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The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineering teams use to guide them as they solve problems. Anyone can do it! To determine how to build something (skyscraper, amusement park ride, bicycle, music player), engineers gather information and conduct research to understand the needs of the challenge to be addressed. Then they brainstorm many imaginative possible solutions. They select the most promising idea and embark upon a design that includes drawings, and analytical decisions on the materials and construction, manufacturing and fabrication technologies to use. They create and test many prototypes, making improvements until the product design is good enough to meet their needs.

Engineers design and build all types of structures, systems and products that are important in our everyday lives. The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineering teams use to guide them as they solve problems: Image depicting the engineering design cycle: Brainstorm, design, review, repeat

  • Understand the need: What is the problem? What do we want to accomplish? What are the project requirements? What are the limitations? Who is the customer? What is our goal? Gather information and conduct research - talking to people from many different backgrounds.
  • Brainstorm different designs: Imagine and brainstorm ideas. Be creative; build upon the wild and crazy ideas of others. Investigate existing technologies and methods to use. Explore, compare and analyze many possible solutions.
  • Select a design: Based on the needs identified, select the most promising idea.
  • Plan: Draw a diagram of your idea. How will it work? What environmental and cultural considerations will you evaluate? What materials and tools are needed? What analyses must you do? How will you test it to make sure it works?
  • Create: Assign team tasks. Build a prototype and test it against your design objectives. Push yourself for creativity, imagination and excellence in design. Does it work? Analyze and talk about what works, what doesn't and what could be improved.
  • Improve: Discuss how you could improve your product. Make revisions. Draw new designs. Iterate your design to make your product the best it can be.

Image depicting the design cycle via arrows pointing to each step: Brainstorm, Design, Analyze, Build, Test and repeat Engineers use their science and math knowledge to explore all possible options and compare many design ideas. This is called open-ended design because when you start to solve a problem, you don't know what the best solution will be to meet the requirements. The process is cyclical and may begin at, and return to, any step.

The use of prototypes, or early versions of the design (or a model or mock-up) helps move the design process forward by improving your team's understanding of the problem, identifying missing requirements, evaluating design objectives and product features, and getting feedback from others.

Engineers select the solution that best uses the available resources and best meets the project's requirements. They consider many factors before they implement a design: Cost to make and use, quality, reliability, environmental consideration, safety, functionality, ease of use, aesthetics, ethics, social and cultural impact, maintainability, testability, ease/cost of construction and manufacturability. They also consider sustainability - how the development, use and ultimate disposal of the product might impact people and our planet.

Using the engineering design process with your students
Image depicting the design cycle as approached from the classroom: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve and repeat Two key themes of the engineering design process are teamwork and design. Since students design in small groups, encourage them use the steps of the engineering design process. How will they work well together, listening to and respecting all ideas in the brainstorming session, reserving any judgment until a decision is made? Even then, make the decision-making process as democratic as possible, with all opinions being heard. Once a teamwork base is established, build upon that with a creative design . If a team of students is excited about their idea, they can come up with some fun methods for improving or extending the original idea. Reinforce with them that the end goal is a design solution that is a seamless blend of creativity and utility.

To start, look at the fourth-grade Introduction to Engineering unit. Through its six lessons and six activities on the topic of the Olympics, students learn about the basic principles behind engineering and the design process. For older students, conduct the Creative Engineering Design unit.

Alternative Versions of the Engineering Design Process

Other versions of the design process may have more or less steps than above, but the general outline is the same. Below are links to a few other versions of the design process for specific audiences.

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