Design Squad Host Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 stands ready (on roof) while Zach Tribbett ’12 tests a T-shirt shooter for the WNBA that can reach an arena's upper deck.
Ask MIT engineers to help create a TV show and what do you get? Design Squad, PBS’s Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning show that aims to educate and excite tweens and teens about engineering. On it, teams of teenage contestants design and build problem-solving products for actual clients, such as a remote-controlled aquatic pet rescue vehicle for the New Orleans Fire Department or a portable peanut-butter-making machine for a women’s collective in Haiti, while competing for a $10,000 scholarship. Filmed near Boston, Design Squad is half show, half engineering outreach. The companion Web site offers hands-on activities, educators’ guides, videos of working engineers, and more. Watch the show.
As host of the show, Ball would monitor teams' progress and scout for lessons to emphasize to viewers through narrated animations.
Several members of the MIT community have been instrumental in the development and production of the show. To name a few, Daniel Frey PhD ’97, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering systems, served as the show’s first advisor, in 2002, and created the curriculum in collaboration with producers at WGBH-TV Boston. He also oversaw UROP students participating in the show. David Wallace SM ’91, PhD ’95, professor of mechanical engineering, has created design challenges, served as technical advisor on set, mentored teams, and aided post-production. Inventor Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 hosts the show and some MIT students have been cast members.
The show aims to introduce the process and practice of engineering and demystify it as a possible career choice. “[TV] can certainly offer exposure to the world of engineering in a much more visual and experiential way than you can get otherwise,” says Ball, who loved to tinker and build things as a kid but didn’t know what mechanical engineers did until he went to college. Still, reality TV as a teaching tool does have its demands. Ball has to balance a mix of excitement, interest, competence, and zaniness and also works to buoy and motivate contestants during frustrating moments so they don’t just reflect aggravation on camera.
Tribbett during the season finale. Contestants had to build a boat on Misery Island in Salem Sound and make it a half mile back to shore. Ball considers this a successful challenge. "It was a great mix of we've got to get this right or we're going to sink."
Tight time and budget constraints, which prevent overtime, offer some of the greatest struggles. Contestants have 16 hours to complete challenges, yet they can be held up waiting to film key moments, like joining two pieces of a design together. “Whenever we were going on to the next step in the process, they’d have to get that on camera,” says Zach Tribbett ’12, a math and brain and cognitive sciences major from West Chester, Pennsylvania, who appeared on the third (and most recent) season. If the camera operator was occupied, contestants had to wait. Then, they’d have to restage the shot from different angles. A two-minute procedure could take 20 minutes to an hour. (more…)