Let there be science

The book Let there be science  by David Hutchings and Tom McLeish explores the case for Biblical support for scientific activity. I found it a fascinating although in many places I think they conflate science with technology. Rather than seeing this as a weakness I think it provides an opportunity to extend the consideration of Biblical revelation as to the nature and purpose of technology and what if anything this might have to say about the teaching and learning of design & technology in the secondary school. With these thoughts in mind I have written Let there be science – considerations from a design & technology education perspective as both commentary and critique.

My friend and colleague Torben Steeg, the very opposite of a ‘faith head’, has read the piece and raised the following comments and questions:


On page 5 you write

Those without faith might see the universe as being ‘ordered’ in this way as a result of its intrinsic nature and not through its being created by God but that seems to me to be just as much an act of faith as believing in God.

I think one might argue that it’s been the exploration of science/scientists that has revealed that the universe does appear to be ordered – for whatever reason. In that case it’s a working assumption that could be falsified; but I guess it’s a bit circular since without such an assumption the enterprise of science wouldn’t make much sense. So you could label that ‘faith’; but I don’t think it’s the same kind of thing as religious faith. (Though I’m sure some scientists operate from a faith that is more like the religious type…)

On page 6 you write

And it is echoed in the writings of Robert White (2014) a prominent geophysicist.

Natural processes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and the natural greenhouse effect are what make the world a fertile place in which to live. Without them, it would become a dead, sterile world and no one would be here to see it.

(page 10)

But… if you wanted to push this, why couldn’t an omnipotent god create a world (an the underlying science) where a fertile and rich environment wasn’t dependent on such things?

In your discussion of Chapter 10, (pages 8-9) it occurs to me that the notion of precautionary principle is useful – with practical examples being the original and the recent Asilomar conferences on, respectively, genetic engineering and AI.

On page 11 you write

However, the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1 – 9) by which humans could reach heaven was confounded by God through the creation of multiple languages so that those building the Tower could not communicate with one another. This can be seen as a denial of technological activity when it is being used to thwart God’s purpose.

It seems to me that the Tower of Babel story is of dubious relevance; if she’s an interventionist God, why the arbitrariness of when to intervene or not? For example, why not intervene when torture or gas chambers are being built – or is she only concerned about threats to her own domain…?

But then I do think that there is a tendency for religious types to assume that God’s interventionist aims align with their own (though they would probably say that their aims align with hers…) – as when all sides in a war (or election…) pray for victory.

Nick Cave captures this nicely…

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

(You can watch/hear the whole thing here)

I have heard it argued (persuasively to me) that the second of the Ten Commandments (You shall not use the Lord’s Name in vain) refers not to casual ‘blasphemy’ but rather to the use of phrases like ‘It’s God’s will’ to persuade folk to the opinion of the speaker.

You go on to say that:

Hence it seems that God is placing the responsibility on humanity to use technology in ways that are consistent with the covenant between God and his creation, in particular our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it.

But this responsibility is given without, it seems, very clear guidance; my, admittedly casual, observation is that Christians seem to disagree about a lot of things that relate to “our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it“.


Rev. Colin Davis, Rector of Carrowdore & Millisle, Church of Ireland has also read the piece and made the following comments:


It can sometimes be a popular misconception that science and faith (mostly Christian, but I guess others as well) are in opposition and yet in reality, as Tom and David indicate, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible teaches that God created order out of chaos and although the Earth can often seem a very chaotic place, in fact it ‘operates’ by very definite ‘laws & principles’. Science rather than being a ‘spoiler’ (removing the mystery from nature through explanations that are arid and lacking in wonder) helps us to understand more of how things work and provides greater insight that we can use to appreciate the wonder therein. We can see Biblical writing as exploring and revealing the relationship between God and humanity and in revealing something of the nature of science and our obligation to pursue scientific activity also reveal something of the nature of God.

We know from experience and history that gifts can be used for good or ill, and seeing science as a gift from God places on us ‘the burden of responsible use’. The story of the Tower of Babel points very much to a warning for humanity to use God given gifts, including science and technology in the light of this burden rather than for us to raise our own sense of achievement without regard to God’s wishes putting humanity in the position of challenging or denying God. The futility and arrogance of such challenge/denial is captured well in this anecdote I remember from my days when training for the priesthood.

