Dystopian Engineering: Piloting a Remote High School Engineering Course

Katerina Limpitsouni via unDraw

What tools might we create to help our characters live in their dystopian futures?


This post describes how a Boston public high school has continued engineering projects during the transition to distance learning. It describes how they've used  a digital tool that makes documenting and sharing in-progress thinking as easy as playing with Lego bricks, and how to balance online collaboration with an invitation to bring engineering skills to life outside of school. 

The Project

9th graders at Tech Boston Academy are designing tools for fictional characters in a dystopian future. During the last 7 weeks of this school year, students are developing ideas and prototypes using whatever materials are available to them. The situations they design for will respond to scenarios faced by characters in a dystopian novel of their choice, which they are reading in their English course. This project takes an approach inspired by Novel Engineering at Tuft's CEEO.

Reason for creating this project

As schools around the US have moved into distance learning, we've experimented with new projects and digital environments to engage students amidst this challenging time. The Dystopian Engineering project was developed with a couple of specific goals and values in mind:

  1. Educator Collaboration: this project is done in conjunction with students' English Language Arts (ELA) class, and with their ELA teacher, in order to encourage multi-disciplinary learning and offer a more cohesive experience  across courses. 
  2. Sparking explorations offline: while engineering concepts can be introduced with online tools and simulated online environments,  we feel that it is important  to offer space for hands-on tinkering. 
  3. Centering equity: at our high school, we are fortunate to have an engineering space and tools. When remote, we cannot make assumptions about what material students have available  and need to design projects with that in mind.
  4. Developing playful, creative thinking: by developing a "MacGyver"-esque project, our intention is to encourage students to think playfully and creatively about materials and the world around them; we want students to see that they can invent and create wherever they are and with whatever is available to them. 

Thanks to the work of the school's administrative, social support and tech staff, each student has access to a Chromebook and a wifi hotspot. 

Developing a digital environment for developing, organizing, and documenting project work

Considering how open-ended the project is, we needed to find a digital environment that would support students in ideating, sharing those ideas in a variety of forms, and documenting their explorations. We decided to try using Milanote, a tool used by design professionals, as we felt that it offered an easy to use environment that afforded "wide-walls" (i.e. diverse forms of expression) and might encourage students to "tinker" with ideas and new materials.

We first tried this in week two of the project. As part of an engineering warm-up, students were asked to make a musical instrument from whatever materials they could find. The warm-up aimed to help students get familiar with repurposing materials in one's environment.

We asked students to use Milanote to:

  1. Brainstorm what you can make, given what you see in your house
  2. Document what you made

Initial Observations

While we're only getting started with our project and our experiments with Milanote as a medium for developing, organizing, and documenting project work, here are some of our initial observations:

Creating room for students to organize and express ideas in a variety of ways

While there are similarities in the above examples (partially inspired by the example that Matt shared with the students), there are also significant differences in how students organized their thoughts and expressed their ideas. This is important - as students can develop relationships between ideas and work in ways that make sense to them - and in ways that allow facilitators to see how they are making sense of their ideas and work.

This comes across most clearly when students structure their work in completely unexpected ways. Take for example how a student above used lines to separate part of their workspace. While this might seem like a trivial detail, this simple visual cue supported that student in structuring their work.

Developing strategies to encourage students to own more of their work instead of mimicking examples

For this first project, we only shared one example project with the students. In the future, it might be helpful to explore strategies to encourage students to take more ownership and self-direction. This might include developing 2-3 examples so that students could see a variety of approaches to the project. This might also include inviting students to more explicitly tinker with documentation strategies.

A more collaborative medium makes it easier to get started and unstuck

While we haven't seen more engagement on Milanote relative to other tools we've used, it does seem like it makes it easier to engage with students in particular ways. For example, Matt used Milanote to create a "masterclass" style introduction of how to do things over video conference, sharing his screen. He was also able to see students' cursors on a project page, making it easier to discuss ideas or to help a student get "unstuck."

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