Not another Death Star
Unless you’ve been hiding under a proverbial sci-fi rock, you are well aware of the excitement surrounding Episode VIII in the Star Wars franchise. You may also recall, that the Empire built a Death Star in Episode IV, Episode VI, and as the reincarnated First Order in Episode VII (yes, it was a planet, but it was a planet-sized Death Star in the sense that “that’s no moon”, and it was called “Starkiller Base” which isn’t much of a change from “Death Star”). Let’s recall how this usually goes for the Empire:
- Episodes I-III: no Death Stars built and the Empire wins.
- Episode IV: moon-sized Death Star built and the Empire loses.
- Episode V: no Death Star built and the Empire wins.
- Episode VI: sneaky operational Death Star built and the Empire loses.
- Episode VII: planet-sized Death Star built and the pseudo-Empire loses.
Are we noticing any patterns yet? The presence of a Death Star or lack there-of equals a very predictable plot line for our favorite space opera as well as a common theme of “don’t put all of your [space] eggs in one basket”. I am beginning to feel like Elmer Fudd’s “kill the rabbit” cartoon opera was less predictable. Just substitute “Death Star” for rabbit in the song…
While the Death Star may be an easy target to make fun of and also illicit groans of repetitiveness in an otherwise brilliant movie sequel saga, it does provide some opportunities for creative insight. Artistically, this made possible the most brilliant plot-hole closure of all time in the form of Rogue One. Educationally, this makes a convenient avenue for metaphorical language that’s near universal as we look at creative ways to teach engineering.
These are the Standards That You are Looking for…
Many teachers, especially at the elementary level, are just now beginning to search out information on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This is especially true of the engineering standards component. Engineering is a new, critical, and intimidating part of the new science standards. It doesn’t have to be, though. One way to approach these standards is to introduce them in contexts that are more familiar or even fun: enter Star Wars and the infamous Death Star.
The engineering standards do change, grow, and evolve as they transition throughout the grade bands. However, there are a lot of consistencies as we move from the three K-2 engineering standards to the 3-5 grade band and on to middle school with the addition of a fourth standard and finally ending with the high school grade band of four engineering standards. For the sake of accessibility and applicability to the widest breadth of educators, we are going to utilize the grades 3-5 standards for this exercise.
3-5-ETS1-1: Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
Well, the Empire’s “simple design problem” involved building a planetoid space station big enough and powerful enough to destroy full-sized planets. This reflected a “want” because the Empire didn’t “need” a Death Star in order to survive. Criteria for success include but are not limited to blowing up planets, instilling fear across the galaxy, and crushing the rebellion. Constraints include gathering enough materials to construct something so large (this is why the dramatically named original Death “Star” is actually only moon-sized), time because obviously it takes all of the time since “A New Hope” and beyond “Empire Strikes Back” to almost complete a new and improved Death Star in time for “Return of the Jedi”, and of course the immense cost to construct something with that structure and function. And I’m not sure whether building the First Order’s version on a planet was an improvement or a glaring error in regards to constraints. The most obvious constraint is the infamous exhaust pipe… or based on newer evidence was it actually a constraint?
Engineering Standard 2 and the Death Stars
3-5-ETS1-2: Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
One does have to wonder what the proposed alternatives to the Death Star conundrum were… how does an Empire go about solving the problem of building something in order to inspire both maximum intimidation and maximum destruction? Were there even prototypes? It appears from an outsider’s perspective that the Empire’s engineers really “dropped the ball” on this engineering standard. Personally, I think there are multiple possible solutions besides a Death Star that meet the criteria and constraints of the Empire’s problem, e.g. fleet of Super Duper Star Destroyers. And, the obvious answer was not to rebuild the darn thing, or turn it into a giant planet-sized space howitzer/target.
Engineering Standard 3 and the Death Stars
3-5-ETS1-3: Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.
Is blowing up a planet or star system really a fair test in which variables are controlled and failure points considered? Although, I guess we do see a couple of initial tests in the Rogue One movie for the original Death Star—albeit a bit rushed and not appearing to be well-planned out. As for failure points, sure the Death Star could effectively blow up things, but how well could it defend itself? This seems like an obvious failure point unless you’re an overly confident Empire. And a very obvious failure point if you’re a sneaky engineer father with the ultimate plot for either revenge or avenging… not sure which at this point. Obviously, the most critical failure points were not identified by the Empire if any real testing took place, and the only real variables cared about were rebels as target practice. In the end, this means that most aspects of the Death Star model that could be improved were not considered.