A group of successful scientists were so accomplished and confident that they thought to challenge God and create their own human being. God accepted the challenge and taking a handful of dust he created a human. The scientists bent down to grab some earth and God stopped them saying, “Get your own dust!”

God, in creating the Universe including the Earth and all creatures living on the planet wants a special relationship with humans. God loves us and wants us to love Him/Her in return and to love one another but in doing this takes a huge risk. We have a choice as to whether we love God, one another or not. The way we live our lives, treat one another and use the gifts of the creator will be determined by the choice we make. For the Christian St Paul sums this up in Chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans:

3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

4 For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function,

5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.

6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith;

7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching;

8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.

It is not too much a stretch of the theological imagination to envisage another verse along the lines:

Or she that is scientific or technological to pursue this with due humility and regard for consequences.


As always further comments or questions welcome.

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Comments in response to ‘design for good’ and the Contextual Challenge

I received interesting comments from Andy Mitchell (Design & Technology Association), David Spendlove (University of Manchester) and David Ellis (Southern Cross University, New South Wales) which they are happy for me to share. All three indicated that the Contextual Challenge provided important opportunities to show the worth of design & technology as a subject suitable for ALL young people.

  • From Andy Mitchell … considerable opportunity for the subject and students being encouraged to address real and relevant challenge
  • From David Spendlove … To me this is where design is potentially at it’s best as there are opportunities for pupils to reflect upon their own design thinking. So in my mind there should be a real opportunity to speculate and question
  • From David Ellis … an excellent opportunity for students develop their empathy for authentic design problems. I also think that the engagement in projects such as these are ‘gold’ in terms of promoting what we do to the wider community.

However none of them thought that such ‘design for good’ responses were a forgone conclusion.

  • From Andy Mitchell … (I) fear that the damaging and polluting effect of what has been the expectation from AO over recent years is going to take some undoing. If schools don’t see this as an opportunity and rise to the challenge, as I have also been saying, their future is at best insecure.
  • From David Spendlove … It offers so much scope but could simply end up in contrived tokenism.
  • From David Ellis … to add to the list of authentic design problems where teachers could develop a rich narrative, concepts such as eco-designing haven’t gained enough traction here.  The infiltration of environmental education values in the Australian curricula has presently been a missed opportunity in my opinion, and teachers could do a lot more.

Andy and David (S) were clear that teachers would need help in rising to the challenge.

  • From Andy Mitchell … But as you also imply, teachers really do need the type of support and input to help them think about the changes in ways that I suspect representatives of the AOs are unlikely to provide.
  • From David Spendlove … I wonder how many schools will fully embrace this and see it as an opportunity? So whether it is designing inclusive play for a park or designing for the elderly what is influencing students decision making and thinking – is it prejudice, cognitive bias, delusion, self-deception, etc.  The book Critique in Design & Technology Education would be particularly valuable here.

And I would add that in adopting a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge it is important for departments to talk in some depth with their SLT and governors so that they understand the potential of the approach but also the risks if an AO is unsympathetic to the approach. Knowing that you have your SLT and governors on side strengthens resolve and enables a department to present a robust case to a sceptical AO.

As an aside both Andy and David (S) mentioned the poor state of recruitment for D&T teachers and wondered whether some of the training providers would introduce their trainees to a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge. I wouldn’t want to underplay the crisis in recruitment or the fragmented nature of teacher education but one thing does seem clear to me. Unless schools can ‘up their game’ with regard to the subject it does not represent an attractive proposition for new teachers. If you have an engineering degree for example you would be qualified to enter a PGCE course for science, mathematics or design & technology. Unless the practice you see in schools inspires you why would you choose to teach design & technology? Observing young people tackling real and relevant problems that they themselves have identified using a ‘design for good’ approach could well provide such inspiration.

As always comments welcome.

