5 Steps for Teaching the Engineering Process

05 August 2017
        Coaching a competitive STEM team for five years has been like an ongoing professional development. I’ve failed so many times, and thankfully I have learned from those failures each year!
My first year coaching, my team consisted of over 40 K-2 students. For our end of year celebration, we created bottle rockets, and decided to invite their families, the administration, and the local news to the school so the students could showcase their rockets. It was going to be out of this world amazing That is until every single one of my students’ bottle rockets were created wrong. Every. Single. One. They all failed, and their coach - me, Sarah Barnett - taught them ALL how to do it.  
         I expected some tears (because that's what I wanted to do), but what I got was an incredible opportunity to learn from our my mistake teach the students about the Engineering Process.       The Engineering Process is much like the Writing Process. It should be taught and practiced by all students regardless of their age.  
We are training our students to think in a particular order so that GRIT becomes a habit.
         The Engineering Process does not come natural for students. It should be explicitly taught. Neglecting this process is what leads to tears, bad attitudes, and self-disappointment. By teaching this process to our students, we can help them understand that mistakes are opportunities to learn. Hello?! This is what life is all about! So what is the Engineering Process you ask? Below are the steps along with how they are similar to the writing process: 
1.      Ask (Prewriting): Just like Science Inquiry, it all begins with a single question; however, this is not the same thing. This “Ask Step,” indicates that the engineers should ask themselves what they know about the challenge they are trying to complete. Let’s say you have a hypothetical challenge like: “You must create a bridge that holds the most weight.“ Students should ask themselves, “What do I know about bridges? What about bridges that hold heavy stuff?” Then they would write their thoughts in their journal. This is supposed to be a quick brainstorming-like step. I typically spend about 5 10 minutes warming up with thoughts. You can do this as a think-pair-share with younger students to help support students who are struggling. 
2.     Imagine (Writing): In this step, students use their wildest dreams to think outside the box to try to solve a problem. Students can work individually or in teams to draw out several different ideas. Once they have several ideas (I try to keep it at three ideas), then they can choose which idea they would like to try. For younger kids, you can have them draw it out and circle their winning idea. 
3.    Plan (Revision): This is the most vital step because without a plan, your classroom will end up a mess and you will run out of supplies (trust me, I know from experience). In this step, I have my students draw and label their models. Then, they have to give me a complete list of materials that they would need, that is only if the materials were not preset. You can integrate math into this by placing a price tag on the materials, but you may already have math integrated into your STEM Challenge, so the choice is up to you. I think this step is the most important to teach to our students because we live in a society were we need instant gratification. Therefore, students are neglecting a plan because they are flying by the seat of their pants. This instills responsibility and creates a greater work ethic. 
4.     Create (Editing): Now this is the fun stage! The students get to engineer and create their STEM designs. If working in teams of three or more, I give the students Team Jobs. If they are working individually or with a partner, I don’t assign anything. Students capitalize on their speaking and listening skills during the “Create Stage”. They have to learn how to communicate during this process. For optimal STEM Teams, I recommend explicitly teaching listening and speaking strategies prior to STEM Challenges. I’ll save that for another post. 
5.    Improve: (Publishing): We’ve finally made it to the last step. This is the step that I didn’t know we were stuck in during our epic rocket launch. In this step, students will test their STEM Designs and record their data. I have my students test their design. For each time they test their designs, they record their data and write about what worked, what didn’t work, what they’d like to try next time, and what they hope the improvement will accomplish. They repeat this improve, record, and reflect stage three times. After the third improvement, they test it one more time to see if their improvements worked. After the students have completed their final test, I like to integrate some writing into their STEM Challenges by having them reflect in their Science Journals about what worked, what didn’t work, what they’d like to try next time, and any burning questions they still have about the STEM Challenge. 
     So there you have it! The Engineering Process is a process that should be honored and taught to all students of all ages. If there is anything that I have learned from being a STEM Coach, it is that ALL students of ALL ages, colors, abilities, and backgrounds can do STEM! By breaking the Engineering Process down for your students, you will help them all achieve!

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1 comment

  1. Great article!! So true, students must learn the process. If they just start out building without thinking about the process it usually ends up in a big mess!!