Hands-on Activity: Problem Solve Your School

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

The Engineering Design Process.
Students apply the Engineering Design Process to problem solve their school
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/55/Engineering_design_process.svg/353px-Engineering_design_process.svg.png


Students apply what they have learned about the engineering design process to a real-life problem that affects them and/or their school. They choose a problem as a group, and then follow the engineering design process to come up with and test their design solution. This activity teaches students how to use the engineering design process while improving something in the school environment that matters to them. By performing each step of the design process, students can experience what it is like to be an engineer.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers use the engineering design process to find creative solutions to a wide range of challenges. In addition to designing consumer products, the process is also used to design solutions to infrastructure and systems that benefit society: How do we remove dirty water from homes and make it into clean water? How do we manage the resources of a river to supply everyone's' needs without destroying the natural environment? How can we efficiently and responsibly produce energy and deliver it as electricity to where people need it? How can we design a factory to optimally produce a specific product? How should we lay out the streets and traffic routes to provide access, efficiency and safety?

Pre-Req Knowledge

A basic understanding of the steps of the engineering design process and brainstorming, as described in the Engineering Design Process unit, Time to Design lesson.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain the important steps of the engineering design process.
  • Relate how engineering incorporates this design process in many applications.
  • Apply the engineering design process to multiple design challenges in their school setting.

More Curriculum Like This

Time for Design

Students are introduced to the engineering design process, focusing on the concept of brainstorming design alternatives. They learn that engineering is about designing creative ways to improve existing artifacts, technologies or processes, or developing new inventions that benefit society.

Elementary Lesson
Designing Medical Devices for the Ear

Students are introduced to engineering, specifically to biomedical engineering and the engineering design process, through a short lecture and an associated hands-on activity in which they design their own medical devices for retrieving foreign bodies from the ear canal. Through the lesson, they lea...

The Strongest Pump of All: Electrical Heart Functions

Students learn how the heart functions. They are introduced to the concept of action potential generation, which causes the electrical current that triggers muscle contraction in the heart.

Simple Machines and Modern Day Engineering Analogies

Students apply the mechanical advantages and problem-solving capabilities of six types of simple machines (wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw, pulley) as they discuss modern structures in the spirit of the engineers and builders of the great pyramids.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • 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. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The engineering design process involves defining a problem, generating ideas, selecting a solution, testing the solution(s), making the item, evaluating it, and presenting the results. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify and collect information about everyday problems that can be solved by technology, and generate ideas and requirements for solving a problem. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each student needs:


After you woke up this morning, did any of you experience something that just didn't go right? Maybe you hit snooze on the alarm clock too many times, or you couldn't find your glasses, or you spent too much time picking out something to wear. Did you think about what could be done next time if it were to happen again?

Who remembers the steps of the engineering design process? Remember that the process starts with stating a problem or recognizing a need. This step is important to help us get started thinking of creative solutions or designs to help address our problem. Sometimes a real-world challenge is given to engineers to solve, but other times, an engineer must think, "Is there a problem here?" or, "How can this thing or process be improved?" Sometimes engineers come up with exciting new ideas for a problem by thinking, "Wouldn't it be neat if...?" In other words, engineers might have to come up with a problem themselves. Today, we will identify a problem around our school or in our classroom — maybe the long lunch lines, or your hand hurting from taking a lot of notes. And, then we will use the engineering design process to think of some possible solutions for it.

In the engineering design process, we first define our problem statement. The next step is to come up with many potential design solutions by brainstorming. Then, we pick one of these designs by voting on which is the best one. Next, we explain the design to make sure everyone understands it, and we might even present our idea to the principal if we need permission to try it out. After that, we will test the design to make sure it works. Finally, we will review and decide if it is in fact the best solution or if we should iterate our design and start over again based on what we learned from our first design. Let's get started!


Brainstorming: Thinking of ideas as a group.

Engineer: A person who applies her/his understanding of science and mathematics to creating things for the benefit of society.

Engineering: Creating new things for the benefit of society.

Engineering Design Process: A structured way to help engineers come up with the best design to solve a specific problem.

Iteration: Doing something again, like starting over with the design process.


Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Perform the pre-activity assessment activities as described in the Assessment section.
  2. Pass out the Problem Solve Your School Worksheet for students to follow along with the activity.
  3. Problem: As a class, come up with a problem statement. Use brainstorming to help in this problem definition step. Make a list of several problems within the school or classroom. Remind students that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position, encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have students raise their hands to respond. Write their ideas on the board. Omit any ideas that may have limiting factors, such as high cost or safety. Take a class vote to decide which problem to try to solve. Change the problem issue into a problem statement by talking with the class, and write the agreed-upon problem statement on the board.

