Helping Students and Teachers Embrace Engineering

Drones. Autonomous cars. Robots. Apps that monitor and improve our lives. Engineering is advancing at a staggering speed and changing the way we think, work, communicate and interact. To keep pace with the changing speed of technology, teachers and students need to embrace engineering.

The release of the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013 represents a shift in science education to include engineering from kindergarten through 12th grade. The engineering design is serving as a useful factor in helping students and teachers embrace engineering.

It is a process in which students learn by attempting to solve a problem. If they fail, they take what they learned and try again. This requires them to take intellectual and creative risks, which can seem scary at first.

Teachers, too, can experience anxiety and lack confidence. It can be a daunting task for teachers to develop an engineering curriculum for the classroom due to time constraints, limited access to resources, and a lack of knowledge about the benefits and potential success in the classroom. It seems like a lot of planning to successfully implement an engineering design project, which is not essential to science, math, or technology instruction.

They also face obstacles in terms of quality, when implementing engineering design challenges. A quality design challenge has clear criteria for success, can be solved in more than one way, and is not easily solved on the first attempt.

Another challenge to incorporate engineering into the classroom is the teacher’s and student’s misconceptions about engineering. Although the name can be misleading, the engineering design process does not necessarily have anything to do with engineering.

What is Engineering Design?

Engineering design is a process in which students learn to solve problems from a series of steps. The design process is iterative, meaning that they need to repeat the steps as many times as needed before moving to the next one, making improvements along the way as they learn from failure and uncover new design possibilities to arrive at great solutions.

The engineering design process emphasizes open-ended problem-solving and encourages students to learn from failure. This process nurtures students’ abilities to create innovative solutions to challenges in any subject.

As engineering design is different from other subjects, it requires teachers and students to think differently. Although engineering design is similar to scientific inquiry, there are significant differences.

For example, scientific inquiry involves the formulation of a question that can be answered through an investigation through the scientific method, while engineering design involves the formulation of a problem that can be solved through a creativity-based design process. Because engineers and scientists have different objectives, they follow different processes in their work. A scientist asks a question and develops an experiment, or set of experiments based on observations and data, to answer that question. On the other hand, an engineer identifies a specific need and then creates a solution that meets the need. There may be many paths to an engineering solution — and there may be more than one solution.

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Understanding The Engineering Design Process

Although the name can be misleading, the engineering design process isn’t strictly dedicated to engineering or building something. In fact, there is actually a lot more to it. For that reason, it’s helpful to ensure that teachers and students understand the engineering design process.

Engineering Practices Framework

The National Research Council (NRC) highlights eight engineering practices that are crucial to the modern vision of science education:

  1. Ask Questions and Define Problems
  2. Develop and Use Models
  3. Plan and Carry Out Investigations
  4. Analyze and Interpret Data
  5. Use Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  6. Construct Explanations and Design Solutions
  7. Engage in Argument from Evidence
  8. Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information
Eight Engineering Practices
  Image Source: LCMS

1. Ask Questions and Define Problems

Students might ask questions that lead to descriptions and explanations of how the natural and designed world works and which can be empirically tested using evidence. Criteria and constraints are also identified.

2. Develop and Use Models

Students use their materials to construct models as helpful tools for representing ideas and explanations. These tools include diagrams, drawings, physical replicas, mathematical representations, analogies, and computer simulations.

3. Plan and Carry Out Investigations

Students plan and carry out investigations to gather data (observations or measurements) about how well their design works using appropriate tools and methods. They identify and analyze experimental variables, controls, and investigational methods (e.g., how many trials to do).

4. Analyze and Interpret Data

Students analyze and interpret data produced during investigations to determine patterns and relationships. Because data patterns and trends are not always obvious, they use a range of tools such as tables, graphs and other visualization techniques to reveal the significant features and patterns in the data. They also consider the limitations of data analysis such as sources of error.

5. Use Mathematics and Computational Thinking

Students describe, measure, compare, and estimate quantities (e.g., weight, volume) using mathematical concepts (e.g., ratios) to answer scientific questions. They organize data in graphs or charts and use digital tools to accomplish these goals when appropriate.

6. Construct Explanations and Design Solutions

Students use evidence (e.g., measurements, and observations) to construct or support an explanation for a natural phenomenon. They consider the qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables to explain a phenomenon.

