Making TV that's Good for Kids

by Amy Marcott on December 11, 2009

in Alumni Life, In the News, Student Life

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.

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.

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, when contestants were dropped off on Misery Island in Salem Sound and given limited materials to build a boat and make it a half mile back to shore. Ball thinks this was one of the most successful challenges of the season. "It was a great mix of we've got to get this right or we're going to sink."

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.

Contestants and Viewers
Can you learn as a contestant on a reality show? Tribbett says yes, although it’s difficult to appreciate it at the time given the stresses of the challenges. “You could see a huge learning curve [for everyone] from the first episode to the last, everything from the group interaction to the science,” he says.

Tribbett standing near the automated wheelchairs teams designed for U.S. Paralympic athlete Kerri Morgan to simulate a defensive wheelchair rugby player on the attack. Tribbett loves acting and performs in campus theater productions. He also has a passion for teaching. He works as a private math and physics tutor for local college students and plans to take his math and science skills to the Blackfoot Sioux reservation in Montana this summer to teach kids there and involve them in projects like water purification. Tribbett himself is half Sioux and hopes to show kids life options beyond the reservation.

Tribbett standing near the automated wheelchairs teams designed for a paralympic athlete to simulate a defensive wheelchair rugby player on the attack. Tribbett, who is half Sioux, has a passion for teaching and plans to take his math and science skills to the Blackfoot Sioux reservation in Montana this summer to teach kids there and involve them in projects like water purification.

Tribbett brought solid mechanical engineering skills and woodworking knowledge to the show, which filmed the summer before his freshman year. He left having learned welding and more about airfoils and circuits. He also gained insight from Ball, who would check in with teams three to five times a day to offer advice and experience, such as quickly fabricating a scale model to illustrate the pros and cons of a team’s design. “That’s probably the biggest advice that stuck with me,” says Tribbett. “I still do scale models here at MIT to this day.”

Ball has seen a wide variety of challenges and the ones he thinks work best to educate viewers have been slightly outside the realm of engineering. In season one, for example, contestants were tasked with crafting fashion garments with a secret second function. They were given sewing machines and fabrics; designs were modeled in a fashion show at the annual SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, one of the world’s premier technology conferences. “It showed how engineering and the design process can be applied to something outside of what people normally associate with engineering,” Ball says.

As host, he sometimes travels the country promoting the show. “I’ve had kids tell me how they’ve learned about engineering and how important teamwork is,” he says. “They get excited to tell me their ideas for the show.” A backyard Frisbee thrower for their dog, for example. Ball engages these students by asking how they would go about crafting their inspirations, interactions he finds very rewarding. “They are watching Design Squad, and it’s making a difference to them.”

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