Gasoline Alley: Using the Engineering Design Process to Solve a Problem in an Old Comic Panel

This post was written by Amara Alexander, the 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

The engineering design process consists of several steps that help problem solvers navigate their way through a problem. These steps can be completed by engineering teams or by families at home. This iterative process – ask, imagine, plan, create, improve – can be repeated as needed, encouraging learners to make improvements to their designs in order to achieve  solutions to the problem. The process can be adapted to accommodate all learners. 

A Gasoline Alley comic panel can provide an opportunity for students to explore a problem using the engineering design process.

Gasoline Alley. “Walt! Stop! There’s a flat tire back here!” 1921

Show the comic, provide thinking time, and then lead learners into a conversation about the comic. Questions to consider include:

  • Looking at the car and clothes, when was this comic panel created?
  • What aspects of the car differ from models today?
  • What tools are needed to fix the flat tire?
  • What are steps to change a flat tire?

Allow time for students to share thoughts and build ideas as they listen to others’ responses. 

In the comic, Avery informs Walt of a flat tire and Walt tells Avery to get out of the car and fix it. Aha! A problem that can be resolved using the engineering design process. Take a moment and ask scholars to identify the problem in the comic. Next, provide time for students to discuss it with each other and imagine solutions to Avery’s dilemma. Prompt students to write or sketch out ideas to share with others. 

What materials or tools will Avery need to fix the tire? Guide students to plan out the materials or tools needed for Avery to complete the task. Now, create or draw the tool Avery will use to fix the tire. Encourage students to look at their tool designed for Avery and discover new ways to improve the design. List the additions or draw them on the original draft. Throughout the lesson, students’ ideas may spark another idea leading to new questions, imagining new solutions yielding more improvements to the tools created or multiple ideas to fix the flat tire. Your learners may invent the next tool to fix a flat tire more easily. 

Mouse-trap armor for caddies

The engineering design process nurtures critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication within learners. It appears that this person has used the design process to create a safety device for golf caddies. Using the design process, challenge students to create safety gear for first responders. What type of protective wear is needed? Describe the materials needed to create the device. What adjustments can be made to improve the safety device? Invite students to snap a picture and share their safety devices during the next learning lesson.  

Here are some other examples of innovative protective gear to explore and improve:

Learners can explore the engineering design process from home as well as in a classroom. Share their solutions in the comments!

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