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Better Brainstorming

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Better Brainstorming

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High school engineering teacher Joe Malchar helps Pius and Sadhan review the guidelines for effective brainstorming. Joe talks about some common misconceptions and challenges related to brainstorming and how he uses it in his classroom. We have a live brainstorming session to come up with exciting and new engineering lessons for students in K-12.

Remember that the podcast will be at the SXSW Conference and Festival in March, 2017! Pius and Rachel from the podcast will be running workshops for educators and professional engineers: www.sxsw.com and sxswedu.com

Our opening music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Transcript of:

The K12 Engineering Education Podcast


Better Brainstorming

Release Date:



[Pius Wong]  This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for November 21, 2016.

[opening music]

[Pius]  Welcome to the next episode of this podcast. Today we have another unique episode, because our guest Joe Malchar is an engineering teacher who teacher brainstorming, and we’re not only going to talk about brainstorming, but we’re also going to do some brainstorming live, to see what it might sound like in your classroom or in your businesses.  If you’d like, you can even join in on the brainstorm by visiting the link in this episode’s show notes. Now, on to the talk.

[music fadout]

[Pius] So first of all, I’m Pius Wong, your host, and we’ve got two other people here with us today.

[Sadhan Sathyaseelan] Hi, I’m Sadhan Sathyaseelan. I’m a mechanical engineer.

[Pius] We’ve also got Joe on the line. Joe, would you like to introduce yourself?

[Joe Malchar] Yeah, my name is Joe Malchar.  I’m an engineering teacher at Carl Wunsche High School in the Houston, Texas, area.

[Pius] How long have you been teaching?

[Joe] I’ve been teaching overall for about seven years, but I’ve been teaching engineering for four.

[Pius] OK. You teach engineering to a wide swath of kids, right?

[Joe] Yes, I do.

[Pius] Like different age ranges, different interest in engineering, would you say?

[Joe] Yeah, pretty much.  Freshman through seniors, all different types of pathways, different forms of engineering.

[Pius] One of the topics you often teach in engineering class is how to come up with ideas.  Design ideas, solutions to problems.  And one of the big methods that everyone has to learn is brainstorming.

[Joe] Right.

[Pius] How do you describe brainstorming to your kids?

[Joe] Well, I know with students, brainstorming – the hardest part of it is, you don’t have to think of fully realized ideas. I know a lot of students who will come up with an idea, and they’ll spend ten minutes just thinking o that one idea. So the biggest thing is that they makes sure they understand that it’s the quantity over the quality of the idea, because later on when you start going through your design stages, you can start to develop these ideas. But for now, it’s not about good, quality, realized, fully implemented ideas. It’s about: as many informal ideas as you can think of.

[Pius] What are the guidelines that you give them when you have them brainstorm about some kind of problem?

[Joe] Usually I tell them, you know, individual brainstorming first. Don’t talk to each other. Just you, yourself, your thoughts, a pen and a paper, and just start writing down ideas. It can be written. It can be drawn out. Just try to get as many ideas as you can in our allotted amount of time. And then after that you can come together and join together, and spend osme time as a group doing some group brainstorming. But I always start with individual.

[Pius] Why individual?

[Joe] Yeah, I usually start with individual because – Sometimes I know everyone’s probably had that moment when they’re in a group of people, and they’re coming up with ideas, and someone will say a really good idea, and you’ll totally lose what you’re thinking about. And you’ll only start focusing on someone else’s ideas, and you’ll never want to focus on your own. So when you do it individually, it kind of gives you that arena, that room for thought, where it’s only you, you and your ideas. And then later on you can talk about – you’ll join with people and see what other people’s ideas were, but it’s really important that your voice is heard first by yourself, and that you can get ideas down.

[Sadhan] That’s an interesting way of putting that.

[Pius] I wonder if kids have the same feeling that I might have as an adult. Sometimes when I’m just looking at a blank sheet of paper trying to brainstorm on my own, I feel like it might be really hard. Do kids struggle at all?

[Joe] Oh they definitely struggle. One of the things I say to break that struggle is, just think about – You know it’s very hard to think about an entire system and brainstorm, especially if that system has a lot of components to it. I just tell them, just start thinking of components at a time, and think of different ways you can solve that individual problem. Maybe not the entire design, the entire system, but maybe just a little bit. You know, this aspect of this system. If you’re designing a car, you would be like, OK, how am I going to steer the car? How is it going to stop? How is it going to accelerate? And so on, and so forth. It’s all about thinking about what are those tiny areas that you can design solutions for, not exactly the big picture.

