I just spent a day judging a contest of pre-teens making design decisions. I learned a lot about decision-making. My day was in support of the US First Lego League (FLL) local competition. The theme this year’s event was “Climate Connections Challenge”. As part of the event the 10 -14 year-old students built robots out of Legos to compete in a simulated world. They also had to make a presentation on climate change and their community. Finally, they prove they could work as a team.
This year I was the chief Teamwork judge. To show teamwork each team (between 4 and 8 students) was given a simple task and 5 minutes to solve it. On entering the room, I welcomed them and had them gather around a table. I then put on the table a thin plywood disk and a small bag of large sized paper clips. I read them directions which were something like: “You are to build a structure that will hold the disk off the table. You can bend the paper clips in any form you like. The paper clips must be connected in some way. You can not use the plastic bag. You can not harm the plywood disk. You have 5 minutes. Go!”
Two other judges and I then observed them solving the problem. We were not interested in the solution, but in the team-work displayed during the solution. We had rubrics to guide our assessment and had time to ask questions at the end.
It dawned on me part way through the day that I had 21 samples of conceptual design decision-making by pre-teens to observe. This became clear to me too late to allow me to take formal data, but I did make the following anecdotal observations. In each, I juxtapose them to what I have observed in adult decision makers.
- As soon as I stopped reading, the kids grabbed the clips and started bending and talking at the same time. One team was so eager I feared for my safety as I jumped out of the way (slight exaggeration). There was no planning or reflection by any of the teams! I did an experiment in the late 1980s where I gave 6 professional engineers a design problem and five hours to work it. I video taped the sessions. Most of these mature engineers read the requirement over several times before beginning to generate ideas. One subject however dove right in like these pre-teens. He pursued his first and only idea and proceeded to patch on it (see next item), never leading to a reasonable solution of the problem. My conclusion from these experiences is that it takes maturity to do the up front work necessary to make decisions.
- Once the kids jumped in, they patched their way to a solution. Patching means to try different ideas until you stumble onto a solution (I discuss this further in The Mechanical Design Process). What is bad about patching is that it is usually random with no structured method to explore the design space. I saw the same with the engineer described above and other immature designers.
- When they asked clarification questions we only responded with “Read the problem description”. Few did (less than 1/3). They took our response to mean “No”. to whatever was asked. I was surprised at this and after the first few times, I made a big deal of laying down the problem description (in big font on green paper) in the same location as the wooden disk and paper clips. Only one team (out of 21) reread the description together to clarify their issue after we prompted them. My generalization of this is that, for the most part people don’t use all the information available to them.
- On the whole most of the teams did a good job of including most of the members on their team. This is a credit to FLL and the mentors who worked with the teams. I have had many college level teams that were not as inclusive.
By the way, there were three classes of solutions, 1) bend the clips so they sat on the table and the disk was supported by upward extending wire legs (most did this with great patching), 2) bend the clips so that they fastened onto the disk with downward extending legs (only saw this done once successfully), and 3) lay two clips flat on the table and set the disk on top. The last was the most elegant and simple. One team discovered this 40 sec into the five minutes. To see more teamwork, I quickly said “Great, now make the support as tall as possible” (whew!). Most teams never found this solution, but with their dive right in approach and random patching, I am not surprised.