K-12 Learning by Engineering Design


The “E” in STEM is becoming a part of formal K-12 learning. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) include it at all grade levels, and many states and school districts have adopted NGSS-inspired standards that include engineering.

However. Few teachers or schools are prepared to teach engineering.

At Start Engineering, we want to help people make sense of engineering as a topic in K-12 teaching and learning.

Our approach builds on three key concepts associated with engineering: failure, design, and relevance. This post is part of a series meant to accomplish this goal. We don’t think this series will be the last place anyone goes to make engineering part of their classroom. We do think it can work well, though, as the first place.

“Failure, Design, and Relevance: An Approach to K-12 Engineering”

Design …

The engineering design process is a disciplined, repeatable method for getting from problem A to solution B. For an engineer, it is the go-to piece of intellectual technology, grafted onto her or his nervous system over the course of education in the field.

... Will set you free

Through brainstorming, modeling, testing, and improving, an engineer follows the design process through to a particular solution useful under particular circumstances for particular purposes. The solution is always one among many, chosen for its greater feasibility and effectiveness in comparison to others. And rarely the final solution, it is liable to be improved over time by others, as users accumulate experience with it, or perhaps even discarded in favor of a better one.

Baseball glove design has been subject to a high-volume, intensive testing and improvement regimen over the years.

Baseball glove design has been subject to a high-volume, intensive testing and improvement regimen over the years.

A full-brain workout

Going through the stages of the design process requires students to draw on many different ways of learning and thinking. They exercise imagination, communication skills, artistic or creative faculties, technical knowledge, and, not least, patience with failure. In their 2009 report, “Engineering in K-12 Education,” the National Academy of Engineering notes:

A landmark study in recent K-12 engineering research.

A landmark study in recent K-12 engineering research.

“Using the design process, engineers can integrate various skills and types of thinking – analytical and synthetic thinking; detailed understanding and holistic understanding; planning and building; and implicit, procedural knowledge and explicit, declarative knowledge.” (37)

The design process might be the most valuable lesson students take away from studying engineering. It represents, ultimately, a template for critical thinking, readily transferable to almost any other problem-solving challenge they are likely to face in school or work.

Okay, fine

But why should engineering be the vehicle for teaching the design process in a K-12 setting? None of the types of thinking noted above in the NAE menu represents specifically engineering content.

Three reasons:

  • NGSS – the guiding framework for science standards in 15 states, the District of Columbia, and scores of local districts across the country – is shot through with engineering. (Nov. 12 update: now 17 states, with Connecticut and Michigan joining the list.)
  • The Disciplinary Core Idea, “Engineering, Technology, and the Application of Science,” shapes 21 of the 61 sets of Next Gen learning standards.
  • All K-12 grade levels have a set of “engineering design” standards to work through.

Furthermore, larger political, economic, and technological imperatives are also creating ever-greater urgency around the kinds of skills that engineering inculcates. Nearly every list of top-10 paying majors for college graduates seems to be dominated by engineering-related fields.

But teaching technical engineering content to K-12 students, especially in the early years, is not viable. It takes, at a minimum, high school physics and algebra. So the design process has become the primary angle of approach for teaching engineering in K-12 classrooms.



What is the design process?

Educators in class or after school will find dozens of ready-to-use lessons to make engineering fun and accessible for students.

Educators in class or after school will find dozens of ready-to-use lessons to make engineering fun and accessible for students.

Our elementary school book, Dream, Invent, Create, has proven a winning introduction to engineering for both students and teachers. We’ve just published a Teacher’s Guide for the book, 170 pages of classroom-ready engineering lessons tied to the content of the book. The introduction walks teachers through the basic elements of the design process as well as how to use it in class.

The design process can take many forms. Following the Engineering is Elementary model, it can boil down to five steps:

  • Ask – What is the problem?
  • Imagine – How can you solve it?
  • Plan – How can you develop a solution?
  • Create – What does your solution look like?
  • Improve – How well does your solution work? Are there still problems; if so, what are they? And so on, back to the beginning.

The entire cycle promotes disciplined, deliberative thinking. Each successive question leverages prior decisions and lessons to scaffold up to a final, full solution. It also gives structure to classroom activities, a method for teachers to put to use the instructional skills they already have.


The keystone exercise in the design process is prototyping. Vital learning comes from building a model of a possible solution for testing in an environment that looks something like where actual use will occur.

Challenges and benefits of modeling

We’ve already discussed the virtues of failure in the course of testing an engineering solution. Modeling a solution offers similarly rich lessons, across an even greater variety of disciplines.

To start with, students must grapple with the concepts of structure and function. Structure and function - an NGSS “crosscutting concept,” as it happens - connote, most simply, how the parts of something are arranged and what that something does. The challenge lies in picturing these attributes of an object before you know exactly what that object looks like or how it will be made.

It requires abstract, spatial, and relational thinking, and the answers are many and open-ended. This is a high cognitive bar. There is no shortcut or peeking at the answer key.

And modeling is essential – you cannot put a prototype to use without a workable model.

How it works

Modeling can take all kinds of forms. It can involve anything from drawing to rudimentary structures made of common household items to clay and wood to computer-assisted design tools.

Building a model can involve materials as simple as magazine pages and tape.

Building a model can involve materials as simple as magazine pages and tape.

In any medium, though, developing a prototype for users or “clients” involves several core design skills: information gathering, generating ideas, assessing feasibility, grappling with constraints, and devising alternatives. Research shows that effective engineering design exercises can improve student performance in all these areas.

On to the prototype

After a thorough modeling exercise, students can then assemble a full prototype and deliver it into the hands of users for “real-world” testing. Companies have built thriving business models around doing and teaching prototypes, IDEO being perhaps the most prominent example.

Prototyping as cross-disciplinary learning

The operations surrounding the production and delivery of a prototype abound with connections to disciplines far afield from the STEM realm.

  • Making the prototype can be as artistic or mechanical a production process as students like, ranging from the fine arts to 3-D printing.
  • Presenting the prototype is a language arts exercise, using narrative and rhetoric; the “story” of the prototype should excite users as well as instruct them in how to put the prototype into action.
  • Gathering information from users about their experiences with the prototype is sociology, requiring interviewing skills and qualitative data analysis. Discerning emergent phenomena from a pile of survey results can be a mind-stretching activity.
  • And students will need to be anthropologists, too, observing users putting a prototype to its intended purpose. Because people often offer unreliable testimony to their own wants and activities, careful observation of what people actually do is a necessary complement to the direct interviews.
  • Recording and digesting the lessons learned from the prototyping exercise are exercises in reflection, both individual and group-based. Students must come to a consensus both on what they have learned as well as how to make use of their learning.

Integration to a fare-thee-well

The design process, as you can see, opens up pathways to an almost dizzying range of other areas: fine and mechanical arts, writing, public speaking, qualitative data gathering and analysis, behavioral science, and more. Teachers of, at a minimum, Art, Technology, English, and Social Studies would all recognize their subjects coming to the fore at some stage of a lesson in engineering design.

In the next post, we will consider relevance, a way to add Marketing, History, Philosophy, and more, to the fun.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering outreach books, Dream, Invent, Create, What’s Engineering?, and Start Engineering.

Photos: Design Wall, courtesy of Mission Bicycle Company, used by permission; children building a model, courtesy of NC State College of Engineering, The Engineering Place.