Sketching for Designers, Pt. 1

We jump from understanding the design process to developing skills that support idea visualization and communication. During our first video study of the invention process, we saw that engineers often make diagrams and must go “back to the drawing board” while looping through the design cycle to improve their prototypes. I led the students through some guided sketching practice this week after watching this great tutorial from PBS Design Squad titled How to Sketch (…like an engineer). For this basic sketching activity we used traditional 2D graph paper and practiced drawing the same objects in 3 views: front, side, and top. Sometimes this is referred to as the plan view. Find time to show them some plan view drawings that you find from a Web search (example).

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Introducing Inventions & the Engineering Design Process

My 5th graders and I kicked off our 3D Design & Engineering unit this week with a viewing episode of Bill Nye The Science Guy – S04E17: Inventions. (You can find it on Netflix and YouTube) The program does a great job of engaging them with humor, history and “try this at home” challenges. I loved it as a kid and I was surprised at how well it holds up to today’s young audiences.

While they watched, I asked the students to jot down some notes regarding the most important themes from the episode. I gave them a few prompts:

  • They tell us “Inventing is a process”. What do they mean by that?
  • Why is the process also referred to as a cycle?
  • How many times might inventors have to loop through the cycle to make their idea into a successful invention?

Programmable Plant Pots

My 5th graders just completed their culminating computer programming and engineering challenge this week – to make smart plant pots that share soil moisture and light data. Teachers often forget to water their plants at our school and our Science teacher asked if we could do something to help. I tasked students to apply their new skills in programing with sensors to transform their Sparkfun Digital Sandbox into an electronic plant monitor that could warn people when the plant needs water or better sunlight. After three days of trial and iteration, we had a number of successful prototypes ready to employ at our school.

Many teams were even able to mock-up of cases, mounts and covers with LEGOs, paper labels and designs to make the devices easy for us adults to read and understand. Kids wrote their own programs in Ardublock, a visual drag-and-drop language extension for Arduino’s IDE. We plan to install their prototypes into plant pots around the school next week.

If you’re new to the tool, the Digital Sandbox is a great way to explore Arduino microcontroller projects with beginners. It’s basically an Arduino Uno board that comes pre-set with sensor inputs and LED outputs already installed. This way you can focus on teaching the computer programing before you later graduate to building your own circuits and breadboarding. It comes with a great little curriculum guide to get you started and even can take a few extensions like external outputs like servos and inputs like the soil sensor you see attached here.