[Pius] So you have them do a bunch of brainstorming sessions, really, for every design problem.

[Joe] Yeah, pretty much.

[Pius] When kids come together in a group to solve a design problem, and you have them brainstorm together, does that pose any challenges in your class?

[Joe] Yeah, I mean sometimes it will be, because everyone is excited about their ideas, and they want to get their ideas out and show them and talk about them. But really what you start to see is everyone brainstormed something different. You know, there’s not two people that are brainstorming over the same features or have the same ideas for those features, so it really creates a real robust forum for these students to talk and discuss with each other, and use – I know one of the big things in the schools these days is using academic language that describes situations, that describes things.

[Pius] What does that mean? I don’t think I’ve heard that.

[Joe] It’s kind of using vocabulary that is not, you know, your slang terminology or anything like that. It’s very intellectual terminology. It’s academic vocab, making sure that you’re using terms and vocab that would be considered engineering-like.

[Sadhan] Do the kids know those vocabulary? How do you get the point?

[Joe] Sometimes they do. It really depends. When you’re a freshman or sophomore, you’re very new to the vocabulary, so kind of the definition of academic vocabulary would be mainly just discussing things that are of engineering nature, but of course, as we get into the junior and senior year, they’ve had more experience with using some of the engineering vocabulary that would be considered academic vocabulary. And so, yeah, initially, at first it might be difficult, but your students will start to understand what are some major concepts in engineering, and they’ll use those words. They’ll use those vocabulary as they discuss their brainstorm.

[Pius] And do you ever see the issue of kids judging their own ideas or each others’ ideas and kind of stifling…

[Joe] Oh all the time. All the time. [laughs] But one of the things is, you kind of have to set the ground rules. Brainstorming is very difficult if you don’t’ have rules to help guide and mold the conversation, so, you know, when I first started doing brainstorming, I didn’t have any rules. I found out how bad of a situation I was creating.


[Pius] Some arguments, I’m sure.

[Joe] Oh, exactly. So you have to put down some ground rules. That there are no dumb ideas. Defer judgment for later on in the design process. Right now it’s all about how many ideas you can get, and what is the breadth of the ideas? Not exactly answering the question, “Are they good ideas?”

[Sadhan] So one of the things I remember my professor doing when he was teaching us brainstorming, in order to remove that self-doubt, was – He gave an example out, like an already-done mind-map. It’s another brainstorming technique. He has a mindmap out for a specific problem. And when you look into it, you see some ideas are so ridiculous. And he told us this was done by grad students.


[Sadhan] Which completely takes away the fear of – hey, if they can come up with those ideas, maybe I can, too.

[Joe] Yeah.

[Pius] Actually, yeah. That raises a good point. A question that would always come up in our team when we were creating lessons for kids, was, do you show examples of things to kids before you ask them to do it? In this case, do you show your classes examples of brainstorming records, or mind-maps like Sadhan was saying, before they do it?

[Joe] You know, that’s always like a really big question for instructors, because you don’t want to have that idea pollution, where everyone feels like brainstorming must be done a certain way. And so I would say that I maybe mold it depending on the class. For example, if I’ve got a group of students who are very creative and who don’t need that guide, then I’m not going to give it to them. I’m not going to show them what it looks like, because I want to see them develop it themselves. And even for students in class that maybe don’t have a population that’s as creative, I’ll still want them to do it themselves initially, at least the first few times. If they’re still having problems with it, then I can maybe introduce some materials that might guide them, in a way. But I do my very best just to make sure I don’t pollute their ideas by giving them something and have them make the assumption that it must always look like that.

[Pius] I think that’s all good advice. If you’re game, I think we’re ready to start some brainstorming of our own.

[Joe] Sounds good.

[Pius] So here’s our challenge, and I think we told you this a little bit beforehand over email. We all know that our challenge in these next ten, fifteen minutes or so, is to come up with as many solutions or ideas as possible for new and exciting engineering lessons for kids from high school on down.

[Joe] OK.

[Pius] All right. Let’s do it. And just to reiterate for everybody listening, our guidelines, just like Joe said, is we are going for quantity over quality.

[Joe] [laughs]

[Pius] Don’t judge us, at least not to our faces. Not right away. You can judge us after we judge ourselves. What else was it? Build off other people’s ideas.

[Sadhan] Yup.

[Pius] And normally we would be recording this in our engineering notebook, but this is being recorded for posterity, so we are not writing everything down. So, any other guidelines we’ve got to follow?

[Joe] I think we’re good and can dive in.

[Sadhan] I think you should have a timer.