The potential for ‘design for good’ in the new D&T GCSE Contextual Challenge

Design activity can inform the development of a wide range of products and services. It does this across different levels of detail: from the positioning and nature of a switch at the level of fine detail to the overall nature and purpose of what is being designed at the grand scale level and for a device that required one or more switches this might be an electrically powered toy. And in most cases the designs operate within complex interacting systems and have to be conceived so that they can do this successfully. In previous GCSE specifications the Awarding Organisations set relatively closed design briefs for candidates to tackle. This led to young people spending much if not most of their designing time making decisions concerned mainly with fine levels of detail. This is not the case for the new specifications which start to be taught this September (2017) for examination in May/June 2019. The Non Examined Assessment or Contextual Challenges will be announced in June 2018 and candidates will spend the autumn and spring terms responding to them. Candidates might still design and make similar products to those they produced in previous specifications but this to my mind would be a lost opportunity. The whole point of the Contextual Challenge is that it requires candidates to explore situations and identify the needs and wants of people in those situations. From this consideration of needs and wants candidates develop their own design briefs to which they then respond through designing and making. This approach gives ownership of the activity to the candidates and enables them to pursue an endeavour which they consider to be worthwhile. Here are some sample Contextual Challenges posted by three Awarding Organisations.

From OCR we have

  • Public Spaces

The sensitive design of public spaces can enhance users’ experiences and interactions with that space. Explore a space in your locality with the view to enhancing the users’ experiences within that space.

  • Security

Theft of people’s personal possessions is a problem in modern society. Explore the role design can play in securing people’s belongings.

  • Dining

Dining can be a wonderful social and cultural experience that does not only focus on the eating of food. Explore the ways design can enhance the experiences for any of the stakeholders involved.

From AQA we have a rather more minimalist approach

  • A high profile sporting event
  • Addressing the needs of the elderly
  • Children’s learning and play

From EdExcel we have

  • Improving living and working
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can living spaces also be used for a work environment?

(b) How can objects be used for different purposes in a living or working environment?

  • The sporting arena
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can technology be used to improve a sporting situation?

(b) How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation?

  • Expanding human capacity
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can an aid for people with disabilities improve their capacity to perform a given task?

(b) How can we provide more protection for humans from the environment?

As an aside here we might ask if a more current and relevant contextual challenge would be the reverse?

Before we consider how these might play out in a ‘design for good’ approach it is worth looking briefly at this through the writing of Emily Pilloton. Her book Design Revolution is a clarion call to designers to make the distinction between ‘good design’ and ‘design for good’. To quote Allan Chochinovin writing in the foreword, when you move from good design to design for good ‘the design conversation moves from form, function, beauty and ergonomics to accessibility, affordability, sustainability and social worth.’ Allan is scathingly critical of much design activity, ‘Perhaps the wholesale poisoning of every natural system through industrialisation are “unintended” consequences, but there’s a cruel irony in designers running around, busily creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest, all the while calling themselves “problem solvers”’. Emily’s book features more than 100 contemporary design products and systems including safer baby bottles, a waterless washing machine, low-cost prosthetics for landmine victims, Braille-based building blocks for blind children, wheelchairs for rugged conditions, sugarcane charcoal, and a universal composting systems. These and all the other items described in the book will make excellent case studies for D&T students on the theme of ‘design for good’.

So if we want our young people to embrace ‘design for good’ how might this play out in their responses to the GCSE Contextual Challenges. In theory all of the challenges identified above could be viewed through the lens of ‘design for good’ but some seem to offer more obvious opportunities than others. First a word of warning, as I explored this issue it became increasingly apparent that some if not most of the suggestions were outside the sorts of outcomes we have come to expect as D&T outcomes. Be that as it may I still think the exploration is worthwhile and in fact may encourage us to widen the scope of what is seen as an acceptable D&T outcome.

  • Consider Public Spaces (from OCR) as an example.

What could be done for a park that was run down and poorly maintained or a piece of uncared for waste ground. Planting a meadow that flowered throughout spring, summer and autumn such that once seeded it would require minimum maintenance, be a joy to behold and adding furniture made from reclaimed materials to enable passers by to sit and enjoy the surroundings would surely be ‘design for good’. And this isn’t simply aesthetic indulgence. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions. They often host a multitude of wildlife providing areas for courtship displays, nesting food gathering and sometimes sheltering if the vegetation is high enough. Many meadows support a wide array of wildflowers which makes them of utmost importance to insects like bees and other pollinating insects and hence the entire ecosystem. Clearly there are obstacles to be overcome in negotiating with the local authority and their parks and gardens department but surely worth a try. And how to manage this as part of the NEA? Too big a task for a single student well then, could it be a group project in which several individual students take on different aspects of the challenge? Providing there was sufficient design and make activity for each student this should not be too great a problem. Each candidate would have to be able to demonstrate clearly their own individual involvement, reflections, ideas and outcomes that were not simply using the work/outcomes of the peers they were working with, acknowledging interactions with others as they occur. The group dynamics would need to be good and each student committed to a fair share of the effort, no room for passengers. And as for a busy city street that has existed since Victorian times there would be lots of history to be revealed which could be shown using augmented reality (AR). Developing a series of location specific histories using open source AR software that could be loaded onto a tablet or mobile phone would enhance the experience of users within that space. Would such a digital solution to the challenge count? I asked Jonny Edge of OCR and he gave this useful and considered response.