7. Engage in Argument from Evidence

Students engage in debates to evaluate and critique competing arguments from peers and other sources by citing relevant evidence and providing scientific questions.

8. Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information

Students communicate clearly and persuasively the ideas and methods they generate. Critiquing and communicating ideas individually and in groups is a critical professional activity.

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Build a Classroom Into a Makerspace

A makerspace is a place where students can gather to create, tinker, explore, build, innovate, and collaborate around the “making” of something. In a makerspace, students develop skills that help them be successful in college and careers, even if those careers have nothing to do with engineering or STEM.

Makerspaces provide teachers with an effective, hands-on way to integrate engineering into the classroom. For example, teachers can teach engineering design principles using the DIVE (Deconstruct, Imitate, Vary, and Explore) method, which is used by real-world engineers, to encourage students to think like an engineer.

Using DIVE, students:

  • Take apart and examine a working prototype (Deconstruct)
  • Reverse engineer and make their own version (Imitate)
  • Analyze what they created and brainstorm ways to make it different (Vary)
  • Solve the original problem in a new way or apply their solution to a new problem (Explore)

These experiences provide students with real-world learning experiences, and inquiry-based educational experiences that encourage exploration and inspire ingenuity.

Need For a Positive Environment?

Children learn best when they feel safe; in fact, an unsafe classroom environment is not all that conducive to learning. A safe classroom environment is one where learners feel physically, emotionally, and socially comfortable. Teachers must establish a safe classroom environment so the students feel comfortable taking risks and engaging in the learning experience.

The following contribute in creating a positive, productive environment for learning to engineer:

  • The engineering design project should have an academic focus
  • The learning goals must be defined
  • A positive relationship between the teacher and students and among students in the class
  • There must be defined roles and responsibilities for students
  • The roles and responsibilities must help each student contribute to and feel ownership in the engineering design process
  • The procedures ensure cooperative learning, group work, and argumentation

How can engineering students be motivated?

Engineering is a challenging yet rewarding field.  However,  maintaining motivation throughout an engineering degree program can be difficult. Here are some strategies that educators and students themselves can employ to keep the spark of enthusiasm burning bright:

Connecting Theory to Practice:  Engineering concepts can appear abstract for students. Integrating real-world examples, case studies, and hands-on projects into the curriculum can bridge the gap between theory and practice. This allows students to see the practical applications of their learning, making it more relevant and engaging.

Fostering a Collaborative Environment:  Engineering is a collaborative field.  Encouraging teamwork on projects, group discussions, and peer learning can foster a sense of community and shared purpose among students. Working together allows them to learn from each other, develop communication skills, and gain valuable teamwork experience.

Highlighting the Impact:  Engineering solutions are vital in solving global challenges and improving lives.  Connecting course content to real-world problems like clean energy, sustainable development, or healthcare advancements can inspire students.  Understanding their future careers’ positive impact can be a powerful motivator.

Promoting Growth Mindset:  Engineering involves tackling complex problems and overcoming challenges. Encouraging a growth mindset, where students see their intelligence and abilities as malleable through effort and learning, can be beneficial. This fosters resilience and perseverance in the face of academic difficulties, a vital trait for future engineers.

Offering Support and Recognition: The journey through an engineering degree is demanding. Providing students access to academic support services, mentorship programs, and recognition opportunities for their achievements can boost their confidence and motivation.

By implementing these strategies, educators can create a dynamic and empowering learning environment for engineering students. Students can actively seek opportunities to connect with mentors, participate in hands-on projects, and explore the real-world applications of engineering concepts.

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In a nutshell, the engineering design process is a way to define and solve tough challenges. It focuses heavily on rapid prototype solutions and learning from mistakes. It provides real-world problem-solving experiences and is beneficial in helping teachers and students embrace engineering.

Engineering design is an important component of our society. But its benefits extend beyond the creation of useful things. Engineering design is also a thinking tool, and as such it offers several benefits to children. Introducing kids from an early age to an engineering design frame of the mind prepares them to embrace a career in a STEM field. And even if they decide to pursue a career in another area, the thinking skills they can acquire through engineering design will still be useful.


Licensed Professional Engineer in Texas (PE), Florida (PE) and Ontario (P. Eng) with consulting experience in design, commissioning and plant engineering for clients in Energy, Mining and Infrastructure.