STEM: Let's Think Differently!

What Does the Reverse Engineering Toolbox Contain? Find Out

By Walt Boyes

Sir James Dyson is an extraordinary man. Most of us know him from his fabulous improvements to the lowly vacuum cleaner. He has not only improved on the vacuum cleaner (and the air hand dryer), but he is also passionately dedicated to reviving manufacturing in both his native Britain and the United States.

He's said that he believes that young people aren't going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses and careers because of "lackluster, textbook-based science and technology teaching."

I think he's spot on. The faculty and staff of Olin College in Massachusetts must think so, too, because they are working from a very similar playbook.

Olin teaches engineering by forming product or solution development teams. Even as freshmen, students begin by working on a real problem, and help develop a real product or solution for it. They learn the engineering basics that they need for each problem they work on. Their pass rate on the engineer-in-training (EIT) or fundamentals of engineering (FE) exam, which is the first step toward acquiring a professional engineer (PE) license, is the same or slightly better than engineers who graduate from a more traditional engineering school such as, well, MIT, for example.

Dyson is working at a lower level too. For the City of Chicago Public Schools, the James Dyson Foundation has provided what he calls a "reverse engineering toolbox."
This Engineering Box contains:

  • One Dyson DC26 vacuum cleaner,
  • Seven Dyson turbine-head floor tools,
  • One Dyson carbon-fiber floor tool,
  • Eight Torx screwdrivers,
  • James Dyson Foundation Teachers Pack,
  • Dyson's autobiography, Against the Odds,
  • Design engineering posters.

Dyson says young people aren't going into STEM courses and careers because of "lackluster, textbook-based science and technology teaching."

The Teachers' Pack explains how to take a class of 11-to-18-year-olds through the process of figuring out how a Dyson vacuum cleaner works and why the design was done a particular way—a basic engineering process. The school gets to keep the Engineering Box for a week at a time (some of the materials stay).

In addition, the foundation has issued four engineering challenges to young people (See "Challenge Cards"):

  1. Build a bridge made out of spaghetti, rubber bands or twist ties, and tape that will support a 250-g (roughly a half pound) bag of sugar;
  2. Change an egg's properties to make it fit in a bottle. Materials are an uncooked egg, a pan of boiling water or a glass of vinegar, and a thick-necked bottle;
  3. Using jelly beans and cocktail toothpicks, make your own geodesic dome;
  4. Use a vacuum cleaner shipping box and internal supports to make a marble run.

When the budding engineers do each challenge successfully, they can upload a video of their work to the foundation's website and see it on YouTube.

Think about what engineering basics each of these challenges can teach, and how rich the learning can be, and about how much more fun learning those basics by building these challenges is than it would be to read how-to from a textbook, or even have the teacher build something and demonstrate it for the class.

Dyson calls his design approach "learning how to think differently." We need to think differently about the future of engineering and manufacturing, starting with STEM educaion.

Dyson, Kamen and others have shown us how to think differently about STEM education. How about doing a little thinking differently for your own budding engineers?