Death Stars, Star Wars, and the Engineering Design Process
It’s worth noting that the number of failure points present in the Empire’s and First Order’s subsequent Death Star models seemed to grow in number and nature over time and with redesigns as opposed to diminishing (this is the opposite intent of the iterative process). Apparently, the Empire’s engineers were not big believers in utilizing the engineering design process. This is much to their detriment, but to our advantage as educators for providing whimsical examples for our students. The elementary students that I’ve worked with are better at utilizing the engineering design process than the fictional Empire from Star Wars, and what a fun way to hook them in with a high interest topic while also building confidence?
Star Wars has become a much better vehicle for this sort of exercise recently with the important advent of female leads in the two most-recent movies. The original Star Wars universe had some diversity, but the movie series is becoming more and more diverse with time. The more times that all of our students can see themselves reflected in an activity, the better. Per Appendix D of the NGSS, our goal is to reach and teach all students. No exceptions. It’s always been the right thing to do, but now it’s also literally our standard. As our students see more examples and connections for themselves to science and engineering, then they will become more engaged and more readily able to visualize themselves in these roles and, eventually, careers.
As far as the design process goes, students initially have a hard time with going beyond their initial idea. Providing them with the opportunity to improve upon something that they are already familiar with but that has obvious flaws can drive this point home. This shows that even the most fun, common, and/or best designs have failure points that can be redesigned and improved upon. This makes it okay for them to FAIL (First Attempt In Learning) and learn from that. Also, everyday examples like WD-40 being the 40th attempt and Formula 409 being the 409th formula intrinsically show that examples of multiple iterations of the engineering design process are all around us. Just like a piece of writing is never truly done, so is an engineering design never truly finished—never perfect… just waiting to be improved upon.
Evaluation and Reflection
Too often we do not provide students with time for evaluation and reflection, yet this is often cited as the most valuable aspect of student learning. We need to provide time for self analysis and peer input. This can be as simple as immediate verbal feedback, involve a rubric or quiz, or as involved as a full redesign of their work. The opportunity to re-evaluate is so important that there’s not much more to add here because most of us just need to start by doing it more often (myself included). Please provide opportunities for your students to self-reflect and self-evaluate. Even if it’s something as silly as the Death Star rubric above or the Star Wars Taxonomy below, the time will be valuable and well-spent.
Bring it all together, you will
Ultimately, our job as educators is a challenging one. We need to figure out how to figure out standards, and then we need to figure out how to present those concepts in a way that is both accessible and manageable for a wide-range of students from different backgrounds with different experiences and very different ability levels. Fun and unique approaches, while sometimes whimsical, allow us to put aside the intimidation factor or break through the boring disengagement factor and access material that would otherwise be inaccessible for many of our kids. In the case of our new engineering standards, Star Wars is one of a wide variety of ways to do this.
These approaches open doors to student interest and generate questions regarding what other topics lend themselves to this manner of approach. This post grew out of another post that I started regarding the Empire’s engineers as a whole and breaking down designs such as tie fighters and AT-AT walkers. I mean, seriously? The Empire’s designs were susceptible to a bunch of Ewoks. And what about other topics such as Star Trek or Lord of the Rings? There are almost endless possibilities!
Helpful Resources & Links
Link to my original Star Wars post: http://corelaboratewa.org/ngss-according-to-star-wars/
Engineering w/Those Darn Squirrels: http://corelaboratewa.org/engineering-with-squirrels/
Engineering Future Engineers: http://corelaboratewa.org/engineering-future-engineers/
Renewable Energy Engineering Post: http://corelaboratewa.org/renewable-energy-leadership/
Engineering is Elementary: https://eie.org/
Teach Engineering Website: https://www.teachengineering.org/
Washington STEM: http://www.washingtonstem.org/
Washington MESA: http://www.washingtonmesa.org/
Infographic illustrating why US should not build a Death Star: http://reason.com/archives/2015/12/10/should-the-us-government-build-a-death-s
Link to comparison of the three Death Stars: http://darth.wikia.com/wiki/Starkiller_Base?file=Starkiller_bas.png
Link to infographic about operating the Death Star and its military compliment: https://inkedandscreened.com/products/star-wars-death-star-infographic
Wookieepedia (for Star Wars references): http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page
Darthipedia (for Star Wars references): http://darth.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page
National Science Teachers Association NGSS Hub: http://ngss.nsta.org/AccessStandardsByTopic.aspx
Engineering Design and the Next Generation Science Standards: https://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/resource/files/Appendix%20I%20-%20Engineering%20Design%20in%20NGSS%20-%20FINAL_V2.pdf
One More Thing…
Oh, and on a personal side note, please oh please for the love of all that is not completely predictable, please let there not be a Death Star in the upcoming Star Wars movie (any upcoming one for that matter). For any of you who doubt why this does not need to be done, the best “Death Star” Star Wars movie of all time was already made and it barely even had a physical Death Star in it, i.e. Rogue One. How’s that for throwing out a little bit of controversy here at the end?
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