top of page

Too Much Stuff, Too Little Time, So Much Engineering!

Let’s apply the idea that Engineering is design under constraints to meet certain criteria. It’s the end of another school year and you had hoped to include some Engineering Design in your classroom but you never quite got there. Or maybe your students are distracted, tired, and running out of energy. End the year on a fun note that secretly sneaks some skills-based learning about Engineering into the mix.  Here are some ideas we use in our workshops. They are designed to help you introduce some key Engineering habits of mind to your students, while everyone has fun using the odds and ends leftover from a year of learning.

Before you start, make a somewhat organized collection of all the “leftover” goodies in your classroom. Please do not buy anything, but feel free to help other teachers in their year-end “cleaning by adding their stuff to your collection. The best design is often due to the need to get creative with limited resources.  Organize your materials in whatever way makes sense. We like the idea of categorizing materials into three types and we often travel with a bin for each of these groups:

Surface materials – sheets of paper, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, bubble wrap, plastic or paper bags, etc.

Structural items – straws, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, tooth picks, etc.

Fastening items – paper clips, string, tape, rubber bands, etc.

Next try some of these activities which are designed to focus on specific Engineering mindsets and skills. The descriptions are intentionally broad to help you modify for the grade level and ability of your students.

Empathy: Knowing your end-user

Engineering is all about solving the problems and challenges that people face. One of the key tenets of good Engineering is that you need to know who you are designing for. Interviewing that person can be one of the most effective forms of research and it always helps in terms of better defining a problem. Put students in pairs and have them follow the procedure below, using one of the following scenarios:

  1. Each partner shares information about an object or process that frequently “bugs” them.


  1. Each partner shares information about some “messy” food that they really like to eat.

The overall procedure goes something like this (modify as needed):

  1. Person A shares their information with Person B. B merely asks questions and makes notes, trying to get as much information about the problem as possible. (2-3 minutes)

  2. Reverse, and A now interviews B about their particular issue or favorite food. (2-3 minutes)

  3. Each person now has 2 minutes to quietly sketch a potential solution to their partner’s problem. If you have chosen the scenario in Case 2, instruct your “engineers” to think in terms of a utensil or some sort of serving ware.

  4. Give the students about 5 minutes to construct a model (prototype) of their solution to their friend’s problem. They should only be allowed to use the materials that you set aside. Scissors, tape, glue, markers are optional. The prototype does not have to


Prototype of “Shoes that Grow”

be totally functional; it just needs to help them explain what they envision as a possible solution.

  1. Engineers share what they identified as the problem and their potential solution with each other and with the whole class.

Sustainable Design: Creative Constraints and Upcycling

Often, we get creative and engineer because we must. If we never had to deal with constraints like money, time, and resources, we would not need to be very innovative.

Engineering has created enormous benefits in terms of the quality of our lives. But we have used an enormous amount of nonrenewable resources in the pursuit of advancing technology. Growing awareness of the lack of resources and the hidden energy and water costs in modern production methods has led to a great deal of innovation in terms

of ways to re-use items. Upcycling challenges designers to use discarded objects and materials to create something new and often more useful and/or valuable. It is a great way to bring sustainable design into our classroom. You can find lots of examples

Give small (3-4) groups of students different challenges and ask them to use what you have available to create a potential prototype. Stress that they are designing under constraints since the materials are limited to what is on hand. Your only criteria is that it meets the challenge that you have given them. (Be resourceful and check with other school personnel for any materials that they want to get rid of and create a fourth “Miscellaneous” bin.)

Here are some challenges that you might want to try:

  1. Design a container for plants

  2. Design a desk or drawer organizer

upcycled tennis balls

Tennis ball towel holders

  1. Design a toy

  2. Design any device that would help organize something in the classroom

  3. Design something that would be helpful in the cafeteria (classroom, car, home, etc.)

  4. Or simply design something that has more value or purpose than the original materials.

Finish your upcycling challenge with a gallery walk to share the amazing new designs. Better yet, share them with another calls or teacher!

It’s All Connected: Systems Thinking, Processes, and Communication

We live in a highly connected world. Good engineers know that a solution to one problem can create additional problems. They also know that even a simple design could have complex factors associated with it.  Systems thinking is becoming more and more

important as we work to engineer sustainably with maximum positive impact and fewer negative consequences. The teachers that we work with love this video about

Cats in Borneo. It is a great introduction for your students. We also find that students are drawn to the idea of Appropriate Technology, which is often referred to as “technology as if people mattered”. It is often a small-scale, locally resourced approach that focuses on creating the most positive good with the least negative impact.

To encourage systems thinking, try one of the following activities. You can have students try the Draw Toast activity, which focuses on a communicating a process. Debriefing by sharing drawings and watching Tom Wujec’s TED Talk is a great learning experience.

Or you can combine some of the ideas of upcycling and systems modeling and communicating by asking students to create pictorial instructions for how to make their unique new creation.  A great follow-up to that is to have them trade with another group to learn how well they communicated the assembly of the system.

We hope that you will try some of these activities as the year wraps up. If you don’t have time now, plan to try some as the new school year starts; they are great team-building exercises. They are designed to get your students to think a bit differently. Hopefully, they will begin to understand some of the creative approaches that engineers take in designed our built world. And please check back here over the summer since we will explore each of the above ideas in more detail and give you some subject-specific connections that you can make as work to include more Engineering Design in your classroom.


Recent Posts

See All

Reaching the Finish Line

March 2020 was different - all teachers unexpectedly became first-year teachers

It Starts with Teachers

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”


bottom of page