Category: STEM/STEAM Thoughts (page 1 of 2)

Why a Non-Working Prototype can be a Good Thing for your Student



We have the school STEM-Vention fair this Friday. The past week has been a blur of cutting, pasting, bright-colored-cardstock buying, and planning. The poster is looking great.

But we had a strange bonus this time around. The prototype is a non-working prototype.

Last year, our daughter designed a special kind of room fan. Off we marched to Radio Shack to buy a motor and a battery pack. She learned the ins and outs of wiring, and how to power the motor. It was a great lesson in how to hook up a motor.

But the prototype became about “does the motor work?” Or, “Oops. It’s not working. Is is stuck? Out of battery?”

This is important stuff. But it became a distraction, as the working aspect became more important than the idea.

And it became what the students and judges were most fascinated with. Touch the wires and – boom! – the fan starts up. She received a nod of appreciation from the engineer who judged the contest. He was pleased that she had hooked up a motor. But he did not spend much time on the idea behind it.

This year, she has had to resort to a non-working prototype.

She had to surrender the idea of actually making it work this time. It was too complex.

If the idea takes off? We can spend time over summer break making it into a working prototype.

It has had a liberating affect on her work. She is playing with ideas, tweaking concepts, wondering about possible alternatives. She has been free to brainstorm without limitation.

I think it would be ideal to require some prototypes be working and others not. For, each scenario requires the student approach the concept in a different way.

p.s. I have not revealed the invention idea because she is learning about patents and licenses, and she does not want someone to take her idea. I was allowed to post the info on Facebook to friends/family, but not to Twitter. Sharp young one.

Thanks all, and have a good one.

By the way, ahem, the school is using our Invention Journal. The kids and teachers like it.



App Project: Wireframe and Paper Prototype


Plan and design an app paper prototype with this App Project eBook!*

Imagine. Brainstorm. Sketch a plan. Cut and paste a model:

This booklet takes your student through each of these steps with questions and spaces to sketch.

At the end, your student will have a fully-developed wireframe (drawn diagram of app screens) and paper prototype (with several pages of cut-and-paste buttons and more) to share!

Teach your students the process through these challenging and fun activities.
This book leads the student through a hands-on creation, including pencil and paper sketches, and cut and paste models. This teaches the process in a friendly, familiar format.
If your student wishes to go further, digital resources for app creation have been suggested on the last page.

Part of our STEM Supplies series

Purchase eBook: Link to product listing




Design Thinking Project – Happy Birds


Budgies © Puppies are Prozac / Flickr (click image to be taken to photographer’s page)

I pulled out the giant Post-It board this past Sunday to teach our little one about the Design Thinking Process.

We decided to tackle a real-world problem: the fact that our parakeets are afraid every time we come near them.

So I sketched out 6 steps on the paper and we went to work.

I adapted the steps slightly because we were discussing how to modify a process rather than trying to create a product.

Understand: What is the problem?

Birds are afraid when we approach

Observe: Watch the birds

They seem to be afraid of the noise

Point of view: How does the user feel?

I find it challenging to interview birds, so we had to empathize by pretending to be the birds. We acted out various scenes. How did we feel when “being” a bird and a person would come close to us?

We felt that seeming really big was a possible fear factor. Also, sudden noises seemed to be a problem.

Ideate: Brainstorm solutions

Here is our list of brainstormed solutions:

be non-scary

be relaxed when approaching the cage

take it slow

seem smaller

Prototype: Make it happen

This would normally be the prototype step, but in this case since we weren’t making anything, we tried our new approaches to the cage to see which worked.

Test and Feedback

Did it work? Yes! We were successful in not scaring the birds when we approached the cage slowly and softly, and let them get used to us.

Now she is on a roll with the design thinking process. She has since redesigned a baby spoon, a pencil cover, and is working on her walking night light for her Invention Fair at school – all utilizing these steps.

Have a great day, everyone.