[Joe] Oh yeah, there you go. That’s always a good one.

[Pius] Ten minutes, right?

[Sadhan] Ten minutes.

[Pius] Ten minutes starting now. All right. We need to come up with some lessons.

[Joe] All right. I got – I’ll throw one out there. Trebuchet is always a good one.

[Pius] Trebuchet, yeah.

[Joe] It address physical concepts.

[Sadhan] So what’s the other war machine that’s like trebuchet?

[Joe] Catapult.

[Pius] Trebuchet. Ballista. OK, that makes me think of all weapons of the Medieval Ages.

[Joe] Those are always good engineering projects.

[Pius] Yeah, let’s go off those mechanical projects.

[Joe] Or repurposing things. If you had like a – I don’t know – like a remote control car, you repurpose it to like run off solar.

[Sadhan] Or you don’t even have to redesign anything. Just taking them apart could be a lesson on it’s own. It’s called nondestructive disassembly.

[Pius] Yeah.

[Joe] Aw, that doesn’t sound exciting.


[Pius] Hey, no judgment.

[Joe] That’s right, that’s right, no judgment.

[Sadhan] So, two lessons. One it’s nondestructive, the reason being that you actually need to figure out that I’ll break this or not? And by that you’re learning a lot. It could also be destructing…

[Pius] OK. You could take it down to the lowest point.

[Sadhan] Yeah. If you want to break it, you break it. It’s like fracture analysis.

[Pius] Yeah, they do that all the time.

[Joe] Yeah.

[Pius] You know that reminds me of how you could integrate biology into it. You already have a bunch of dissection labs. Let’s say you wanted to make a robot – I don’t want to say pig – robot something that you dissect in biology. And so if you had to make a robot that looked like a starfish or whatever, you could learn about it by dissecting that, reverse engineering a real one, and trying to build…

[Joe] That’s actually a really cool idea, because, how many times have you seen these big-time colleges that are trying to develop, like, all of these walking things to help, you know, the military…

[Sadhan] Yeah, prosthetics are a big thing…

[Joe] And they study how those animals are able to move, and then they make robots that mimic those movements.

[Sadhan] Biomimicking. That could be another…

[Pius] Oh yeah.

[Joe] Definitely.

[Sadhan] Just find some insect in biology.

[Pius] Design an insect.

[Sadhan] Yeah.

[Pius] That’s awesome. Actually I’ve seen those little toothbrush vibrator things, the ones that are supposed to look like little roaches. They creep me out sometimes. That’s a thing.

[Sadhan] I’ve seen so many little toy cars that use such simple mechanical components, but they have such a variety of design.

[Joe] But like, going into that, going into bringing mechanical engineering in there again, you have prosthetics. Creating prosthetics out of parts where you might not have – I know we’ve done a project where you create a prosthetic out of cardboard and some string, and some things that you make that are just laying around, and you can make it move like a human hand.

[Sadhan] Sticking to the same mechanical engineering, you know the thing where you use a marble, and it goes through like a maze…

[Joe] Like the Rube Goldberg.

[Sadhan] The Rube Goldberg machines. That’s another project that kids can do.

[Pius] Oh you know what I just saw? I just spoke to a professor who does research on making kids’ toys, a mechanical engineering professor. You could have the design project be, hey, make a toy for your younger brothers and sisters or something.

[Joe] Definitely.

[Sadhan] That makes me think that, so, they could just to customer analysis and be done with it. That could be a project on its own. They could go and talk to people about how they want the product to be improved, and record it, and that could be a project by itself. It’s a huge part of…

[Joe] I actually second that one. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of engineering is customer-based. It’s like customer-driven.

[Pius] And they could do that. High school kids could totally find kids their age or younger and see what kind of toys they would make, or video games, if you want to branch out of mechanical engineering. If they want to do coding, there’s all this electrical engineering-related stuff that they could be learning and computer science.

[Joe] Definitely. I know I had a group of students that were trying to redesign a bicycle. I forgot what it was to do, but it was…

[Pius] Redesigning a bicycle.

[Joe] Yeah, it was redesigning a bicycle to help it be more energy-efficient, like, to help it produce energy and using it for something else. It was like to power your cell phone or charge your cell phone.

[Pius] That’s cool. If you want to teach them about energy transformation and efficiency and all that.

[Sadhan] That reminds me of a project that I did. It wasn’t exactly a project, but it was more of a study. How you can use nanomaterials to build superhuman suits.

[Pius] So they’re going to design nanomaterials to build….


[Sadhan] …They are going to see how they can design, you know, a Spiderman suit, or you know, the Spiderman string. You can use carbon nanotubes that have so much strength.

