Friday, July 8, 2016

GCD Update: Feedback and Research

Since my last post, I have been heavily researching and designing the new Grand Challenge Design course with the help of a huge support network. Here is my most succinct summary of the need and solution that make up the course:

Students are entering a world with variety of Grand Challenges, problems that are interdisciplinary, interconnected, and extremely complex. They span topic areas like the environment, healthcare, security, and urban infrastructure. A growing technology trend, developing "smart" devices that are being connected to the "internet of things", and then developing software platforms that make sense of all of the data that is generated, offers a powerful starting point for rethinking many of the most intractable problems. Grand Challenge Design was proposed as a course that gives students the tools and skills to create smart devices and exposure to the Grand Challenges where they can be applied for the greatest benefit to humanity.
To facilitate students immersing into the problem areas, the course will run as a year-long simulated world. Picture a 5'x13' wooden table with 4" squares marking out territories and waterways. Students will own territories and manage a growing society of virtual citizens. They will start with simple farms (fast-growing plants in solo cups), harvesting enough to feed their people and selling off the excess to grow their cash supplies. From there, they will advance to create powered city plots, running actual data lines from their Raspberry Pi and Arduino under the table to LEDs on their plots. As the societies advance, students will improve their farms with automated irrigation and moisture sensors. They will create factories with working actuators and engage in commerce with overseas markets to sell their products. While they build out these basic game elements, I will introduce new challenges such as polluted water supplies, disease outbreaks, unstable market prices, rising populations, and other twists that can only be addressed through effective student cooperation and the design of continuously smarter cities. As students all advance in skills, the challenges will become increasingly realistic with the help of community experts coming to class to pose the next round of problems and test out potential solutions. Even for simple things, like getting a loan to build an automated factory, I will require students to create a plan and pitch it to real investors before handing out a dime from my virtual bank.
Students will live through dozens of problems in healthcare, security, infrastructure, and the environment. They will experience building water treatment devices, factory assembly lines, disease tracking apps, automated irrigation and lighting systems for farms, and other smart systems that take real-world actions based on processed sensor data. They will interact with adults working on similar problems to see how their new skills can provide real value immediately, and through consulting challenges mid-game, actually build devices for real-world use. With the help of this course and the network of amazing people supporting it, we will build the next wave of Grand Challenge Designers.

The most exciting part of the design process thus far has been engaging with the feedback of those willing to reach out, particularly those who were critical of various concepts proposed in the last post. Discussing the challenges and refining the ideas is an ongoing process. This process ramps up next week with a few more in-person planning sessions. Things will start to get finalized in early August when I have a couple design sessions with students enrolled in the course. More than anyone else, I want students to be on-board with the plan before it gets etched in stone.

I also wanted to document some of the research I have been pouring through recently. Pouring through my search history over the past week reveals two major themes: world problems and sensors.

While researching the problem areas, I was honestly concerned I would get added to the FBI's watchlist: what teacher looks up details around urban infrastructure vulnerabilities? I read about bridge collapses, problems in the aging electrical distribution system, threats from terrorism, threats from hackers, water treatment systems, and other similarly riveting reads. I broadened the problem space by looking at the 14 Engineering Grand Challenges (where the course got its name) and past topics from the Future Problem Solving Program (topics ranging from "nutrition" to "space junk" to "virtual corporations"). I also looked at related solution spaces such as the smart grid, targeted irrigation (and how to build an in-home version), and simulating disease vectors through the cooperative game "Pandemic". As I tried to imagine what it would look like in a game setting, I watched an hour of Civilization 5 game play on YouTube.

With the sensors, I spend most of my time with my jaw on the floor at the insanely low cost of anything made and shipped from China via eBay. Arduinos are known for being that dirt cheap electronics prototyping platform at under $30/board. Given the open-source hardware design, they are also open to knock-offs. Somehow, it is possible to make them, list them on eBay, and ship them to the US from Hong Kong for $3.60/board. WHAT?! Given that it takes over a month for them to get here, I went on a shopping spree for these, moisture and current sensors, water pumps, relays, and other key components for our projects at insanely low prices. I found sample code with a number of the sensors that interfaces simply with the Arduino. Based on this research, most of our devices will be a two-step solution connecting a Raspberry Pi 3 to an Arduino to the sensor / actuator. This allows us to have a full computer gathering data and running multiple processes while also having a dedicated devices running simple, continuous loops with existing software.

There are a lot of logistics to work through as we turn this concept into a working, playable simulation with its huge physical footprint and its digital infrastructure. Even if it is rocky, the learning that I have along the way will better prepare me with the tech and problem area knowledge that will be essential to be an awesome facilitator of this course. And it will make for a fun summer!

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