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Introducing the Engineering Design Process

Introducing the Engineering Design Process

SCREW THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD (SM)! It’s all about the Engineering Design Process (EDP) now according to the NGSS.  Despite having taught the SM for over a decade, I’m actually okay with this shift.  The way I see it, the SM is the first half of the EDP.  We use the scientific method to figure out the answer to a question.  How does A affect B?  What happens to if I change D.  We use the SM to build knowledge.  The Engineering Design Process uses that knowledge to solve a problem.  In other words, for decades science teachers, including myself, have been giving the kids the ability to construct knowledge through the scientific method, which is fantastic.  But we’ve stopped short of giving kids opportunities to take that knowledge and apply it.  That’s where the Engineering Design Process comes in.  It makes so much sense for us to teach the entire EDP instead of just the first half (SM) alone.  I actually feel really stupid that I wasn’t teaching it that way earlier.  This is one of those reasons that I still feel like a newbie educator.  So, how do YOU introduce the whole Engineering Design Process to the kids when they’ve only been getting half of it for the first several years of their education?  This is the part that reminds me I’m a veteran.  Let me tell you how I do it.  It’s a piece ‘o cake.

  1. Big Motherhuggin’ Poster: Before students return to school in the fall, I asked my district print shop to make a giant copy of a poster detailing the Engineering Design Process I got online from here.  Although it was made by the Works Museum in Minnesota for elementary students, I find that a lot of elementary materials, particularly posters, can still be useful for middle and even high school students.  They’re usually written more succinctly than material made for older kids.  Anyhoo, I pin the huge poster to my wall so that it’s visible to all students.  This way, the students and I can refer back to it all school year long.  I don’t actually talk about the poster or the EDP until after introductions, class rules, procedures, and teamwork lessons are done with.
  2. via GIPHY It’s Time: Once the day finally arrives for me to get into the EDP, I point to the poster and tell them that this is what they will be learning about for the next week or so.  They’ve probably already heard of the scientific method, but the engineering design process will be new for most of them.  I tell them not to freak out because, believe it or not, they already know the EDP and have been using it for years.  They just didn’t know it had a name.
  3. Story Time: At this juncture, I give them an example of how they unwittingly use the Engineering Design Process on a daily basis.  I start by telling them that this morning I woke up with the same question/problem that most of them had–What am I going to wear to school?  I make sure to point back to my poster as I say, “By the way, that’s me Identifying the Problem“.  So, then I stroll into my closet and Explore what I’ve got in there (once again referring to the poster as I say this).  I flip through the clothes until something catches my eye.  Something does.  It’s the lime green tube top.  I make sure to post a PowerPoint slide containing a picture of a model wearing a lime green tube top with my head superimposed on her body.  The kids start giggling right away.

I continue the story.  I can’t just wear a shirt.  I’ve gotta have a bottom to go with the outfit, so I keep looking.  Something else catches my eye.  OF COURSE!  The hot pink mini skirt!  I click on the PowerPoint and now an image of a hot pink mini skirt is superimposed onto the previous picture.  The kids laughter grows louder.

I continue the story.  Now, I have to find shoes to go along with my “Design” (again, pointing back to the poster so the kids can see how I’m progressing through the steps of the EDP).  I look on the top shelf in my closet where all the boxes filled with footwear are stored.  I peak in each box searching for the right complement to my outfit.  I find exactly what I’m looking for–the white high heel stilettos.  I click on the PowerPoint a final time and an image of a model’s legs wearing the previously described shoes are superimposed on the original picture I posted.  Before them now is a complete wardrobe design of a lime green tube top, hot pink mini skirt, and white high heel stilettos on a Frankenstein-like body with my face at the top.  The kids are roaring with laughter at this point.

I continue the story.  I have now finished my “Design” and have “Created” what I think is amazing (yet again referring back to the EDP poster).  Now, the next step is for me to “Try It Out”  I ask my students, “What does ‘Try It Out’ mean?  What can I do to try out my clothes besides putting them on?”  I give them a few moments to think about it.  After a brief pause (although it can feel like an eternity), several students break the silence by saying, “Look at yourself in the mirror!”  I nod my head vigorously and respond, “That’s right!”  I then act as if I’m looking at myself in the mirror and make a few poses to see if I look cute.  The laughter returns.

I declare to the kids, “What the heck was I thinking???  I must have still been half-asleep.”  I then explain to the kids that the outfit is a complete violation of the school’s dress code policy, not to mention the fact that my feet would be killing me from wearing those stilettos.  I tell the kids that I must now “make my design better” while pointing to the EDP poster so the kids know I’m just moving along with the Engineering Design Process.