There would be possibilities and problems in this. If they are simply developing location specific histories that rely on freely available AR software, this is more App development and therefore the domain of Computer Science / ICT. Ideas and potential outcomes would have to be considered against the Marking Criteria. What is the physical 3D ‘final prototype’? If the teacher isn’t mindful then this could be leading candidates into a situation that will disadvantage their assessment. The problem seems to be that there is no physical product unless the learner designs a holder or hand support / glasses / heads up display / special accessory etc. for the tablet/phone. If this was included I see no real problem as long as the right balance is achieved. This could be a series of prototypes, rather than just one. Part of it might be the digital/virtual aspect, but in order to meet the assessment criteria of all boards there would need to be evidence of the use of hand tools, machinery, digital design and digital manufacture. The way the OCR assessment works means that this does not all need to be shown in the making of the final prototype(s). The consideration that a candidate needs to make here is the physical attributes of their design solution. Other solutions/considerations to those given above may be how they are displayed/presented in the location. A criticism of the AR approach to enhancing users’ experience of the space would be that not all users have access to mobile devices and this should be considered as a limitation by the candidate.

 

  • And what about Addressing the needs of the elderly (from AQA)?

There is no doubt that we are living longer and that this is creating problems for our health service. The elderly become infirm and frail and sometimes suffer from dementia. Providing care for the elderly is a problem that is likely to grow (see for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-40942531) and it is important that young people appreciate this and become engaged with developing solutions. So this is a challenge that has implicit appeal to ‘design for good’. And it is essential that any approach to the elderly treat them with respect and dignity. How might young people tackle this challenge? Visiting and listening to the elderly is surely a first step, perhaps their own family members, perhaps residents in local sheltered housing or care facilities. Simply hearing about their lives now and in the past would provide a wealth of information that could lead to suggestions for the elderly and the young people to consider together. I’m not sure what would come out of such considerations. But then, that’s the point of a Contextual Challenge, you don’t know at the start what you’re going to be designing and making. One idea that might appeal to both young and old alike did occur to me. A treasure box in which an elderly person could keep particularly precious mementos of times past – letters, postcards, photographs, jewellery, medals – which he or she could use as reminders of the past and as stimulus when talking to others about their life. Exactly what such a box would look like would be up to the young and elderly to decide together but there would certainly be lots of opportunity to design and make to an exceptionally high standard.

  • And How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation (from EdExcel)?

I must admit my heart did sink a bit on this one; merchandising had the ring of “creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest” to re-quote Allan Chochinovin. However I know from personal experience that lots of sporting events are linked to charities of considerable worth – fun runs to raise funds to support research into diseases and support for those caring for the ill. So the question for me becomes how might young people re-interpret the idea of memorabilia so that the items designed were not trivia to be discarded after the event. I was drawn to the idea of packets of seeds that could be planted to give various coloured flowers to act as a reminder of the event. This might involve choosing the seeds, ensuring that they do in fact grow well in various conditions, providing instructions for planting and care, developing ‘memorabilia’ pots for the seeds – not typical D&T activities but then perhaps one of the challenges of the Contextual Challenge is that it will broaden what counts as designerly activity in D&T.

Engaging D&T students with ‘design for good’ through the Contextual Challenge will not be easy but is I think worth doing. If we are successful then the results will be plain for all to see and this has the potential to raise the profile and status of the subject with a wide range of stakeholders – parents, SLT, governors, the local community and local businesses. And D&T departments will I believe find allies in this endeavour. Sponsorship from local DIY stores (B&Q), local building supplies (Dewson) local banks (Barclays has several innovation centres) would be possible and desirable. Good PR for the sponsor, the school and the subject. Is this just too idealistic? Well may be, but what’s the point of being a teacher and trying to enable our young people to flourish if we aren’t idealistic? And remember there’s almost a whole academic year to lay the ground for the Contextual Challenge before they are announced.

As always comments welcome, particularly from Awarding Organisations.

  • PS

More can be found out about Emily Pilloton’s work; US based but there are lots of lessons for us in the UK here and from her Ted Talk Teaching design for change

Apple, Google, Microsoft or Amazon – which of these tech giants will help you live your life and spend your money? Whose AIs will you trust?

  • Google has Google Home, a hands free smart speaker which will be able to answer questions supported by advances in translation and image recognition.
  • Microsoft hopes to dominate the business space.
  • Apple has the HomePod to be launched in December and is investing in emotion detecting technology
  • Amazon has Alexa which will on request provide access to goods and services with more to come.

And according to an article in the September 2017 edition of Wired, authored by Liat Clark, Amazon is the front-runner. Whereas Google can provide information, Amazon can bring you things! Google Home is the smart friend at a party whereas Alexa is a benign butler. According to Liat Clark …

Amazon wants to introduce Alexa into every area of your life: your home, car, hospital, workplace. The ‘everything’ store is about to be everywhere. Alexa has to be human like because it is essential that people trust her, enough to let visual and audio ‘surveillance’ into their homes ad lives. Alexa can try to empathise with words alone at the moment but when she has cameras at her disposal she will be able to respond to visual clues as well as aural input. And in response Alexa is becoming more human like. Alexa can whisper, pause, take a breath, adjust its pitch and allow for key words such as ‘ahem’ and ‘yay’ to be emphasised in more engaging ways. Forging an apparently ‘emotional’ response from Alexa is the goal. An AI will need to know a person well to engage in a relationship based on emotional response. Amazon may well know more about you than your closest friends and so, of course, will Alexa and be able to use both what you say and do to forge, maintain and extend that relationship. The insightful film Robot and Frank asked the question, “Can an AI be your friend?” Amazon has the answer, “Of course, if you trust the AI as you might another human.” And that is Amazon’s overriding intention – to get us to trust Alexa as we might a human friend in the knowledge that she is not in fact another human and hence will not pry into your life or betray you as a human friend might.

Of course Jeff Bezos (and the CEOs of other tech giants) are constructing cathedrals of capitalism where they intend consumers to come to worship and offer up as sacrifice their wages in return for the goods and services recommended and provided by AIs they trust. But here there is a supreme irony. The very same AIs that are the heart of this new faith are also being deployed to automate many of the functions the worker-worshippers utilise to earn the wages they need to live out their consumerist lives. AIs may be simultaneously the engine of capitalism and its doom. What are we to make of this conundrum? Surely it is worth discussing with the young people whose lives will be most affected by this impact of technology on society and society’s response. And where better to do this than in design & technology lessons.

As always comments welcome.

Robot butterflies – a cautionary tale

Blc-Q2YCYAAMDyGIn his wonderful magical realism book One hundred years of solitude the celebrated Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a scene in which a young girl is surrounded by a cloud of butterflies fluttering around her. She is unafraid and entranced. article-2242598-1653D728000005DC-606_964x577Now imagine that the beautiful robot butterflies designed and made by Festo could be programmed to behave like this, fluttering around in such a way as to transport any human they surround to what might be described as a magical place. How marvellous would that be? Robotic-Butterfly-by-Festo-2You might even imagine that a literary young person who was studying D&T via the OCR GCSE specification might conceive of this as a possible solution to OCR’s exemplar contextual challenge of enhancing users’ experiences of public spaces. What a creative response! And by making contact with Festo the student might even be able to collaborate with their engineers in producing a prototype cloud of butterflies for deployment in a public place such as a park. But what of unintended consequences? Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, has written a series of very engaging short stories in his book Robot Futures. They are all edifying with regard to the impact beyond intended benefit of robots in our society. In the story Robot Smog robot butterflies have been deployed in society for just this magical realism purpose but … the way the robot butterflies interact with humans is through eye contact. If you look at one or more of them they will flutter around your head making eye contact. And there is no off switch. They are powered via sunlight. When it gets dark they simply fall to the ground. Once the sun comes up they flutter off again seeking eye contact with humans. This has led to a situation where people walking in the park are afraid to look up and have taken to wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact. I leave you to read about what else happens. So as with all things technological we need to be mindful of unintended consequences and ‘be careful what we wish for’. In my view Illah’s book would make excellent reading for Year 11 and above. I wonder how often we use these sorts of science fiction short stories to engage our students with the possible downsides as well as upsides of technology?

