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For any great design, there is a great plan. From Leonardo da Vinci to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, the inventors and innovators who created the world we live in each began as a person with an idea. An idea turned into a plan and the plan turned into a prototype and the prototype turned into a product. That process — moving from an idea to a finished product — is known as the engineering design process and isn’t only for famous inventors. This technique can be used by anyone and is a great way for students to learn STEM principles. Let’s take a look at what the engineering design process is made of, then see how you might integrate it into your teaching.
The engineering design process, also known as iterative design, is a cycle that provides a framework for addressing the world’s problems with inventive, effective solutions. From researching the issues society faces and the complications surrounding them to fine-tuning designs by tinkering with variables, the engineering design process puts STEM in students’ hands, teaching them to think like an inventor in all areas of life.
The engineering design process stands in stark contrast to the two traditional approaches students can take to new problems. At one extreme, there is “guess and check.” In the “guess and check” model, students invest little to no energy in planning their approach to a problem. Rather, they simply try something and then adjust, repeating this process until they either stumble upon a solution or lose interest in the problem. This is not always bad. When the stakes are low, there is no harm in this. However, when materials and time are limited, “guess and check” is not an efficient approach.
The second, sometimes problematic, approach to problem-solving (the one historically emphasized in any technical academic program) is purely analytical, wherein the first attempt is expected to be perfect, flawless if possible. I like to call this approach the “one and done.” While this method certainly has academic and educational merit, it fails to take into consideration practical, application-level issues (imperfect parts, environmental variation, etc.). This “one and done” approach can also put undue pressure on learners to rely on detailed instructions rather than fostering a creative engineering mindset.
Sidenote: Scientific inquiry is a related but separate process that refers to the use of questioning, testing and analysis to answer questions. While the scientific method is a process used to test ideas and construct explanations, the engineering design process is a method of solving problems and generating solutions to human wants and needs.
So let’s whip up a batch of engineering design — we’ll start with the essential ingredients, then take a look at the step-by-step instructions for a perfect final project.
The engineering design process is a cycle...
Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s time to go back to the design phase, creating a new prototype that will be better than your first. Repeat this cycle until you have reached your desired goal or have developed a product that meets the need you are trying to fill.
What does the engineering design process look like in action? While iterative design can be found throughout our products, we’re going to focus on one example.
In Ready, Set, Drone!, an aviation program for learners in grades 4-8, students build launch and landing pads for their mini drones out of BrickLAB bricks. Each learner takes on the role of an engineer, faced with the challenge to build a platform on which they can land their drone during flight practice. Following the steps of the engineering design process, students begin by asking questions and establishing the framework for their landing pad builds. These questions might include: “How much space will it take to land the drone? What sizes of bricks do we have to work with? What kind of surface will the launch pad stand on?”
Once all student questions are answered, each team dreams up possible solutions, decides on one model and sketches the design in their science notebooks, labeling the landing pad parts and the brick sizes they will use. Teams then get their bricks and start building!
With the landing pads built, it’s time to test the designs. Students don their safety glasses and grab the drone controls. Their goal: lift off from their brick landing pad and land back on it. As they fly, students record data in a flight log in their science notebooks, writing down the date, flight number, flight duration and any notes about their performance.
Once each student has made an attempt at a successful flight, everyone comes back to debrief, evaluating their level of success. Questions to pose at this time include: “How well did each group meet the engineering criteria? Were groups able to lift off and land the drone back on their launchpads? Would anyone want to redesign their launchpad with the experience they have now? What would you change?”
In order to make note of their reflections, students create a plus/delta chart, writing a list of things that went well and things they would like to change. Everyone shares what they’ve learned before coming back for a redesign. By repeating the process of engineering design, students learn how to optimize their landing pads and get a framework for creating future inventions of their choice.
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Ready, Set, Drone!
To bring engineering to life check out Discover: The World of Robotics, Physics and Engineering Webinar where our experienced hosts lead you on a deep dive into all things robotics, engineering, physics and more!
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Casper, T. & Fisher, M. (2019). Ready, Set, Drone! Second Edition Instructor Guide.
May, S. & Dunbar, B. (2018, January 30). Engineering Design Process. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/best/edp.html
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