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...Design Squad... Follows Clever Teens

Reality Show Promotes Design Competition For Innovative, Creative Students

By Joanna Weiss

It won’t quite be “Project Runway,” but on PBS this winter, a group of teenagers will labor under unforgiving deadlines to design outfits with hidden functions — in one case, a wedding dress that doubles as a tent.

Handheld cameras will record their moves. Conflicts will ensue. Deep thoughts will be revealed.

If this won’t get tweens excited about engineering, who knows what will?

That’s the idea — and the hope -— behind “Design Squad,” a new PBS show for 9- to 12-year-olds , filmed in Boston last summer and scheduled to premiere in February. It’s the latest live-action kids’ offering from WGBH, Boston’s prolific producer of public television shows.

And it’s a proposed solution to a vexing problem for public television. Yes, PBS still has repute as a go-to place for toddlers and younger kids.

But how do you corral a tween audience hooked on “Cheetah Girls” and “High School Musical,” and convince them that “educational” can be cool?

The answer, producers hope, is to borrow looks and themes from elsewhere on the dial. WGBH has gotten results in the past from “taking a commercial format that we know kids love and turning it inside out,” says Brigid Sullivan, the station’s vice president of children’s programming.

That was the idea behind “Fetch,” WGBH’s live action-cartoon hybrid, which premiered on PBS in May and got so popular so fast that it will be featured on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “Fetch” comes from the production team behind “Zoom,” and has a science-based curriculum. It’s also a postmodern fantasy, starring a cartoon dog who hosts a reality show for tween contestants. Its director, a veteran of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” helped to infuse the show with a manic mood.

“Design Squad,” another “Zoom” spinoff, is aimed at a slightly older crowd, and it isn’t quite so high-concept. The contestants are eight TV-friendly high school students with serious engineering aptitude. (Auditions involved constructing a chair that would hold the kids’ own weight — made entirely of newspaper and masking tape.) They’ll be divided into teams of four, which will change with each episode, and rack up individual points. The winner will get a $10,000 scholarship from the Intel Foundation.

And no cartoon hosts here; instead, contestants are guided by a pair of 20-somethings who look as if they could be helming MTV’s “TRL,” but happen to have engineering backgrounds. Deanne Bell, 27, had left an aerospace engineering job to travel the world when she spotted a call for auditions online. Nathan B. Ball G, 23, an MIT graduate student, helped to design some of the show’s challenges before he was tapped for an on-air job.

Ball also does beatboxing on the side, which will come in handy on a particular challenge, when contestants are asked to choreograph a light show for a hip-hop act. The rest of the challenges are similarly telegenic; contestants build a machine that makes pancakes, and design a “summer sled,” to go on grass, for L.L. Bean.

As the show was conceived and filmed, executive producer Marisa Wolsky says, she thought about “Project Runway.” She wanted something fast-paced and competitive, with an emphasis on process. She wanted to appeal to girls.

And she wanted to highlight engineering’s real-world applications — to liberate the field from its pocket-protector image, and inspire young viewers to practice the lost art of tinkering.

“It used to be that when you were growing up, you saw your father repairing his car in the driveway,” Wolsky says. “No one repairs anything anymore.”

Indeed, if “Runway” makes a convincing case that fashion is art, the “Design Squad” producers want to prove that engineering can be artful, too.

Choreographer Wyatt Jackson, another “Zoom” veteran who judged the light-show challenge, says he’s sold.

“A lot of my best friends are engineers,” Jackson says. “We talk about these kinds of things. Their world is not that different from my world.”