[Joe] That actually brings me into, you know, look at superhuman powers, like from Marvel and DC and, like, how would you, how could you take that out and turn it into something engineering-like? How could you engineer something to mimic that ability?

[Pius] Yeah that totally reminds me. I remember in high school chemistry class my teacher sent around some notorious internet forward email chain where, like, he did the math of Santa Claus delivering presents every Christmas, and how the energy required to travel around the world in like, twenty-four hours, would get him torn up by friction with the air, or something. Anyway, it was just ridiculous science, but I’m just – It reminds me of, you could do the engineering behind like, the mutants of the X-Men, or something.

[Joe] Yeah, yeah.

[Sadhan] I always wanted to make a claw, Wolverine’s claw, that actually retracts, not under the skin…

[Pius] Oh if you had to make a mechanical…

[Sadhan]Yes, I could sell that. I could sell that.


[Pius] That would be interesting. Mad scientist-y.

[Joe] Or you can, like – even if your students do AutoCAD, or if they do – you know, you could bring in, you know, designing or 3D modeling, and use a 3D printer and print things out. That would be a really cool aspect, too.

[Pius] That reminds me. So my brother, he’s a computer animator, and a lot of what he has to do is not just make things look right. He has to work in a team to get the physics right, of the motions, to make things look realistic when you throw them across the room, in the animated movies and stuff. So I wonder if kids don’t design a physical thing but maybe they design some kind of algorithm or mathematical model for…

[Joe] That’s be insane.

[Sadhan] That makes me think of – So we have animation. We can also have physical devices, where they just – they do the programming part. Maybe LEGO kits or any off-the-shelf kit. They can just buy them. And you can ask them to write algorithms or programs to do a specific task.

[Pius] You start with a pre-made robot.

[Sadhan] Yeah. It’s completely in the realm of computer science and computer engineering…

[Joe] Going into robotics, I know a lot of schools have been purchasing robotics equipment from different manufacturers and stuff. You can come up with some really cool ideas. Some people thing that robotics is only moving on wheels. A lot of students are thinking, let’s move on wheels. Let’s just make a car. But really robotics is in a whole lot more things. When you create like assembly lines, or you could create some sort of conveyor system. Anything automated. Automation is not just limited to wheels. It could be – I know we had one thing where it was: build a robot that could shoot the ping pong ball over a distance, or punt-pass-kick…

[Pius] I saw another robot, which I will self-judge again, but I saw a drink mixer robot. I saw it in San Francisco. I’ll just throw that out there. But maybe more like a robot that makes cookies or something. Like it automatically takes the ingredients…

[Joe] So puts a hot dog together.

[Pius] Yeah, yeah.

[Sadhan] That’s chemical engineering right there, too.

[Joe] Oh yeah. Chemical? We didn’t get chemical engineering in there. So we’ve got, like, by the way, a minute and a half here, if we want to make our time. So chemical engineering, what are some of the ideas…

[Sadhan] …so like the cookies….

[Pius] The cookie robot?

[Sadhan] …You’ve got to get the right ingredients…

[Joe] I mean really with chemical engineering, a lot of it is process engineering, process design. It’s not just chemistry. It’s process design as well.

[Pius] Oh right. They could design the procedure for manufacturing something.

[Sadhan] Yeah.

[Joe] Yeah. Or taking something that they’ve done real small, like in a small environment, like a real tiny robot, and figuring out how they can make that go from tiny robot to much bigger robot.

[Pius] Yeah. Wow they could do…

[Joe] Because that’s definitely something in chemical engineering, is scale-up.

[Pius] Yeah, they’d have to find the right machines and parts to do all that. That’s a tough problem.

[Joe] It is.

[Pius] That’d be cool.

[Sadhan]  How about an assembly line? We have an assembly line…

[Pius] That’s like your Rube Goldberg.

[Sadhan] Yeah, it’s like Rube Goldberg. You have robotics, they…

[Pius] They could design a factory.

[Sadhan] Yeah, they can have inventory there.

[Pius] If they had to design their own little cookie factory…

[Sadhan] [laughs]

[Joe] I like that.

[Pius] You’d need a lot of motors. You’d have to know chemical, and electrical, and mechanical.

[Sadhan] That could be a whole semester worth.

[Joe] Or you could just have it where you have multiple groups, and each group is handling one part of the system.

[Pius] Systems engineering.

[Joe] There you go, systems engineering.

[Pius] It reminds me of quality control. I’m sure there’s engineering behind that. Where you’ve got to…

[Joe] Somewhere in there.