As always comments welcome

PS

And now this – cyborg dragonflies produced by genetic engineering to act as drones – not exactly biomimicry more bio combination!

dragonfly-drone-625x352

Build, Use, Damage, Mend and Adapt – an approach to learning through and about drones

A guest post by Ed Charlwood

What follows describes the work I’ve been doing in school that has led to me to set up a new Drones in Schools Google+ community for teachers.

A convergence of influences

As with much curriculum development, serendipity did its job at the outset of this endeavour, bringing together the opportunities offered by (1) the new GCSE and A Level specifications and their broader content requirements, (2) a growing dissatisfaction with a certain high-profile external “design / engineering” competition that really requires very little design and (3) the discovery of a very interesting little kit. Firstly, the long-awaited publication of the new GCSE and A Level specifications really was a wake up call that we could not continue to plough the same RM / Product Design furrow at either qualification level. I felt it important to embrace the specification in its entirety and that meant that at Latymer we would have to teach areas that were less familiar i.e. Systems and Control and Textiles. It also meant that we could fully embrace previously fringe areas that we had been pushing at for a few years but had been confined by old assessment criteria, namely the use of CAD, CAM and the circular economy. Secondly, I have seen our students be equally engaged and frustrated with external engineering competitions, they promised a glimpse into the competitive world of high level engineering but actually offered little real decision making, restrictive and difficult manufacturing processes and actually required a lot of luck and frivolous administration. I won’t name names. Lastly I came across a $99 / £78 kit from Flexbot, offering a 3D printable drone and the promise of an open source kit. A quick PayPal purchase later and I was the proud owner of a Flexbot Quadcopter (4 rotors), cleverly packaged, with a comprehensive and appropriate information booklet and a product that worked pretty much straight out for the box and could fly via an iPhone app. Bingo.

Drones are a great ‘hook’ for learning

Drones are popular in the media, comprehensible to most people and on a steep curve of becoming demonstrably better and cheaper at the same time. Currently they have the elusive “engagement factor” and this provides a ‘hook’ making them intrinsically attractive to students. Such a hook is, in my experience, vital. It is important to note that we are not coding experts, nor are we overly interested in programming. But we are interested in using electronics to do stuff. And it is here that the Flexbot Quadcopter meets our teaching intentions.

Our approach

Under the guidance of my colleague Nick Creak we handed the kit over to our students. They assembled the drone without difficulty. Then they had a play, crashed it and naturally broke it. They took the kit apart and made some key measurements, download CAD files from the Flexbot Wiki (SketchUp) and Thingiverse (.stl) and printed a replacement for the part for the one they broke. They then began to explore the files and started to design their own drone. Initially they did this by pretty much by simplifying and copying the existing design, a useful process in its own right to develop CAD techniques and collaborative skills.

A 3D printed Flexbot part

We then printed their chassis designs and used the slicing software to investigate various manufacturing options:

  • How long would the print take if it was “ultimate” or “low” quality?
  • What would happen if it had a low / medium / dense fill?
  • What were the implications of the design being aligned differently?

On average a “normal quality” high density print would take 2 hours. The booklet provided by Flexbot also has some interesting text comparing the economics of 3D printed manufacturing vs mass production techniques like injection moulding.

Students then could begin to design “iteratively” – a new key concept in the OCR interpretation of the new specifications.

“Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analysing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made.”

We also offered a number of design challenges: design a modular drone, alter your design to use as little filament as possible (make it cheap!) or to print as quickly as possible, design your drone to use a standard component – in our case this was a Lego axle.

Flexbot parts

The Flexbot circuit is robust enough to be shared between students and the batteries, propellers and motors are cheap enough to buy in bulk. If you do not have a 3D printer, jobs can be specified, costed and outsourced to a 3D print hub. The simulator (which is available once you have started the process of uploading parts for hub to print) shows it would cost approximately £6 for a basic chassis made from PLA by Fused Deposition Modelling. Some hubs even offer 25% student discount and most do almost next day delivery.

We additionally posed a number of extensions questions to our students, each eliciting a different design outcome: What is the effect of changing the alignment of the rotors? How big/small can the drone be? How much weight can it pick up?

