The Up Side of Upside-Down Design

By Benenson, Gary | Technology and Children, September 2006 | Go to article overview

The Up Side of Upside-Down Design


Benenson, Gary, Technology and Children


introduction

The trapecista, or flip toy, is a wooden kinetic toy from Mexico. Nearly anyone can make their own flip toy from recycled materials! This article describes the learning goals and framework of the activity, the procedure, and the experiences of children and parents in designing and making flip toys.

city technology teacher institute

In an age of handheld electronic devices, mechanical toys may seem a little passe. That is, until you start playing with one! The first day of a week-long City Technology (1) teacher institute (2), we had left some wooden toys scattered around the room. One of these was the trapecista (trapeze artist), also known as acrobata (acrobat), a toy from Mexico that makes a little figure do an upside-down flip when you squeeze the two sides at the bottom (see Figure 1). Although toys were not the subject of the workshop, one of the teachers, Lowana Greensky (St. Louis County Schools, Virginia, MN), could not stop playing with this device, which we call the flip toy (see Figure 2). She was simply too intrigued with its operation and kept studying it, making the figure flip at different speeds and with different amounts of pressure. A few days later, the last day of the institute, the participants were asked to create their own activities in the spirit of the City Technology approach. Remembering Lowana's fascination with the flip toy, Arthur Flynn and Elizabeth Chipman (Albany City Schools, Albany, NY) decided to make their own. Since then, City Technology has incorporated the flip-toy activity into its Kids' Page (3) (web-based activities for children) as well as its repertory of workshop offerings for children, teachers, and parents.

[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]

design and technology

The core process in technology is design, and the best way to learn about design is to actually design something. Design of any system involves problem identification, an assessment of resources and constraints, consideration of tradeoffs, development of a possible solution, evaluation, troubleshooting, redesign, and presentation of the outcomes (ITEA 2000/2002, pp. 90-94, 99-102, 106-108). Technology activities provide rich opportunities for integration across the curriculum (ITEA, 2000/2002, pp. 6-9). Design is closely linked with inquiry, which is the key process in science. In fact, any open-ended design activity includes some inquiry--including aspects of problem identification, troubleshooting, and evaluation--and vice versa. In addition, the effort to understand a mechanical device in order to troubleshoot it inevitably calls on a knowledge of basic physical concepts. Design also provides numerous opportunities for developing oral, spoken, and graphic literacy. In fact, we are currently using this activity as part of a family literacy program to stimulate discussion among immigrant parents and children.

As students become engaged in a design activity, the problems they are trying to solve become their own. Some key understandings addressed by a design activity should be that technologies are designed by people to address human interests, anybody can be a designer, and that the ends served could be one's own (ITEA, 2000/2002, pp. 90-94). These are not only important learning goals, they also provide powerful motivation for persevering in the design task.

What criteria should govern the selection of a design activity for classroom or other use? On the one hand, it should be difficult enough to present a significant challenge, because learning is accomplished by trying to surmount a difficulty. For example, a design problem should be open-ended. "Cookie-cutter" exercises--where the solution is a foregone conclusion--should not really count as design problems. On the other hand, if the problem is too difficult, it may become frustrating, leading to disengagement. In other words, scaffolding should be provided to offer suggestions for working towards a solution. …

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