If you liked this, you also might like looking at the similar Engineering Design Process (Ask – Imagine – Plan – Create – Experiment – Improve). Check out the nifty poster and Invention Project eBook.


Log of Surprises


Ten STEM/STEAM Books for Kids That I Really, Really Want

Click on images to view on Amazon.*

From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts:

How adding the arts enhances creative thinking in the STEM process

Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff (Make):

Great lessons using everyday stuff:

How to Code in 10 Easy Lessons: Learn how to design and code your very own computer game (Super Skills)

Open, and fun format. Humorous and colorful.

Zero to Maker: Learn (Just Enough) to Make (Just About) Anything

Getting the grownup in the house up to speed!

STEM to Story: Enthralling and Effective Lesson Plans for Grades 5-8

Lessons which blend STEM and creative writing

Math Art Fun: Teaching Kids to See the Magic and Multitude of Mathematics in Modern Art

Kids discover the math hidden in modern art pieces, and make projects

Unofficial Minecraft Lab for Kids: Family-Friendly Projects for Exploring and Teaching Math, Science, History, and Culture Through Creative Building

Using Minecraft to teach through certain quests (not released yet)

Make: Paper Inventions: Machines that Move, Drawings that Light Up, and Wearables and Structures You Can Cut, Fold, and Roll

Using paper to make creative, scientific projects

The LEGO Power Functions Idea Book, Vol. 1: Machines and Mechanisms

Instructions on how to build simple mechanisms

The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects & Activities that Make Science Fun!

Projects and activities that focus on simple machines

*Note: This is not a sponsored post. I don’t even think I have my Amazon Affiliate program properly set up. But when I love something (or want something), I share it.

STEAM in the Real World: Maps and Shortcuts (plus fun project ideas)

(Concepts: Maps, Direction, Geometry, Distance)

“Come home when I ring the dinner bell.”

The ’70s was the era of Free Range Kids, Version 1.0.

Kool-Aid was considered fruit juice. Cork-heeled platforms (our summer shoes) were purchased once a summer at Woolworth. We were fascinated with the Merlin handheld game, Atari Space Invaders, and the latest Smurf from Germany.

We had a scattering of friends and rivals about town: some on the other side of the woods, others on the other side of town.

We spent a lot of time along the tracks. They were those beautiful Conrail Freight tracks: those that made you sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” to yourself as you dreamed into their vanishing perspective. Oh yes. Big things ahead.


© Lane Pearman (click image for link to his Flickr feed)

Plans were rolled out as follows:

“Meet ya at the creek tunnels,” or “Meet me near the tracks where the old shopping cart is.” How can I get from said tunnels to said tracks in the same afternoon? Cut through the soccer fields? Sneak through Mr. Furman’s back yard? Bike, foot or skateboard? How do I meet the friends while avoiding the rivals? How can I get to Winnie’s house without having to walk past Matt’s?

Every day required a strategic planning session.

But we mastered it. We had it all figured out. Streets were for people who did not get it. Streets were for grownups on which they drove their Buick Lesabres while puffing on menthol cigarettes.

You only had to take a street so far, then cut an angle through so-and-so’s lawn, up past the stone wall, and, bammo! You were behind the Middle School. Grownups were so slow.

To my–now–grownup mind, this is all geometry. 

We all held Google-Earth-like schematics in our minds as we went about our days. We knew the town better than it knew itself.

Last week, as I drove through the winding streets of my childhood village, I was surprised to realize that I recognized every curb, drain, creek, and hillside along the way. They were our meeting places and our shortcuts. Matt’s house now holds another family, so it poses no residual fear to me. The creek tunnels have filled up too much to serve as a shortcut.

Still today I seek shortcuts in my travels. Can I cut from the pharmacy to the school by taking that little road behind the Sonic? I see a lot of people taking that turn. Let me see what happens if I do . . .

I get a feeling of accomplishment when I cut 5 minutes off a journey. Plus, I enjoy the brainstorming meets exploration aspect of shortcut finding.

