Bias toward action (PROTOTYPE)

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Student will be able to: 1) conduct a pre-mortem analysis of a solution idea; 2) extract information and synthesize ideas from an engineering design text; 3) articulate the purpose of a "bias towards action" mindset in engineering design thinking; and 4) develop a rapid prototype of a solution idea.

Big Idea

Convergent thinking produces shared ideas that will become prototype solutions to problems. How might we help students assess and develop their ideas as rapid prototypes?

FRAME: Why prototype?

What is the  significance of prototyping? 

Prototyping is both an essential mindset and fundamental skill of engineering design thinking.  Whereas the "scientific method" emphasizes the testing of hypotheses through carefully designed controlled experiments, engineering design thinking evaluates solutions to constrained, well-defined problems.  The ability to develop prototypes that effectively meet defined needs is the equivalent of conducting a controlled experiment.

 In this respect, science is open-ended; questions lead to questions.  In contrast, engineering design thinking is closed; prototypes become iterated solutions to specific problems.  There is a great area of overlap between the two often complimentary processes, but each requires a mastery of unique problem-solving skills.

However, in high school curriculum there is a strong bias towards the practice of the scientific method--at least in the traditional biology, earth science, and chemistry sequences.  Students that take physics may develop an engineering perspective, but otherwise engineering practices are largely underrepresented.  The Next Generation Science Standards highlight engineering practices as crucial element of STEM education.  A goal in my environmental science course is to develop students' skills in both practices.

See pages 41-82 in this document for a fuller treatment.       

Why is prototyping a powerful assessment opportunity for a teacher?

In engineering design thinking, a prototype is a student's in-process solution to defined problem.  The prototype stage allows a teacher to assess multiple aspects of a student's emerging skills.  What does a prototype reveal about a student's current understand of the engineering design process?  What misconceptions might a prototype reveal about a student's understand of constraints and defined needs?  What does a student's ability to articulate the potential shortcomings of a prototype suggest about that student's likely comfort with the process of iteration?   What are the next steps for giving actionable feedback to a student?  

How will students' ability to prototype become significant in the larger context of a traditional environmental science curriculum?

In this course, scientific inquiry will generally be defined as "empathy for place" or "understanding the problem."  It is an essential part of the engineering design thinking process.  For example, scientific investigations can reveal that levels of dissolved oxygen in the Hudson River near sewage treatment facilities drop every time there is precipitation.  Engineering design thinking offers a students a process for turning this insight into real-world action; it answers the "now what?" feeling students commonly have after conducting a scientific experiment.


Murphy's Law

7 minutes

Individual writing in student journals.

  1. Murphy's Law=Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.  Have you ever experienced Murphy's Law?  Tell the story of your experience.
  2. Critically assess the prototype idea your group developed during the previous lesson.  How do you think Murphy's Law will apply?  How might the idea fail? 

After five minutes, students will pass journals to the left.  All members of a table group will read each journal entry.

What will the teacher look for?

The purpose of this opening activity is to foreshadow the pre-mortem analysis process that students will begin to further refine the in-process solution ideas that they have developed during the previous lessons.  A teacher should be on the lookout for a future orientation and divergent thinking skills.  What are all of the possible things that might cause a prototype to fail?  

What is a prototype?

5 minutes

I will ask students to report on something that they read from another student's journal rather than to tell the story that they wrote.  Especially at the beginning of the school year, one of my goals is to develop effective collaboration skills among student groups.    

After we share out, I will explain to the class that no matter how well we ideate, we are going to develop prototypes that fail.  This is Murphy's Law.  Even a "sure thing" often fails.  References to student stories from the opening activity will be included here as evidence.  The point I will then make is that failure is inevitable and that the best we can do is put ourselves in the best position to succeed.  Or as one of my students that loves rap made a great reference to Outkast during this lesson: You can plan a pretty picnic but you can't predict the weather.  

I will remind the class that our final goal for the day is to develop a prototype of our in-process solution ideas.  I will then explain that one tool we will use to ensure that we have the best possible prototype is called pre-mortem analysis. 

