Exploring the Engineering Design Process for Kids

ALI Staff | Published  March 15, 2024

Introducing the Engineering Design Process for kids can sound like an intimidating concept.

As with any other framework applied to education, it’s less important to follow its steps to the letter and more important to adapt the process to your students’ needs.

In young learners, it’s a way to nurture problem-solving skills and tap into their innate curiosity about the world around them.

In your older students, it can break down complex challenges into more manageable steps and empower them to think like engineers, even innovators.

This is true project-based learning.

Let’s dive into what the Engineering Design Process looks like and how you can adapt it to your classroom as another way to engage students.


Student Windmill Project


What is the Engineering Design Process?

The Engineering Design Process is a way to solve real-world problems using engineering solutions.

There is no one solution using this method, but the potential to solve given problems in a variety of ways.

Any failures along the way aren’t seen as a problem. They’re used to inform the process.

In the classroom, it can be used to apply engineering and design concepts in content areas like science and math. That makes it a natural fit for STEM-related topics that emphasize creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.

Just like in the engineering world, any failures become a teaching tool and a time for students to reflect, improve, and try again.


The Steps of the Engineering Design Process

There are seven engineering design process steps that can be applied to classroom experiments and projects. Use these as a framework.

Students can repeat steps as needed to allow for improvements and linger in one area longer than the others.

The basic steps of the Engineering Design Process include:

  1. Ask. Define the problem and identify any challenges to be addressed. With older students, this can include looking at obstacles to not only a successful experiment but getting to a successful conclusion.

  2. Research. Look at what’s been done before to solve the given problem and note what worked or what didn’t. Use both books and tech tools to gather information. Consider involving experts in the field, if possible, either in-person or virtually.

  3. Imagine. Start the brainstorming process based on available research. This is where the teacher becomes a facilitator for student ideas. Keep students on the topic at hand but encourage all ideas and possible solutions.

  4. Plan. This is the moment in the engineering process where students prioritize the best ideas. Tap into the strengths of visual learners and have them lead designs of possible solutions. Note any tools, equipment, or materials needed to make designs happen.

  5. Create. Students put their engineering skills to the test and create models of their designs. This doesn’t have to be the finished product. If it’s obvious a design doesn’t work at the building phase, prompt students to step back and look at a new plan.

  6. Test. Does the model get students to a successful solution to their initial problem, even with different variables introduced? Student work together here to collect data on the success of what they’ve built and note any potential for improvements.

  7. Improve. It’s possible the project is done after the previous step, but it’s more likely that some improvements can be made for an even better solution. This may not even mean a complete redesign. Emphasize that small tweaks can make a big difference. 

Teaching this process to students starts with an understanding of where your students are in their development.

The emphasis should be on creating ways to engage them in the engineering process and make concepts more accessible rather than following each step exactly as written.


Teaching the Engineering Design Process for Kids

Looking at those steps can feel overwhelming if you’re new to scientific design concepts.

Just like the design process itself, you can (and should!) tweak those steps to meet the needs of your students.

Hands-on activities and age-appropriate challenges apply for all grade levels.

For younger students, introduce simplified problems that have clear objectives or use wonderings that have come up in the classroom before.

Students are naturally curious. They likely already have “problems” in mind that could be used as an introduction to this process.

Prep students ahead of time with more explicit instruction around what brainstorming can look like, and play with building prototypes that already come with materials.

Lead your students through simple science experiments and give them time for play-based learning, asking why, and even messy play.

As students get older, introduce increasingly complex challenges. Allow students to lead on the research and design parts of the process and provide guidance where it’s needed.

The process can still be just as playful, but students should be encouraged to persevere through challenges.

Tap into social-emotional learning, too.

Beyond the critical thinking piece, students should have dedicated time to collaborate and reflect. Provide guidance around resolving conflicts and coming up with compromises.

Regardless of the grade level, teachers should scaffold instruction and provide support tailored to each student's developmental level. With the right supports, the process should be accessible to all students.


How does the Engineering Design Process Impact Learning?

By teaching the Engineering Design Process and giving students the room to create and work with concepts in a hands-on way, students become more engaged learners.

Along the way, they develop problem-solving skills and gain practical experience in solving real-world challenges.

On a social-emotional level, the process forces perseverance in a way that isn’t intimidating to students.

They have to work together to come up with solutions, which can mean compromise and a higher level of communication. They can become more confident learners as they work to get to the reward of process-based solutions together.

It’s also fun!

It doesn’t just enhance their understanding of engineering concepts, although that’s certainly a benefit.

It shows students that the classroom can be a safe place to make mistakes, as that’s how they can make improvements to their projects. 


The Engineering Design Process and Your Classroom

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to introduce these concepts to your students. You can empower your learners to tackle complex problems with confidence by using the tools you already have.

Tap into technology where possible to supplements students’ thinking and support their research.

The most important piece is developing a passion for hands-on learning in students.

The Engineering Design Process is one way to spark curiosity, inspire innovation, and prepare students for what’s next.



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