Projects that combine maps with mathematical/creative thinking:


Map of San Francisco ©davecito (click image for link to his Flickr feed)

A. Figure out new shortcuts for your daily trips 

With your child:

• Open a mapping program such as Google Maps.
(Or pull an old map from your archives. You know that pocket in the door of Grandma’s car? That archive. Make a copy or ask if it is OK to color on it.)

• Find the start and endpoints of a trip you take a lot (e.g., driving to school, walking to the library, walking to the subway). Mark.

• If using Google Maps, do not turn on directions/suggested route.

• Print (unless, of course, you are using Grandma’s map)

• Mark your normal route with a highlighter or crayon

• Now look deeper. Can anything be shaved off the route? Could we try a side street? If walking, is there a playground we can cut through?

• Mark up the possible routes with different colors

• As soon as possible, try the new route! See if it is any faster.

• Just for fun: what would be the absolute longest way to get from one point to the other? Be silly, if you’d like.

Even if it is not faster, it will be interesting as you are seeing new sights and trying new things!

B. The geometry of a everyday spaces

I don’t think I am the only one who stands in the parking lot and judges to which corral I should return my cart. This one is a bit closer, but it means I need to go around that truck. That one is farther, but really easy to get to . . .

© Daniel Oines

© Daniel Oines (click image for link to his Flickr feed)

These are on-the-fly projects that are done during your daily life.

I trust you will come up with many more, but I have listed a couple as suggestions:

• At a parking lot: When ready to return the cart, ask your child which corral is closer? Which would be easier? Why?

• In the city: Have your child judge which subway stop or bus stop is closer from any given location.
For the older student: Does it save time, or is it taking you out of the way of your final destination (e.g., subway stop A is closer to home, but subway stop B is one stop closer to downtown, so it’s actually quicker in the long run to go to subway stop B. Discuss.)

• In a store: Which check-out counter is closest to the door? Can you design the shopping trip so it leads to that checkout counter? For example, if we shop the store from left to right, we end up back at the door with all of our goodies – ready to check out.

Keep those young minds fresh by seeing everyday things as fun problems that can be solved or improved upon!

Confessions of an Early STEAM Kid: Maps and Shortcuts (plus fun project ideas)




STEAM Careers: STEAM Degrees

I survived one day of class in graphic design. I think I ran out of the room.

I tend to resist what I need to learn at first. I run away (sometimes literally) in fear, thinking I will never be able to accomplish it. But this is just a ruse, a baby step in my process. I am used to it by now. That is why I am not at all surprised that I became a graphic designer.

Drama and tears aside, I love fields that combine design thinking with human interaction.

Graphic design is a perfect example of this. For instance, a design can be the most gorgeous thing anyone has ever laid eyes on, but . . .  if it does not communicate, it is not successful.

We have all seen those well-meaning ads in the local pennysaver that, while looking cute, you have no idea what the ad is for.

But graphic design is only one small area of the discipline of design thinking. Many fields ask the same questions:

Does it work well? Can people figure it out? Is it aesthetically pleasing?

I dug up a few degrees that focus on different areas of this kind of thinking. Just for fun.

Digital Media Design


Definition: [S]tudents . . . create, use, and evaluate media and technology for learning,
from software and websites to video and mobile phone applications (NYU website)

Quote: Student coursework focuses on such areas as: user experience, learning sciences and more. One will learn to create successful, readable, and beneficial apps, software, games and other digital programs.

Sample Degree:

NYU/Steinhardt Digital Media Design for Learning


© Cincin12

Industrial Design


Definition: Industrial design is a process of design applied to products that are to be manufactured through techniques of mass production. (from Wikipedia)

Quote: Pratt B.I.D. alumni are designers, artists, educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and corporate leaders.
This diversity comes from a program of study that allows freedom to explore.

