Design-Based Learning (DBL) to Innovate STEM Education: Use of Mobile Sensors and Mobile ePortfolios to Promote Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Integrating design and technology tools into science education provides students with dynamic learning opportunities to actively investigate and construct innovative design solutions, while using mobile phones as a means to learn from each other’s progresses.


Design based learning (DBL) is one type of project-based learning which engages students in the process of developing, building, and evaluating a product they have designed (Silk 2009).In science classrooms, DBL opens new possibilities for learning science. Working on and completing design-based activities can make students feel proud of their achievements, as well as building up their confidence as thinkers, designers, and doers that will benefit them through their education and life (Barron et al. 1998). It encourages a thriving learning context for students’ active participation and construction of knowledge instead of having students passively learn about science from textbooks and lectures (Doppelt et al. 2008). Overall, research provides encouraging evidence that this inquiry based learning increases students’ science content knowledge and engagement, enables students to transfer knowledge into another task and learn through collaboration, and develops students’ positive attitudes towards science (Doppelt et al. 2008, Fortus et al. 2004, Fortus et al. 2005, Puntambekar & Kolodner 2005, Mamlok et al. 2001).

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Our earthquake curriculum project

We developed an earthquake curriculum to conduct design-based pilot studies all over the globe from Ethiopia to California, in 5th, 6th,and multi-grade classrooms. Learning about earthquakes is urgent and propitious with the recent earthquake catastrophes in Haiti and Chile. It is crucial to raise awareness in our young learners that an earthquake in one continent can cause ripple effect damages in other continents. In the future, we expect our leaders to collaborate to understand the natural phenomena and help us to prepare and respond together.

Within the design challenge, students worked in teams of 4 members to design and build earthquake resistant structures using only index cards, tape, and paper clips, through several iterations. Then, their designs were evaluated using an innovative testing tool from Quake Catcher Network (QCN),a joint project from Stanford University and UC Riverside. On its website, they state their objective is to improve early earthquake detection, earthquake education, and emergency response systems by developing the “world's largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers.” (QCN) Introducing these sensors generated considerable interest and questions from students as they tangibly touched and tested their designed structures with an authentic tool.

Figure 1: Earthquake Viewing Mode

Figure 2: Sensor Viewing

Figure 3: QCN sensor connected to computer through USB

Throughout our pilot studies, students were enthusiastic, focused, and actively collaborating with their peers. Iterations of their designs revealed progressive developments, creative uses of limited building materials, and thoughtful discussions of what they learned after they tested their building structures with the sensor. The learning environment transformed into an enlivened space with students experimenting with designs, learning from errors, and bouncing and sharing ideas with each other in their goal to build an earthquake safe structure.

Figure 4: Students testing their design on shake table using QCN sensor and viewing seismic waves in Sunnyvale, CA.


Figure 5: Frugal practice among students to save tape by cutting into tiny strips in Sunnyvale, CA.


Figure 6: Paper clips are used to fasten floors and to strengthen attachment of their designs in Sunnyvale, CA.

Figure 7: Teamwork involved in building structure in El Salvador


Figure 8:Measuring to determine if students’ design meets height requirement of 12” in El Salvador


Figure 9: Testing design on shake table using QCN sensor in Ethiopia

Although we have briefly introduced the use of mobile phones as a documentation tool, it will be integrated formally into an empirical study we will conduct this upcoming summer. Students will have opportunities to use mobile phones to document their design processes by capturing salient moments through pictures and videos, as well as utilizing relevant apps.

Figure 10: Student's use of iPhone to capture peer's building process in Sunnyvale, CA.

Our belief is that providing students with a learning tool and the responsibility to document their learning allow them to intermittently step outside of the design challenge and to develop observation, critical thinking, and reflection skills which are useful in tackling real world challenges. Moreover, students’ documentations can be shared with peers in the context of an e-portfolio, which is another POMI project currently being developed.

Sub Project

Recently we conducted a series of pilot studies with fifth grade science students to explore concepts of wind power and renewable energy. Students designed and constructed Lego and cardboard wind-powered vehicles, and balanced helium filled balloons with creative uses of weight. Students actively used Android mobile phones and pre-selected apps to aid in their design work, as well as document their work through pictures and videos. A culminating project will comprise of students designing their own wind turbine aloft with balloons.


Figure 11 & 12: Fifth grade student designed Lego car with index card mast (1 vs. 3) taped to Android phone measures distance as propelled by balloon air

Firgure 12: Taking notes on Android phone during design activity in Sunnyvale, CA.


Figure 13: Student experiments with placing wet tissue in a ziplock bag to suspend helium filled balloon in mid air as peer documents the process in Sunnyvale, CA.

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Faculty Staff Staff Staff Research Assistant Former Member  

Dr. Paul, Kim
Dr. Esther Suh
Uri Geva
Chuan Huang
Sunmi Seol

Dr. Helen Chen
Theresa Johnson

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"Students' hands-on design and mobile phone documentation of building earthquake safe structures" is the subproject of POMI in Education.