I design engineering projects for middle school and high school students, often using materials that are pretty unexpected. My inspiration comes from problems in my daily life. For example, one time I needed a costume to go to a comic convention, but I didn't want to spend too much money, so I made my own ... with a light-up crown and skirt.
Another time, I was devastated because my favorite mobile game, Flappy Bird, was being taken off the app store.
So I was faced with the dilemma to either never update my phone or never play Flappy Bird again.
Unhappy with both options, I did the only thing that made sense to me. I made a physical version of Flappy Bird that could never be taken off the app store.
So a few of my friends were also pretty addicted to the game, and I invited them to play as well.
(VIDEO) Friend: Ah!
(VIDEO) Friend: What the heck?
And they told me that it was just as infuriating as the original game.
So I uploaded a demo of this project online, and to my surprise it went viral. It had over two million views in just a few days.
And what's more interesting are people's comments. A lot of people wanted to make it their own, or asked me how it was made. So this kind of confirmed my idea that through a creative project, we can teach people about engineering.
With the money made from the viral video, we were able to let students in our classroom all make their own game in a box. Although it was pretty challenging, they learned a lot of new concepts in engineering and programming. And they were all eager to learn so they could finish the game as well.
So before Flappy Bird Box, I had the idea of using creative engineering projects to teach students. When I was teaching at a middle school, we asked our students to build a robot from a standard technology kit. And I noticed that a lot of them seemed bored. Then a few of them started taking pieces of paper and decorating their robots. And then more of them got into it, and they became more interested in the project. So I started looking for more creative ways to introduce technology to students. What I found was that most technology kits available in school look a little intimidating. They're all made of plastic parts that you can't customize. On top of that, they're all very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per kit. So that's certainly not very affordable for most classroom budgets.
Since I didn't find anything, I decided to make something on my own. I started with paper and fabric. After all, we all played with those since we were kids, and they are also pretty cheap and can be found anywhere around the house. And I prototyped a project where students can create a light-up creature using fabric and googly eyes. They were all helping each other in classrooms, and were laughing and discussing the project. And most importantly, they were able to insert their own creativity into the project.
So because of the success of this project, I continued to create more engineering projects to challenge my students. And I also started to take these workshops outside of school and into the community. And something really interesting happened. I noticed a lot of people from very diverse backgrounds started coming to our workshops. And specifically, there were a lot more women and minorities than I expected, and that you wouldn't usually see at a traditional engineering workshop.
Now take a look at this employee report at a major technology company in 2016. Women make up only 19 percent of the technology workforce. And underrepresented minorities make up only four percent. This statistic might look familiar if you walked into a high school robotics club, or a college engineering class.
Now, there's a wide variety of problems that contribute to the lack of diversity in the technology force. Perhaps one solution could be to introduce technology to students through creative projects. I'm not saying that this could solve everything, but it could introduce technology to people who originally wouldn't be interested in it because of how it has been portrayed and taught in school.
So how do we start to change the perception of technology? Most students think that it's boring or unwelcoming, so I have always designed projects following three principles. First is having a low floor, and that means this project is easy to get started. So take a look at this tutorial. The first project we asked students to learn is to make a circuit on paper. As you can see, it doesn't take very long to learn, and it's pretty easy even for beginners. And having a low floor also means that we're removing the financial barrier that prevents people from completing a project. So with paper, copper tape, lightbulb and a battery, people can complete this project for under a dollar.
So second principle is having a high ceiling. This means that there's a lot of room to grow, and students are constantly being challenged. At first it might just be a light-up creature, but then you can add sensors and microcontrollers, and start to program the creature to interact with its environment.
And finally, the third principle is customization. This means that we can make this project relevant to anyone. That's the beauty of using everyday materials; it's very easy to customize using paper and fabric. So even if you don't like Flappy Bird, you can still make your own game.
(VIDEO) Student: So our game is about Justin Bieber, because he's been speeding, and the object is to prevent him from getting caught by the LAPD --
(VIDEO) Student: Yeah, but he's changing so -- we're a part of his posse.
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