May 1, 2011

Don Music -- Engineer?

Let me just say upfront, that no, Don Music, famous Muppet composer is not an engineer. I just thought that might catch people's attention, and get me back into the Engineer's Playground spirit again. I've been a bit more introspective and analytical (not as playful) these last few months than usual. At the end of this month, I will be attending my 20th college reunions. Since I had the reputation of being a Sesame Street fiend, it seems fitting that I should relate engineering to a Muppet. So here it goes...

Recently, I was asked by elementary teachers if I knew of a book for children about the engineering design process, outside of curriculum such as Engineering is Elementary. Since the "definition" of the engineering design process is a relatively new concept, I couldn't name a classic piece of literature, per se. But, if we thought broadly of the engineering design process as a logical iterative method based on trying something, analyzing the results, and modifying it while driven by a human need, well, there are some options.

One of the problems that children (and maybe adults) have with engineering is being willing to throw out all previous work in the pursuit of the best possible solution within accepted constraints. This is where Don Music may help out future engineers.

For those who are unfamiliar with the composing team of Kermit the Frog (present as a reporter from Sesame Street News) and Don Music, this is how their process usually goes:

  1. Don has composed a lovely song, complete except for the last word. My favorites (below) are Yankee Doodle, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and Sunny Days.
  2. Don then gets writer's block and bangs his head in frustration on the piano (I was told that many educators find this a bad role model for children, which is understandable).
  3. Kermit steps in and has Don articulate his problem. For example, Don can't find an ending word that rhymes with "pony" (he has already figured out "Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony. Stuck a feather in his hat and called it ...")
  4. Kermit then suggests something - in this case, "macaroni." But Don rejects it because it doesn't satisfy his constraints of song-writing: Songs must rhyme AND make sense.
  5. The two of them them work backwards, suggesting and eliminating ideas, figuring out what would make sense, while still rhyming.
  6. They end up with a completely different set of lyrics than they started out with, but it does actually meet all the specifications.
I really like this process for a few reasons. It demonstrates:
  • An iterative process
  • How to work within constraints
  • The brainstorming process
  • How two brains are better than one
  • How you don't always know what the solution will look like when you start
If we want our future generation to be innovation leaders, these are all great lessons for any child, not just one that will grow up to be an engineer.

See Don Music and Kermit in action:

Like this? Then get ready for my upcoming book, Engineering for the Uninitiated. It's designed specifically for parents and teachers who aren't familiar with engineering but want to be so they can help their children develop engineering traits. You can take a peek at the companion website by clicking on the link on the right and get a glimpse of what's coming.
Related links: