Educator engineers student challenges for public television series
|Don Pratt, professor of engineering, spent the summer on the set of the PBS television show "Design Squad," creating challenges for six high school students to overcome and helping them create viable engineering solutions to the problems posed. "You won't ever see me or hear me," on the show, he says, "but I was there making sure that they were safe and also that they built models that would work."
Chosen to design the engineering challenges posed to high school contestants on the PBS Peabody award-winning show “Design Squad,” Don Pratt’s goal was twofold: “I wanted to be technically excellent, and I wanted every person on that set, from the director to the tech guys to the cast of the show, to feel like we genuinely cared about them.” Pratt, professor of engineering at Messiah College, designed fascinating engineering problems for a cast of six high school students to solve. His passion for teaching and interdisciplinary interests made an impact, as did his desire to live out the faith he knew he might not be able to talk about openly.
Pratt took on his twofold goal with the help of his wife, Kathy, who became the staff nurse for “Design Squad”; his daughter Emily ’10, an intern for the show and a graphic design major at Messiah; and two Messiah engineering students who assisted on the show, Paul Gustafson ’09 and Emily Howell ’10. By the end of the show’s filming, staff members gathered around Pratt and his crew, expressing genuine appreciation for
The technical challenges Pratt posed — involving a Jamaican dog sled team, hurricane relief work, and wheelchair rugby—capitalized on his commitment to both creative and relevant engineering. “I wanted to include challenges that involved helping people, that involved alternative energy, that involved maybe working with someone with a disability,” Pratt says. These are interests Pratt has always valued and promoted during his 15 years of teaching at Messiah, during which he helped found the College’s Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research and launched a land-mine activism group, the Genesis Solar Racing Team, and the Flying Club.
“It takes a lot of work to become an engineer,” Pratt says. “But then it opens up all these really fun things you can do. Unfortunately, a lot of kids get away from science and math early on, thinking, ‘Oh, that’s hard,’ and it shuts a door.” With nearly a million viewers every week and 40,000 school children enrolled in the related after-school program, “Design Squad” and Pratt’s engineering creativity stand poised to open doors and ignite the excitement of many students nationwide.
—Mackenzie Martin ’08