Reflections

Design Decisions Pentagon

David Barlex has produced a design decision pentagon to describe the decisions that students might make when they are designing and making. So I was intrigued to use this to explore the decisions that our students were making.

Clearly they weren’t making any big conceptual decisions – the sort of product had already been decided – a quadcopter drone. The technical decisions in terms of how it would work had also been decided – four electric motors linked to flexbot circuit, controlled by the Bingo app. But there were lots of possibilities in the constructional decision-making.

Not 90°!

One student changed the alignment of the motors so that they were no longer at 90o to one another which made the drone faster but harder to control. And I suppose you could argue that this constructional change did in fact change the way the drone worked. A key feature of the pentagon is that the design decisions featured at each of the vertices aren’t independent of one another hence the lines between the vertices.

Interference fit

Another student responded to the modular challenge producing a design with four separate arms held tightly by an interference fit to the central node, taking advantage of the high degree of dimensional accuracy of additive manufacture. This required investigation and was in itself was a valuable learning experience.

Clearly it’s possible to set particular design challenges around constructional decisions e.g. making it more crash worthy.

Aesthetic decisions could also be made. Indeed changing the alignment of the motors could be seen as an aesthetic as well as a constructional decision. Devising light-weight covers that can be 3D printed or perhaps produced from nets that have been laser cut from thin sheet plastic might give the drone different ‘personalities’ and this may be seen as a marketing decision, changing the appearance to have appeal to different users. Marketing decisions can also be made with regard to how the drone gets to market – via a kit in a shop or on line, or via digital files for home or hub manufacture in collaboration with a circuit board/electrical motor supplier, related to this, deciding whether the product is open source or not is also a marketing decision. And just who the drone is for will make a big difference to what it might look like and additional features. And taking a step back how will the design decisions overall be affected by requiring drones to be part of a circular economy?

There is, of course, a “purer” engineering challenge, to design and make racing drones, where there are already a number of competitions with related rules and constraints.

The next area for us to consider is that of the consequences of drone technology, and its close cousin the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) many of which have some more sinister applications; bombing, surveillance and smuggling as a counterbalance to the positive aspects; photography, delivery, surveying etc… each is a rich seam for discussion as well as the wider issues of automation, disruptive technologies generally or government regulation and control.

Far from this being a proprietary endeavour I want this to be a collaborative, open source one, so I invite you to join the Drones in Schools Google+ community to share your experiences, ideas and resources or add your comments to this post.

Ed Charlwood headshotEd Charlwood

Head of Design & Director of Digital Learning at Latymer Upper School, London

I am a passionate advocate of Design education who believes in the power of learning through analysis, designing and making. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator (class of 2013), a Google Certified Teacher (class of 2015) and the DATA Outstanding Newcomer to Design and Technology Award winner (2008), a particular focus of my work is to exemplify the notion that innovative and appropriate use of technology can redefine the traditional teacher-learner relationship and transform educational designing and making experiences. My vision is to inspire and empower students to make the things they imagine.

Three cheers for Amanda Spielman!

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It was with a heavy heart that I read the opening paragraph of the Summer 2017 Editorial of Designing

As design and technology specialists we all know that good quality design, engineering and technology education is an essential part of any government’s economic programme. We also know that design and technology is a place in the curriculum where young people can develop the skills, attitudes and values employers are looking for, that contribute to the economy and the making of a better society and that are in increasingly short supply.

We have been banging the economic utility of the subject drum for the past 25 years and it has done us precious little good. Of course some of the young people who study d&t will go on to work in design/technology based careers to their own benefit and that of the country. But as a percentage of the cohort that will always be low, no more than, say, 10% at the most and if we see d&t as a subject for all young people whatever their career intention it is important that we offer up and subscribe to other reasons e.g. A personal argument (learning useful skills) a social argument (being able to understand and contribute to the debates surrounding the deployment of design and technology) and a cultural argument (appreciating the contribution of design & technology to our society in the past, now and in the future). There is little economic rational for the teaching of history or geography yet teachers of these subjects have little difficulty in justifying their inclusion in the curriculum and they are held in high esteem. And whilst studying science is seen as a key school subject with regard to the nation’s economic success science teachers do not rely on this argument as the justification of science for all – quite the reverse.

s216_Amanda_Spielman__1_So thank heavens for Amanda Spielman who in her speech Continue reading