Generating and Choosing Solutions – Easy Ways to Teach Engineering Design

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Generating solutions is the second part the engineering design process. Kids in third, fourth, and fifth grade research and brainstorm. Then they consider criteria and constraints to choose the best option.

When generating solutions in the engineering design process, kids in third, fourth, and fifth grade work on generating solutions through research and brainstorming.

Generating Solutions (and Choosing the Best One)

Once again, our favorite fourth grade teacher sat at the side table with her student teacher. “Okay,” she said, “let’s continue our plans for the engineering design process. Yesterday, we worked on the first step, defining a problem. Today we’ll talk about generating a solution.”

As she spoke, Ms. Sneed opened the Next Generation Science Standards. “Let’s take a look at the requirements for kids in third, fourth, and fifth grades.” She read the second standard aloud:

3-5-ETS1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

“So this is the brainstorming step?” Mr. Grow asked.

“Yes and no,” his mentor replied. “We’ll encourage also encourage our kids to conduct research. No need to recreate the wheel.”

Focus on Generating Solutions with an Engineering Design Story

Ms. Sneed shuffled through her papers and pulled out the next two pages of “Calvin Builds a Guinea Pig.”

“Ah, the story that introduces the engineering design process,” said Mr. Grow.

“Yep. Yesterday you read the first two pages. Go ahead and read the next two. We’ll use these to introduce generating solutions.”

When teaching kids about generating a solution, begin with a children's story. "Calvin Builds a Guinea Pig Cage" takes them through the entire engineering design process.
Are you feeling “Pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this post.

Once the student teacher had finished reading, he looked up. “In the story, Calvin first researches guinea pig cages. Then he does some brainstorming. To me, that seems backward.”

Ms. Sneed continued. ” Not necessarily. But you’re right. Sometimes kids (and real engineers) brainstorm first. This brings up an important point. Steps in the engineering design process are flexible. Sometimes it makes sense to do the steps in a different order. Other times some steps may be removed, or others added. That’s why I like students to understand the process – but not to memorize its exact sequence.”

Research

“Generating solutions can occur through research. At this grade level, I like to start simple.” Ms. Sneed picked up a pen. “I’ll draw a little flow chart as we discuss this.

“Like Calvin in the story, kids should first search the topic.

“Also like Calvin, they may need to refine their search. Therefore, we’ll include some instruction on that.

“Furthermore, Calvin toggled over to images. In my experience, looking at pictures is a thousand times better than reading text. You know what they say: ‘A picture paints a thousand words.’ This way, kids can analyze solutions at a glance.”

Ms. Sneed paused. “And that brings up an important point. Many times, kids want to choose only one solution. Then they’re stuck to it like glue. Instead, we need to encourage them to generate many possible solutions.”

When she was done, Ms. Sneed turned the flow chart toward Mr. Grow. That way, he clearly saw the progression.

search -> refine search -> toggle to images -> list possible solutions

“How long does this research phase take?” Mr. Grow asked.

“With fourth graders, not long at all. You’ll be surprised how quickly they can move through these steps. Seriously, some groups will only spend a few minutes – especially if they’re searching images. On the flip side, some may take quite a while.”

Mr. Grow scratched his head. “So they’re researching to generate a list of possible solutions?”

“Right.”

Brainstorming

“And the same is true for brainstorming. At this point, we want them generating solutions – lots of them. With that said, they need some guidance. Generally, I have students work in their science lab groups. But before we start, I go over these rules.” She pulled out a list and handed it to Mr. Grow.

  • Don’t judge. It’s too early to get rid of anything. Remember, crazy ideas may lead to the best solution.
  • Encourage wild ideas. They may seem ridiculous, but they may also lead to the best solution.
  • Piggyback on others’ ideas. As you think about other people’s ideas, you may come up with something even better.
  • Stay on topic. Keep focused on the problem. Don’t jump onto another topic or get distracted with side conversations.
  • Take turns. Got a great idea? Hold onto it until it’s your turn to talk. Don’t interrupt others.
  • Take notes. Have someone write it all down. You don’t want to forget that great idea!

“Now I realize why research works well before brainstorming,” he said. “After all, they can piggyback off of ideas they found on the Internet.”

“True,” said Ms. Sneed. “Actually, I sort of see it as a loop: research, brainstorm, research. And who’s to say which should come first? Generating solutions must be a flexible process.”

Using a Criterion Chart to Assess Solutions

Ms. Sneed pulled the standard up again. “Look at this wording one more time. After generating solutions, kids should compare them based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints. In my opinion, this must be done in an organized way.”

As she handed Mr. Grow another sheet of paper, she continued. “After kids read pages three and four of the story, they receive this criterion chart. As you can see, possible solutions are listed on the right-hand side. Additionally, criteria and constraints can be found across the top. The check marks indicate that a restriction has been met.”

“So kids just choose the one with the most check marks, right?”

“Not necessarily. It’s not cut and dried. The criterion chart only provides guidance. Actually, for a great solution, they may combine ideas. In any case, this worksheet gives them an opportunity to try it out.”

“Seems like it will generate a lot of discussion too,” Mr. Grow added.

After generating solutions, use a criterion chart for choosing the best one. Possible designs are listed down the side; criteria and constraints, along the top.

A Science Resource That Lets Kids Practice the Engineering Design Process

Ms. Sneed turned back to her laptop. After a bit of searching, she opened another file. “Kids’ second attempt at generating solutions occurs in this set of science activities. If you remember from yesterday, they focus on reducing the effects of natural disasters on humans.”

After scrolling through the lesson plans, Ms. Sneed stopped on a worksheet. “In this activity, kids work on a solution for a town at the foot of an active volcano. Their obvious problem is that they need to know when an eruption is likely.”

“No criterion chart?” Mr. Grow asked.

Ms. Sneed smiled. “Not in this activity. No research either. Remember, flexible processes. Instead, they’ll really focus on brainstorming.”

Before you jump into the entire engineering design process, ask kids to practice generating and choosing solutions. Here, they consider a situation about a town near a volcano.

Generating Solutions in the Engineering Design Process

“Finally,” Ms. Sneed said, “kids generate solutions as they employ the entire engineering design process.” She scrolled to a STEM challenge at the end of the file. “They are tasked with designing an earthquake-proof skyscraper. Instead of focusing on one component of the process, they do the entire thing.”

Generating and choosing solutions is the first step of the eIn the engineering design process, generating and choosing solutions comes before any testing. Here, students use a template to record steps for designing an earthquake-proof skyscraper.

Enjoy Teaching

“This is some serious fun,” Mr. Grow said. “When I decided to become a teacher, I envisioned lecturing or reading about science from a book. After all, that’s what my teachers did. But using hands-on investigations will let me enjoy teaching so much more. I can’t wait until our students are generating solutions through research and brainstorming!”

At that, a broad teacher smile spread across Ms. Sneed’s face. “Just wait,” she said. “Next, we’ll talk about how to develop a prototype. After that, kids will learn to conduct a fair test in engineering. Additionally, I’ll show you ten fun STEM challenges to use throughout the year.”

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