[Pius] …do some statistics. You’ve got a batch of products. Yeah, and like, every, I don’t know, couple – Every one-tenth product is bad cookie, or whatever the product is. And so they have to…

[Joe] Come up with processes for how to make it efficient.

[Pius] Yeah, because next week they find that five cookies out of ten are screwing up, and they have to know whether or not that matters.

[Joe] Yeah, that’s interesting.

[Pius] I think we’re about up for time. Any last thoughts for cool lessons you’d like to see in the K-12 level?

[Sadhan] I mean we could keep talking about this.

[Joe] Yeah, you could keep going like this for hours.

[Pius] I’m going to throw out my last idea then. Artificial Pokemon.

[Joe] There you go.

[Pius] If you want to design a robot Pikachu, you’ve got to calculate how much energy it’s going to take to do all that.

[Sadhan] Then I’ve got one idea too. Rocket design. Rocket design would be awesome.

[Joe] That’s always a good one.

[Pius] Classic.

[Joe] Oh I got an idea. You put both of them together. You rocket out Pokemon.

[Pius] [laughs]

[Joe] You shoot them from one area to the other. [laughs]

[Pius] Awesome. We’ll start our own toy company.

[Joe] There you go.

[Pius] OK. Thank you. This brainstorming session is concluded. And I did not count any – or the number of ideas that we came up with, but when I go back and listen to this, I’m going to see, I’m going to see if I can I can put this on the online tool called Padlet of Gliffy, or one of those mind map tools.

[Sadhan] Yeah, I think grouping it would be…

[Joe] Yeah.

[Pius] And if anyone’s listening, maybe they can poke around in there. I’ll post the link. Maybe it’ll be interesting to look at. If someone wants to add their own comments…

[Sadhan] That would be great. Or their ideas.

[Pius] Yeah, we can keep on growing this list.

[Joe] Yeah, that’s actually really cool. That can be a growing mind map for a while.

[Pius] So what I wanted to get into at some point – I don’t know if it has to be today – is: what do we do after this? After brainstorming, when you’ve got this big old list of stuff, is it ready to judge?

[Joe] I would say it’s ready to, like – kind of like we were saying – ready to be organized. You have all these ideas. So the next thing is organization.

[Sadhan] It’s very intuitive.

[Pius] How should I organize these?

[Joe] I would say maybe organize them by engineering discipline.

[Sadhan] That would be my opinion. Yeah. It could also be, like, the order of difficulty or ability.

[Joe] Or like estimated time, you think, that it would take. If you have a short project versus a long project. I know sometimes the teachers are always trying to figure out, oh we’ve got one more week left in the grading period. What do I do?

[Pius] The difficult part is that the most practical ideas often – like you could plot them on a line of least to most practical, and it’s not the same order of projects when you rank them from least to most awesome.

[Joe] [laughs]

[Pius] But we will see.

[Joe] A lot of it is kind of looking at the projects and understanding, what’s feasible for you and your environment.

[Pius] Yeah. I guess it all depends on what you want to teach your kids.

[Joe] If you don’t have a robotics lab, it’s very hard to do anything with robotics. Those are the types of things where you can kind of skim those ideas right off the top as being ones that you can’t do. Or you can just bug your district. Be like, hey, give me some robotics stuff.


[Pius] If only teachers got everything they wanted.

[Joe] I know, right. It’d be nice. [laughs]

[Pius] All right, Joe. Thank you so much. This was really cool.

[Joe] No problem. I had a really great time. Enjoyed it.

[Sadhan] Thanks, Joe.

[Pius] We’ll talk again.

[Joe] All right. Sounds good. Thank you all for inviting me.

[closing music]

[Pius] That was Joe Malchar in Houston. You can find links to our digital record in the show notes. If you feel inspired, please add your own ideas to the brainstorm, and we’ll check it out later. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show and leave reviews on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher, and please send me comments on Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook. All the links are at the website k12engineering.net.

[Pius]  Our opening music comes from School Zone by The Honorable Sleaze, who’s also on SoundCloud. Our closing music is from Late for School by Bleeptor.  Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution licenses.  The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.

[music fadeout]


[Pius]  Another update on South by Southwest 2017. I’ll be presenting a session at South by Southwest EDU. That’s the conference on education, and our session is called, “Electronic Quilts: Weating art with engineering.” My colleague Rachel and I will talk about how to create an integrated engineering and art curriculum based on designing and making electronic quilts. You can even check out some examples and play with some Arduinos. So I hope to see you at the South by Southwest EDU Playground.