First, however, we will review the goal: What is a prototype?  To answer this question, we will watch a short clip and discuss what we see as the meaning of the term "prototype."  I want to emphasize that it is something created or an action taken.  A prototype is not simply an idea.  It is some expression of an idea, usually in physical form.

We will discuss what our understanding of prototype and then I will explain that during the next lesson we will share our prototypes with other groups in the class for feedback.  To get us ready for that task, we will engage in pre-mortem analysis.

Pre-mortem analysis

25 minutes

Each student will receive a paper copy of the "The Pre-Mortem" (From: Gary Klein, The Power of Intuition, 2003, p. 98–101).  

First, students will use the "Annotation Nation" system to mark this document.  This is an annotation system that students have used in previous grades.  I will briefly review expectations as this marks the first point during the year that students are engaging with a written text.  Many of the students I teach have underdeveloped reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.  Especially with written skills, students struggle.  The "Annotation Nation" system is a relatively simple scaffold that helps most students extract information from a text and identify points of confusion.  It also helps immensely with students' focus.

In addition "Annotation Nation," students will also have a few recall and synthesis questions to answer:

  1. What are the steps of the pre-mortem process?
  2. How is this process different than the brainstorming process?
  3. What constraints exist in this class that are different from those expressed in this document?

Students will have an opportunity to share understanding with an elbow partner (~3 minutes).  

Together, we will norm our understanding of the pre-mortem process as well as any vocabulary. Usually I will explain stakeholders to the class.

Next, we will run through a brief pre-mortem analysis of the glass slipper prototype that the prince develops in Cinderella.  I am most interested in checking for understanding here and also looking for body language that indicates students that are lost, uninterested, or unable to focus.  These students will be my first priority when circulating during the pre-mortem protocol.

Then groups will run some version of pre-mortem analysis.  My only instructions are that groups must complete the following tasks before starting:

  1. The group will choose a facilitator.
  2. The group will choose a scribe.
  3. The group decides on a modified protocol, using the distributed article for reference.  The facilitator has final say.

As previous lessons have had clearly defined roles and protocols, I am using group behavior as a formative assessment of collaborative groups skills.

Rapid prototyping

12 minutes

What is a rapid prototype?  Together we will watch this short clip from Cornell University.  I chose a video here because, while I want all content to be as rigorous as possible, I am aware of the cognitive load required by the pre-mortem reading and analysis.  As such, my hope is to balance the prior activity with content that is more engaging and slightly less cognitively demanding.

Also, I want students to see real-life examples of prototype creation.  This helps me make a legitimate case for engineering design thinking as an important college-level ability; it also helps me argue that engineering design thinking is a "real" part of STEM education to students that are familiar only with the more traditional scientific method.  

We will share our observations and understanding.  I want to emphasize that although the rapid prototypes shown here are physical objects, prototypes do not have to be physical objects.  They can be signs, behaviors, and actions. 

Once groups have an understanding of what a prototype is, the goal is to develop a prototype of their solution idea.  Groups will develop one visual representation of the prototype as well  and will present to the class as their "exit slip."  Here are the key talking points for students to include in a successful presentation:

  • What is the problem question?
  • What was the original solution idea?
  • What was learned during the pre-mortem analysis?
  • A description of the rapid prototype of the solution idea?

Students may elect the speaker, but all students must write answers to these questions in their journals.




6 minutes

For the "exit slip," each group will have exactly 30 seconds to present a "verbal tweet" of the rapid prototype and its place in engineering design thinking.  How does a rapid prototype represent a bias towards action?  Why is a bias towards action important in engineering design thinking?  Student groups also transcribe the verbal tweet on the class "twitter feed" (whiteboard at the front of the room). 

Students will not question each other during these presentations.  Again, groups will select the speaker. This provides some valuable information regarding students' relative comfort with public speaking tasks. 

I have chosen this activity because it is high engagement.  For whatever reason, students seem to love low tech mimics of social media.  I find that whenever I challenge students with a social media type task using low tech tools, work completion and enthusiasm skyrockets.  This allows me to capture meaningful student data.