This is your opportunity to experiment with and explore the design decisions that go into making a manufactured product. In this activity, you will engineer a stand that props up a cell phone on a flat surface.
stuff to make the structure of the stand, such as cardboard, craft or popsicle sticks, balsa wood, and thin sheets of
stuff to hold the phone to the stand, such as paper clips, rubber bands, and pipe cleaners
stuff to hold it all together, such as glue and tape
scissors and/or box cutter
pencil and paper for sketching designs
decorative elements (optional) such as colored markers, glitter, and stickers
The stand must be stable on a flat surface
The stand must be sturdy enough to hold an actual cell phone
Use only the materials provided (but you don’t have to use them all)
The stand has to hold a cell phone at an angle that makes it easy to see the screen if you are sitting at a desk
The stand has to be usable while the cell phone is being charged
An engineer has been involved in just about everything we use in our everyday lives, from bikes to TVs to furniture to cell phones. In fact, it even takes an engineer to perfect little things like cell phone stands—which take a surprising amount of thought in order to be well designed and truly useful. This is your opportunity to experiment with and explore the design decisions that go into making a manufactured product. In this activity, you will engineer a stand that props up a cell phone on a flat surface.
DEFINE THE PROBLEM
Share the challenge with students: engineer a stand that props up a cell phone for easy viewing while seated at a desk.
Go over the success criteria and the constraints.
Show students the materials. Get students thinking with some preliminary questions:
What are some features of cell phone stands that already exist? Which ones do you want to incorporate into your design? How could these stands be improved?
Will your stand only work with a particular size and model of cell phone, or will it be adaptable to different kinds of cell phones?
Will your stand be adjustable, so that it can hold a cell phone at different angles, or will it hold the cell phone in one position?
What design features will you incorporate so that the stand can be used while the cell phone is charging?
Show students how the viewing angle of a cell phone can affect the ergonomics of a setup for working, studying, or participating in virtual classes and meetings. If the cell phone is held at an angle that makes it easy to see while holding your head in a natural position, it won’t cause the muscles in the neck to tire out or cause you to hold postures that will put undue pressure on your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Have students work individually or in groups of 2–3. Distribute the materials. Give students time to explore the properties of the materials and do some experimenting as they plan their design. Ask them to think about the weight of the cell phone and how sturdy the holder needs to be. Encourage them to test ideas for different ways to create a stable base for their stand before they finalize their design.
BUILD AND TEST
A cell phone stand with adjustable tilt.
It’s time to build! Assure students that after they test their first designs, they can change and improve them to be more stable or have a more ergonomic angle of elevation. Have students refer back to the constraints and success criteria to make sure their stands continue to meet the challenge requirements.
During testing, place a cell phone on the stand and plug it in to make sure the stand accommodates it. Sit at a desk or table and see if it’s easy to look at the cell phone with your head in a natural position. Ask teams to pay close attention to the designs of their classmates for ideas on how to improve their own.
EVALUATE AND REDESIGN
Once everyone has had a chance to test their design, hold a discussion. What were the characteristics of the cell phone stands that had the best design? Would you buy a cell phone stand like any of the ones built today? If not, why not?
Tell students to gather another set of materials and try again. For teams whose cell phone stands are already sturdy and ergonomic, suggest they think of an add-on feature, such as greater flexibility, ability to hold a tablet or larger cell phone, or usefulness in other situations besides tables and desks. They can also personalize their cell phone stands, a feature that would add to its marketability.
How versatile do you want your stand to be? For example, can the angle be changed or can the cell phone be placed horizontally as well as vertically?
What happens if you want to change the volume or screen brightness while the cell phone is in the stand? What about if you answer a call without removing the phone from the stand?
What is the weak point of your stand? If the cell phone is hastily placed with a little bit of pressure, will the stand collapse?
What happens if you add height to the stand? How can you make it just as stable?
When engineers design workstations or objects that people use every day, they think about ergonomics, the practice of reducing physical stress and optimizing health. People who sit at computers or look at their phones for many hours a day can hurt themselves over time. They may slouch, hold their heads at an unnatural angle, or rest too long on their forearms, for example, all of which cause muscle strain and backache. The latest computer mice have come a long way from the original designs in order to reduce wrist strain. Even something so simple as a cell phone stand can help people to work safely by keeping their eyes and heads at a natural angle.
Horizontal Screen Viewing Angles
Engineers often work with industrial designers who focus on making a product attractive as well as functional. After all, a product is more likely to be used if it appeals to customers. A main role of the engineer is to improve the process of manufacturing—making it more efficient, cost-effective, and safe—while the industrial designer develops the product itself. In many cases, the line between industrial design and engineering disappears; there is even a program in the Netherlands for people who want to study industrial design engineering. It takes engineers and industrial designers to make cars and cell phones…but also brand-new products like rainwater catch towers, handheld drone inhibitors, portable Bluetooth speakers, and collapsible camping bowls.
The center of mass is a scientific concept that is also important in engineering. It’s the place in an object where its mass is equally balanced around. In humans, the center of mass is near the belly button. In a disc, the center of mass is in the center; but it’s also in the center of a ring, where there isn’t any material. A simple way to find it on a small object is to balance it on your fingertip—that’s its center of mass! For larger objects, engineers use mathematics to calculate the center of mass, which can be important when working in industrial design. For example, it predicts how far a truck can tip before it falls over, which is key information for designing safer trucks.
How do you hold your cell phone so that you can see what’s on the screen most easily and without glare? This is your viewing angle: the angle that lets you look at the LED display and see it properly. In cell phones (and tablets, desktop monitors, and TVs), the further you tilt the screen in any direction, the more difficult it is to see what is displayed. That’s why LED engineers and designers have to think about the horizontal viewing angle as well as the vertical viewing angle. The brightness of the display also affects its viewability. Improvements in LED technology have made it easier to see screens from wider angles, so now a group of 3 or 4 friends can watch a video on a cell phone together