA to design and build a human-powered flying machine. With their NASA-inspired glider design, Team One Giant Leap soars off a 30-foot high deck, impressing the judges with distance and style.

Episode 110: Trash to Treasure

For the season finale, DESIGN SQUAD NATION asked kids across the country to recycle, re-use, and re-engineer everyday materials into the next big invention in the 2010 Trash to Treasure contest. Three grand-prize winners visit Boston to work with professional engineers at Continuum, a global innovation and design consultancy, to see their original ideas become real products.

The show definitely looks like it will have some legs to stand on, and is a great way to introduce your kids or students to the world of engineering and why and how things are built they way they are. To find out when the show airs in your area, visit this site. I took some other photos of Judy and Adam giving their show and you can see it on my Flickr set here.

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If you have kids between the ages of 5 and 15, you might want to introduce them to Design Squad Nation. Who knows, you might be unlocking a new passion within them!

HTD says: Do you ever talk to your children about why a bridge is built they way it is or how come buildings don’t collapse under their weight or why tons of steel can fly through the air as an airplane? Design Squad Nation can definitely unlock those young, inquisitive minds.

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