Students can focus in areas such as:

Product design
Tabletop and Food design
Shoes and Athletic gear
Exhibition design
Interdisciplinary design
(quote and list from the Pratt Institute website)

Sample Degree:

Pratt Institute – Industrial Design


© Peter Greenberg

Urban Planning


Definition: Urban planning is a technical and political process concerned with the use of land, protection and use of the environment, public welfare, and the design of the urban environment, including air, water, and the infrastructure passing into and out of urban areas such as transportation, communications, and distribution networks. (from Wikipedia)

Quote: Our goal is to apply advanced analysis and design to understand and solve pressing urban and environmental problems.
–Eran Ben-Joseph, Head, Department of Urban Studies & Planning (visit this link for full quote)

Sample Degree:

MIT – Urban Studies & Planning


© Fcb981, this edited version by Thermos

And, yay, they offer some of the courses here for free.

User Experience and Interaction Design


User experience defined as: the design and use of computer technology, focusing particularly on the interfaces between people (users) and computers (Wikipedia)

Interaction Design defined as: the practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services (Wikipedia)

Some apps are easy to use. Some leave me hanging like – um – what? This degree educates its students to overcome these challenges of human interaction. For, again, if it is not readable, then it will not be fully successful.

Quote: We must create aesthetic, engaging and dynamic experiences for users to interact with in order to take full advantage of current and future technologies, and immerse users in media. (from Philadelphia University)

Students focus on such areas as:

Interaction Design
User Experience Design
Usability Analysis

and more.

(List also from Philadelphia University)

Sample Degree:

Philadelphia University – M.S. in User Experience and Interaction Design



© Ed Yakovich



STEAM Careers: STEAM Degrees

STEM/STEAM Careers: Industrial Design (plus list of project ideas)


image © Joao De Almeida

I am, indeed, obsessed with Industrial Design.

I am not referring to “industrial” design where one uses galvanized steel light fixtures, and conduit for curtain rods (though I like that too). I am speaking of Industrial Design: the field.

But what is it exactly? The IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) definition reads:

Industrial Design (ID) is the professional service of creating products and systems that optimize function, value and appearance for the mutual benefit of user and manufacturer.

In other words? Making things. Making products (or systems) that have been thought through on many levels such as:

Does the product (or system) work well?

Is it easy to use?

Is it beautiful?

Industrial design draws elements from artistic creativity and from engineering, especially mechanical engineering. Often art and engineering are kept apart, but in this instance the two thinking traditions are dovetailed to find the best solution to a given problem.

Project ideas for your student:

Design something that has never been designed before. Don’t be afraid to get silly. For example:

  1. a toothbrush for a favorite doll or action figure
  2. shoes for a turtle
  3. a lego cleaner-upper
  4. a crayon and coloring book carry-all for car trips

Or for the older student:

  1. a holster for a cell phone in case you have no pockets
  2. a way to secure a pen to a notebook
  3. a snack bag that does not feel kiddish (too young). I mean, a baggie full of Goldfish is so Elementary School.

You can also try designing something that improves upon a product that already exists:

  1. Always hated how a cereal bag splits open and flings cereal around the kitchen at 6 in the morning?
    Design a modification to the bag or clip
  2. Or you can modify a product to help with accessibility
    e.g., redesign/modify an everyday object for those with limited use of their hands

Keep in mind some of the important questions of Industrial Design as you work:

Does the product work well?

Is it easy to use?

Is it beautiful?

As Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine puts it:

. . . the key to a truly successful product design lies in designer’s ability to combine both beautiful design and functionality

Suggestions for Materials:

sketch paper

a freshly-sharpened pencil

clay or Play-doh to brainstorm the 3-D form

other building supplies can be added as needed (tape, cardboard, scissors).

Use our Invention Journal to take it to the next level:



Want more? Some good videos about the industry:

Massachusetts College of Art and Design:


This one is about designing the MacBook:


This from NASA:

Twitter accounts:

Happy Designing.

Footnote: A degree in Industrial Design is one of my fantasy honorary degrees. Can I have one, please @PrattInstitute? Let me know, OK? Thanks.

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