Design Squad Global: Empowering Kids to Solve Community Problems with Engineering

Contributed by Nicki Sirianni

 “It’s a fun experience to learn from other kids in other places around the world, to learn about different
 ideas and what they have compared to ours.”  -DSG Student, Massachusetts, USA

At Design Squad Global our mission is to get kids excited about engineering. For years Design Squad Global, a PBS KIDS show and website, has created activities, videos and clubs that aim to make engineering accessible and fun for kids. In Design Squad Global (DSG) after-school clubs, kids ages 10-13 from around the globe explore real-world engineering and invention projects. The first few sessions of the clubs introduce kids to the design process as a way of solving global problems. The clubs culminate with students identifying a problem in their community and working together to build an original invention to solve the problem. As clubs go through our sessions, they are partnered with a DSG club from another part of the world so that they can share in the engineering process and learn from one another.

Recently, DSG had the opportunity to bring a unique virtual exchange experience to our studio in Boston, MA. Shared Studios is a company that brings “portals” equipped with immersive audiovisual technology to cities all over the globe. These portals allow for people from two different parts of the world to feel as if they are standing in the same room as each other. Thrilled by the chance for two groups of children to have an immersive video call with one another, we quickly organized a DSG exchange between a school in Boston, and a school in Nairobi, Kenya.

Kenya students presenting and Boston Student listenig.

We modelled the two-day exchange after the first and last few sessions of our DSG clubs: a giant brainstorm about community problems and inventions we could design to address them. We wanted both groups to share the biggest issues they see in their own communities and discuss if and how these issues are applicable to each other’s communities. After adjusting to the portal space, and a few nervous giggles, the kids began to describe problems they see in their communities. Many of the kids, both from the U.S. and Africa, talked about pollution, homelessness, gang or tribal violence and bullying. But one issue in particular resonated the most with both clubs and sparked the longest conversation: women’s rights.

The students from Nairobi raised the issue first, describing how girls as young as 10 are sometimes kidnapped from their homes, taken out of school and forced into marriage arrangements with older men. When asked if girls face similar issues in the U.S., the Boston students talked about how violence against girls is a problem in their community and how equality for women is still a major issue in the U.S. Both clubs wanted to address the issue of safety for girls in their inventions and returned to their respective classrooms to create their designs.

We told the kids to create any sort of device they could imagine, no matter how fantastical or impossible, and they did not disappoint! The group of students from Kenya created a watch for girls to wear with a GPS tracking chip which they called a “Children Rescue Device.” One student explained that the purpose of the device is to “enforce children’s rights like against forced marriage and harassment.” If a girl is kidnapped or in trouble, she simply needs to press a button on her watch and the device alerts the local police to her location, so they can find her. The group of students from Massachusetts created a cloak that can turn the wearer invisible. According to a student, the purpose of the device is “to hide girls and transport them to safety.” If a girl finds herself in a scary situation, like being kidnapped, she can press a button which turns her invisible. Then she can press another button to teleport to safety!

It was eye-opening to see students from two different communities note women’s rights as the biggest issue in their communities. Observing the inner confidence these students displayed in courageously discussing this issue and listening to each other’s perspectives was an incredible experience. But it was even more encouraging to see these kids feeling empowered and capable of creating something to tackle this issue in their community. Seeing boys and girls collaborate, work together and partner as equals, underlies what we are trying to do at DSG. We want kids, regardless of age, gender or nationality, to see themselves as capable creators who have the ability to make a difference in their community and in communities around the globe.

For more activities, videos and information on Design Squad Global, visit: www.pbskids.org/designsquad