Empowering Your Students to Identify Problems by Connecting with Inventors from the Past

This post is by Kellie Taylor, Ed.D., the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

With the use of the engineering design process in science instruction and the advent of the maker movement, students are asked to identify problems and develop solutions. Solutions can be refined and improved through testing and modifications. The hands-on nature of working through the engineering design process can be engaging, but  identifying or finding problems can be a difficult task for students. Students can practice these skills through primary source analysis.

Washington man sleeps in a Blanketless Bed. Harris and Ewing, 1927

The photograph Washington man sleeps in a blanketless bed. is a record of an invention from the early 1900s. Begin analyzing the primary source by asking students to observe the image without showing them the caption. What do they see? While initial observations may focus on the man, box, and bed, some students will notice the pulleys and holes in the top of the framework. Students may reflect on whether or not the man is sick. After they share questions they may have about the photo, provide students with the limited information that it is an invention.

To build on the initial analysis, work with students to identify possible problems this invention might be designed to solve. Students can contribute more by working with a partner to brainstorm possibilities and then sharing with the class. Now share the full title of the item which includes details about the electrical bed, which was invented as a healthier method for sleeping and maintaining a constant temperature throughout the night. Students can then revise or narrow down the possible problems this invention was designed to solve. This is a great reminder that the information traveling with primary sources isn’t always complete. Students will have to make educated guesses about the reason for devising this invention. Analysis of the item followed by the practice of trying to identify the possible problem for which it was designed provides practice identifying problems in the world around them and developing solutions for the problems.

Researching the history of electric blankets can also provide students with information on iterations of designs for staying warm through heating apparatus. What options were there to accomplish the same effect before electricity was available? What prompted advances in electric blankets even with safety being a concern on early models? What problem did electric blankets solve? How could we improve the design use it in another way?

Challenge students to develop an improvement to the electrical bed in the image or to find their own problem to develop a solution for. This image is a great primary source for designing a solution since it keeps the problem and solution relatively simple. Students often think the problem has to be of a large magnitude which excludes the opportunity to develop a working solution. With the use of programmable wearables, making could be connected to this challenge with students making and programming an improved solution. The electric bed invention solved a relatively simple problem in a unique way by thinking outside or perhaps inside the box.

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