Stages of the Engineering Design Process -Teaching Fundamentals to Kids

Teaching stages of the engineering design process to kids? Don’t just jump into STEM activities. Instead, provide a clear learning progression. First, introduce each step clearly. Second, give them opportunities to practice. Finally, kids can apply what they’ve learned.

Ms. Sneed and Mr. Grow Discuss Steps of the Engineering Design Process

Our favorite fourth grade teacher sat at the side table with her student teacher. “Let’s review how to teach the stages of the engineering design process,” she said. “We’ve discussed how to address each step. Today, we’ll put it all together.

“But before we go any farther, I’d like to review the related Next Generation Science Standards:

3-5-ETS1-1.Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
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.
3-5-ETS1-3.Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

“As you know, our teaching will mirror these standards. Before we move on, will you review the process?”

Stages of the Engineering Design Process

Mr. Grow glanced at his lesson plans. “Okay. Basically, we’ve identified four stages of the engineering design process:

  1. Defining a problem – Basically, they state the issue. However, they also need to identify criteria, or what’s necessary for a successful solution. Additionally, they must name the constraints, or limitations.
  2. Generating and choosing solutions – This occurs through research and brainstorming. When they’re done, kids can use a criterion chart to choose the best solution.
  3. Developing and testing a prototype – Now they design a model. As they test it, they look for failure points.
  4. Conducting a fair test in engineering – Finally, it’s time to redesign. However, to conduct a fair test, they must only test one variable at a time.

“That’s it in a nutshell,” said Ms. Sneed. “It sounds like you’ve really mastered the stages of the engineering design process.”

Introduce the Process with a Children’s Story

“Now let’s talk about instruction,” Ms. Sneed continued. “We’ll begin with a children’s story, ‘Calvin Builds a Guinea Pig Cage.’ Basically, it tells the tale of a boy who’s using the stages of the engineering design process for the first time.”

Mr. Grow nodded. “Yes, I love the way this story runs parallel to what kids will do as they tackle the steps. Additionally, they’re asked to complete tasks that allow practice.”

When teaching stages of engineering design process, begin with this children's story. It teaches kids to define a problem with criteria and constraints, generate and choose solutions, design and test prototypes, redesign, and conduct a fair test.

Reinforce Stages and Vocabulary

Next, Ms. Sneed pulled out two additional pages. “Of course, these reference guides will reinforce it all.”

Suddenly, Mr. Grow frowned. “Wait. How many steps are in the engineering design process. In our lesson plans, we split it into four stages. But here, I see eight: define the problem, research, brainstorm possibilities, choose best solution, build a prototype, test and record data, identify failure points, redesign and conduct a fair test.”

Ms. Sneed smiled. “I understand your confusion. As a matter of fact, this is why I no longer teach the scientific method.”

Unfortunately, this caused her mentee to look even more confused.

“Let me explain. Fortunately, we have some really great processes to help us explore science and engineering. However, they must be used flexibly. After all, each situation is different.”

Now Mr. Grow sighed. “Okay, I see what you mean.”

“If you look at this flow chart, you’ll notice that it’s the same process. But it’s broken into smaller chunks. Some folks say there are four steps; and others say seven, or eight, or even twelve!”

Mr. Grow sat back in his chair. “I guess I’ll have to explain this to the students too.”

His mentor nodded and smiled. Her student teacher was truly getting it.

When teaching stages of engineering design process, provide a clear but flexible sequence. Also, make sure your students understand related vocabulary terms.

Practice Steps of the Engineering Design Process

Now Ms. Sneed opened her laptop. After clicking around a bit, she opened a set of science resources. “After we finish the story, our kids will need a little more practice. Therefore, as we discussed, we’ll use this set of scaffolded lessons. As the students explore ways to reduce impacts of earth processes on humans, they’ll also learn more about the steps of the engineering design process.

“For example, a situation about a farmer’s field will let them practice defining the problem with criteria and constraints. And another on monitoring volcanoes will encourage them to brainstorm solutions.”

“Practice makes perfect,” Mr. Grow commented.


Finally, Apply Stages of the Engineering Design Process

Ms. Sneed scrolled down in the file. “The culminating activity in this set asks kids to move through all the stages of the engineering design process.”

Use this two-page template to guide kids in building an earthquake-proof skyscraper.

Provide Multiple Challenges Throughout the School Year

“Additionally,” Ms. Sneed continued, “the engineering design process is integrated with our science activities. On top of that, I use ten more STEM challenges throughout the year. That way, kids have plenty of opportunities to practice – and have some fun!”

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