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1, 2, 3 Engineer!

(This is Part 1 of a three part series focused on using the Engineering Design Process to support a culture of creative problem-solving in your classroom)

At ProjectEngin, we have long held the belief that sustainable professional development starts with a focus on culture in both the classroom and school. Our initial contact with educators often involves whole school or district groups covering diverse grade levels, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. We always begin by stressing and illustrating through hands-on activities that Engineering Design highlights creative problem-solving in all disciplines. Our message in all of these workshops is that by highlighting key parts of the Engineering Design Process educators can focus on curricular concepts while following a skills-based framework.

In this three part series, we will share some of our workshop approaches by highlighting what we consider to be the three main stages of the Engineering Design Process. One of our mantras is that the word “process” really is the key to connected and impactful learning. Following the Engineering Design Process enables educators to highlight specific skills, to make clear connections to curricular content, and to focus on the journey and not just the destination or final product. We are committed to the idea that Engineering Design is a natural process that should be easy for teachers to implement.  In this article and the two blog entries that will follow, we offer a model to help you create a culture of creative problem-solving in your classroom.

Our goal is always to make things manageable and to enable teachers to build on the practices that they already employ. We can all relate to what we consider the three main phases of Engineering Design:

  1. Know your problem or challenge.

  2. Know your options

  3. Develop a solution

PART 1 Let’s begin at the beginning by considering Phase 1 – Know your problem or challenge.

We think of this as mapping out your design space. It is what makes solving a problem or meeting a solution different from simply “making” something.

This first step is simple but often neglected or minimized. We all know that you cannot solve a problem or meet a challenge if you don’t really know what it is.  (Please note – we often use the word “challenge” instead of “problem” when working with students. It seems to lessen the tendency to go straight to solution.)

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) focuses on three ideas when discussing the need to clearly define a problem. We think they are all key steps in getting your projects off to a solid start.

  1. State the challenge (problem) clearly. For example, the challenge of getting to work on time can stem from a failure to get up early enough, traffic issues, or underestimating time needed for other tasks. It helps to know what the issue really is before developing a solution. If you hit “Snooze” an infinite amount of times no matter what, you would already be behind schedule even if you were driving the sole vehicle on the road. Addressing the wrong issue by developing a different way to commute may not be the best answer. Make sure that you and your students have a clear understanding of what the core problem or challenge is. Ask questions, look for cause and effect relationships, and identify impacts.

Quotefancy Einstein problem
  1. Determine what the constraints are. The next step in knowing your problem is to understand what constraints or limitations impact the current situation and the possible solutions. Think of constraints as positive motivation. If we didn’t have to deal with limitations such as time, money, and resources, innovation would rarely occur. Constraints will generally be common issues that all groups will face as they design. Some constraints derive from the science that relates to a project, so this stage is a natural point for making connections to curricular concepts. Do not give students an unconstrained challenge but be careful of having too many constraints since that can limit creativity. Brandon Rodriguez has a great TEDEd lesson about The Power of Creative Constraints that can help you and your students see the value in having some constraints.

  2. Determine the criteria for a successful solution. While constraints may be the same across all groups developing a solution to a challenge, criteria are most likely different. Criteria are the goals that a group defines as being the hallmarks of a successful solution. Criteria form each group’s identity and should also reflect an understanding of the needs of the targeted end-user. Think of the many different car models available. In order to function, be safe, and appeal economically to the average consumer, they all are designed within many of the same constraints. The differences in body styles, special packages, and interior details are all designed to address the criteria that matter to specific users while reflecting the brand image of each particular company.

Keep in mind that when student groups create criteria they are developing a      “rubric” for a successful design. They should be able to indicate how a solution meets their most important criteria and how it was impacted by the given constraints.

Think of this initial process of knowing your problem as defining the space for launching the challenge. By identifying constraints and criteria, you create a situation that moves beyond making or simply “doing a project”. A critical key to successfully managing students’ Engineering Design projects is to continually bring their focus back to these early definitions. Criteria and constraints should provide a litmus test for design decisions, helping to foster critical thinking and analysis. And they should be present in all phases of the process, not just in the initial planning.


A well thought-out start will go a long way toward developing a solution and it will aid in keeping the focus on process.  Don’t skip this step. In its absence, student work will quickly become making for the sake of making and you will lose a valuable opportunity to foster mastery of concepts through application.

Coming in Part 2 – Navigating the design space to consider multiple options.


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