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2.1: The Design Challenge

The Design Challenge

Your BIS2A instructors have devised something that we call “The Design Challenge” to help us approach the topics we cover in the course from a problem solving and/or design perspective. This teaching tool helps us:

• develop a frame of mind or way of approaching the material and 
• design a set of sequential steps that help structure thinking about course topics in a problem-solving context. 

How is it intended to work? When we encounter a topic in class, “The Design Challenge” encourages us to think about it in the following problem-solving centric way:

  1. Identify the problem(s) - this may include identifying "big" problems and also decomposing them into "smaller" nested sub-problems
  2. Determine criteria for successful solutions 
  3. Identify and/or imagine possible solutions 
  4. Evaluate the proposed solutions against the criteria for success 
  5. Choose a solution

By using the structure of the design challenge, topics that are typically presented as lists of facts and stories are transformed into puzzles or problems that need solving. For instance the discussion about the topic of cell division is motivated by a problem. The problem statement can be: "The cell needs to divide". Some of the criteria for success can include needing to have a near identical copy of DNA in each daughter cell, distributing organelles between the daughter cells so that each remains viable etc. These would be considered sub-problems to the larger “the cell needs to divide” problem. One can then go on to explore what the challenges are and try to use existing knowledge and imagination to propose some solutions for each of those problems. Different solutions can be evaluated and then compared to what Nature seems to have done (at least in the cases that are well studied). 

This exercise requires us to use imagination and critical thinking. It also encourages the student and instructor to think critically about why the particular topic is important to study. The Design Challenge approach to teaching biology attempts to make the student and instructor focus on the important core questions that drove the development of the knowledge in the first place! It also encourages students to dream up new ideas and to interact with the material in a manner that is question/problem-centered rather than “fact”-centered. The question/problem-centered approach is different from what most people are used to, but it is ultimately more useful for developing skills, mental frameworks and knowledge that will transfer to other problems that they will encounter during their studies and beyond. 


For example, the guiding problem in BIS2A is to understand “How to Build a Cell”. This rather complex problem will be broken down into several smaller sub-problems that include:

  • acquiring the building blocks to construct cellular parts from the environment 
  • acquiring the energy to build cellular parts from the environment 
  • transforming the building blocks of the cell between different forms 
  • transferring energy between different storage forms 
  • creating a new cell from an old cell 
  • problems we identify in class

As we explore these sub-problems, we will at times explore some of the different ways in which biology has addressed each issue. As we get into details, let us however make sure to stay focused on and not forget the importance of always staying linked to the questions/problems that motivated us to talk about the specifics in the first plac

Scientific Method vs. The Design Challenge

At this point you might be thinking: "What is the difference between the scientific method and the design challenge rubric and why do I need both?" It's not an uncommon question so let's see if we can clarify this now. 

The design challenge and the scientific method are both processes that share similar qualities. The critical distinguishing feature, however, is the purpose behind each of the processes. The scientific method is a process used for eliminating possible answers to questions. A typical scenario where one might use the scientific method would involve someone making an observation, proposing multiple explanations, designing an experiment that might help eliminate one or more of the explanations, and reflecting on the result. By contrast the design process is used for creating solutions to problems. A typical scenario for the design challenge would start with a problem that needs solving, defining criteria for a successful resolution, devising multiple possible solutions that would meet the success criteria and either selecting a solution or reflecting on changes that might be made to the designs to meet success criteria. A key operational difference is that the design challenge requires that criteria for success be defined while the scientific method does not.

While both are similar, the differences are still real and we need to practice both processes. We'll assert that we use both processes in "real life" all of the time. A physician, for instance, will use both processes interactively as she forms hypotheses that try to determine what might be causing her patient's ailments. She will turn around and use the design process to build a course of treatment that meets certain success criteria. A scientist may be deep into hypothesis generation but he will eventually need to use a design process for building an experiment that will, within certain definable success criteria, help him answer a question. 

Both processes, while similar, are important to use in different situations and we want to begin getting better at both.