“Yes! And . . . Tools not toys. Designing/engineering for good. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn…” These are just a few of the sayings you’ll hear and see in Roberta Brandao’s Engineering, Design Thinking, and STEAM classes. They're not just fluffy platitudes, they’re a way of being. Since Dr. Brandao’s arrival to chair Shipley’s STEAM department in the fall of 2022, she has infused authenticity, developed protocols, and is creating an environment that fosters creativity, provides relevance, and pushes students to think critically. Dr. Brandao’s style helps students build the confidence to help them develop empathy for the needs of others, to become ethical creators of technology, and to feel comfortable taking creative risks.
Designing for Good
“Every project is an opportunity to bring the authentic experience that will allow students to make a meaningful contribution, leave their mark, and think about how to better the world,” explains Dr. Brandao. Students are learning human-centered design and solving real world problems. There are no “fluff” projects. The goal of each project is to help solve a problem for our community that is also relevant in our students’ lives.
With each project, Dr. B, as she is affectionately known, infuses authenticity using the language of identity. The students are engineers and designers; those with problems to be solved are the clients. Students track their progress using task boards, making the learning environment feel like a design studio.
At the beginning of the school year, projects have a lot more constraints because students are developing important skills: how to use the tools, how to listen with empathy, how to brainstorm, how to avoid assumptions, how to question, how to give and receive feedback, and how to stay organized. As the year progresses, Brandao adds another level of difficulty by presenting a problem with fewer constraints. When this happens, projects become more open-ended. During all second semester units, clients determine the majority of a project’s constraints.
Synergy of the Engineering Mind and the Designer’s MindDr. Brandao is planning to rename the Engineering course to Engineering Design. “It’s not just about engineering, it’s about the synergy of the engineering mind and the designer’s mind” as each brings their own skills, perspectives, and focus, all centering around empathy. An engineer might just focus on solving the problem without listening to the user’s design wishes; whereas the client might have a design idea that does not take into account what is feasible.
For an upcoming unit in Engineering, students will be solving a problem or fulfilling a need for a new client, the math department—the M in STEAM: How might we design solutions to problems that can help our math department at Shipley? After reviewing videos submitted by their clients, students will begin by moving around to different “problem stations,” where they will develop curiosity and crowdsource ideas to the math department’s problems. This is also a way to think through which problem they might want to solve and why. Next, students join a team based on their skills and interests, instead of choosing based on their friendships.
The engineering design process involves a lot of research and analysis. “Technicians and engineers both have to test, but engineers also have to carefully analyze the results of user testing in order to improve their designs to meet the needs of others and the viability of their solutions,” explains Dr. Brandao. In her classes, students learn skills that they can use in college and in the professional world, like how to follow an iterative design process that requires perseverance.
Students learn other tools that will serve them well as professionals. Kanban and SCRUM are two types of task boards that help teams know where they are in the process at any given moment in time. SCRUM is one method of agile development that is used in her Design Thinking class and Kanban is used in her Engineering class. Both are methods used by industry professionals in STEM fields.
Yes! And . . .Students in Dr. Brandao’s classes are learning how to test with novice users to get good feedback. They have a protocol to ask for feedback, which is a five-phase process that includes an introduction by the design team/engineers; a description of the product and its purpose; asking for feedback of what users liked and what they wish the designer/engineer had included; paraphrasing to make sure they heard what the users said; and then a plan for revisions. This is where “Yes! And…” comes into play: Students make a contribution to someone else’s idea: “Yes, I agree, and I think …” It comes from a place of empathy and helps create a safe environment where everyone is heard and valued.
Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You LearnStudents in Dr. Brandao’s classes develop character and emotional agility by getting used to failing. Ideas go up on the "Fabulous Fail Board" and win awards. "The Penguin Award" (created by Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University and named so because one penguin has to be the first to brave the water) goes to the team that takes the most risks during a project. “I am thrilled that all teams want this award now. They are failing forward and are okay with taking chances because they are learning that playing it safe to get an ‘A’ is not what innovation is; innovation requires taking risks,” explains Dr. Brandao.
In each of Dr. Brandao’s courses, her goal is to make learning real for students and to leverage their intrinsic motivation by establishing relevance and relating coursework to the pursuit of mastery in important skills areas. “Students are learning what industry professionals actually do; this is learning for life, not just for school.”