I “design” and “create” my outfit again by describing what I’m actually wearing in class that day, “try it out” once more by posing in front of a non-existent mirror, and finally solve my problem by declaring my current outfit was the right choice.  This last part is to show the cyclic nature of the EDP.  If the problem hasn’t been solved, we make adjustments to make it better, redesign, recreate, try it out, and repeat until we are satisfied the problem no longer exists.

  1. At this point, I spend the next several days showing the kids an episode from the cancelled TV show “Prototype This”.  It was a wonderful Discovery Channel show that only lasted one season, which I own on DVD.  In each episode, the team of engineers decide to build something wacky that doesn’t exist.  My favorite episode to show the kids involves the team trying to create a wearable airbag that a construction worker can wear and deploy to soften the impact if they accidentally fall from a tall building.  The team doesn’t explicitly state each step of the Engineering Design Process, but the kids can see them do it.  I designed a worksheet to go along with the video.  It looks just like the EDP poster above, except the big circles are left blank.  Any time the engineers are using one of the steps of the EDP, the kids have to write down what they saw in the proper circle.  For example, part of the team in the video works on developing the mechanism that senses when a worker is falling so that the airbag can be triggered to open.  The students will observe the team test out the mechanism a couple of times.  Hopefully, they realize that this represents the “Try It Out” phase of the Engineering Design Process and write down what the saw in that circle.  Click here to download the worksheet, and click here to watch this episode on YouTube.


  1. Now that the kids can identify the steps of the EDP, they have to apply that knowledge to an engineering challenge.  The students had previously learned during the 2nd week of school about teamwork and how to work together (Please read my “What’s Gonna Work?  TEAMWORK” post).  So, the next activity I gave them, the Paper Table Challenge (Click here to get the student activity sheets and teacher/leader notes), forced them to combine and use their newly acquired teamwork and EDP problem-solving skills to work together to create a paper table that could hold the greatest number of textbooks.  Although I do give the students a worksheet explaining the task, I don’t go over it much with them.  I just tell them what the problem is, what materials they have to work with, and that they should read the worksheet because it gives them a lot of hints.  Part of their materials includes ONE chromebook per team, so that they can do some research for their design.  Having only one chromebook for each group forces team members to speak to each other and collaborate.  If every kid had their own chromebook, they’d each do their own thing, which is the antithesis of teamwork.

As the groups work, I’m circulating throughout the room, observing and guiding.  It’s really hard to stop yourself from intervening when you see the kids go down the wrong path with their designs, but YOU HAVE TO LET THEM FIGURE IT OUT FOR THEMSELVES!  A lot of times, their initial designs will collapse with just the slightest breeze, but that’s okay because failure is part of the Engineering Design Process.  Once the team fails after trying it out, the next step of the EDP is to “Make It Better”.  I make sure to tell the kids this before they start working.  Failure is inevitable and it’s nothing to feel bad about because it’s all part of the process.  I also remind them of all the times the engineers on the show Prototype This! failed over and over and over.  They knew it was going to happen, but it didn’t stop them.  They just kept following the Engineering Design Process.  So, when a group’s design fails, I rush over to them, summon all my positivity, and ask them, “How do we make it better?”  Sometimes a group has no idea how to answer that question, so I tell them to observe other groups whose designs are working out a bit better than theirs.  I then ask them, “How do we make yours better than that other group’s design?”  That can sometimes get the creative juices flowing for them.

As I stated in the What’s Gonna Work?  TEAMWORK!!! post, I didn’t care if the kids could build a good paper table.  The point of the challenge was to give the kids an opportunity to practice their developing teamwork and EDP problem-solving skills.  As long as I saw them exhibiting the behaviors of good teammates and using the Engineering Design Process, they got an “A” on the challenge.  Now, this isn’t the only engineering project I give the kids.  They’ll do more throughout the school year.  The Paper Table Challenge was just to get their feet wet with the EDP.  The goal is to have it be a reflex for them to utilize this problem solving tool whenever they come across a hurdle they can’t get over right away.  The only way to make something become a reflex is through repetition.  Fortunately, you have the EDP poster up in your room so the kids (and you) can refer to it when they’ve got a problem to solve.


Anyhoo, that’s how I introduce the Engineering Design Process to the kiddos.  It’s humorous, entertaining, collaborative, hands-on, and makes the kids think!  If you’ve been scratching your head as to how to get started with the EDP, give this a whirl.  If you make it even better or you’ve got another way of introducing the Engineering Design Process for me, please comment away!

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