Suggestions: Make it a short, carefully thought-out sentence explaining the problem in a way that is open to multiple solutions. For example, instead of: "Insulate my lunch bag," a more general statement might be: "Keep my lunch cold until lunchtime."

Examples: Getting to school on time, long lunch lines, crowded halls after assemblies, backpack does not fit in your locker or coat closet, you cannot sit next to all of your friends at lunch because the tables are long and narrow, your pencil eraser always runs out, no running at school when you are late to a class, your hand hurts when you have to take notes for a long time, something in the classroom is too high to reach, the classroom is too hot or too cold, etc.

  1. Brainstorming: As a class, brainstorm different design solutions to the problem, keeping the available materials in mind.

Suggestions: Write all ideas on the board. Encourage wild ideas and building off of each others' ideas. Remind students that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position. Have them raise their hands to respond.

Examples: For a "keeping my lunch cold" problem, students might suggest adapting an idea from somewhere else, such as other products that use insulation. To help them generate ideas, ask them to think of other possible uses for an insulated bag, which might trigger different ideas. Or, is there something we can eliminate that might be transferring heat? Can we rearrange anything? They may come up with ideas, such as: wrapping each lunch item with aluminum foil so as to not leave any item exposed, or lining the lunch bag/box with bubble wrap.

  1. Pick one: Take a vote for the best design solution. Example: Wrapping each lunch item with aluminum foil.
  2. Explain: Write the chosen design on the board. Explain the plan again to make it clear to everyone or have several students take turns explaining the plan to the class. Example: We will insulate our lunch by wrapping each food item with aluminum foil.
  3. Test: Obtain the necessary materials and test the design to see if it works. Have students teams test similar designs to find the best solution or test one design as an entire class. This step may have to be done the next day, depending on the problem chosen and the materials needed to test the design. Example: Test several identical lunches, taking temperatures in the morning and then at lunchtime. Change one factor for each test lunch: the amount of foil used. Use one layer of foil on one lunch, two layers on another lunch, and three layers on another lunch. With a fourth lunch, fill all empty space in the bag/box with crumpled foil balls.
  4. Review: Does it work? If not, brainstorm as a class and figure out why it is not working, or try one of the other ideas. If it works, the class solved the problem! Ask students if they can think of ways to make the design work even better. Example: Were the lunches at least as cold as necessary? If not, what did we learn that could help us with a better design? If so, which lunch lost the least heat? Was using a lot of foil worth the extra insulation, or would this method be a waste of money?
  5. Conclude by conducting the post-activity assessment described in the Assessment section.


Safety Issues

  • Safety issues depend on the class problem and chosen solution.

Troubleshooting Tips

If the solution does not work, guide the class as to why it does not work and what might make it work. If the class still cannot get a solution that works, explain that some problems are too complicated to find solutions for in a short amount of time, but engineers keep iterating until they find a good design solution. Then, try a less complicated problem with a surefire solution, to cultivate the students' confidence in the helpfulness of a structured design process.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses. Ask the students:

  • What is good or works well in our school or classroom?
  • In what ways could we improve our school or classroom?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have students follow along with the activity on the Problem Solve Your School Worksheet; review their answers to gauge their mastery of the subject.

Post-Activity Assessment

Informal Discussion: Today we used the engineering design process the way that an engineer would. Engineers sometimes improve the design of existing products or systems. Other times, they design new inventions to help a person do something that has never been done before. Ask the students to come up with problem statements by asking themselves:

  • How can this be improved? (Possible answers: Make [a product] stronger, lighter, less expensive, last longer, more dependable, not wear out as quickly, recyclable, etc.)
  • Wouldn't it be neat if...? (Possible answers: Medical doctors could see what is going on inside of a body without harming the patient, we could take photographs using a more lightweight and inexpensive device, there was enough water in the river at the end of the summer, the lights automatically turn off when you leave a room, or people could travel to or live on other planets.)

Journal Reflection: Ask students to write a paragraph, in their journal or on a sheet of paper, to explain how engineers use the engineering design process to create new inventions that help people do something they have never done before. For extra credit, have students document in their journals a drawing and description of an engineering idea or invention of their own creation.

Class Engineering Presentation: Have the class present their engineering design to another class or the rest of the school with a poster or short skit.

Activity Extensions

Assign students homework to think of a problem at home to which they can apply the design process to find a creative solution.

Ask the students for ideas on how they might re-engineer (iterate!) and improve their design. Have them sketch or test their ideas.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, be sure to choose a problem statement for which it is relatively easy to find a solution. Choosing a problem that is too hard may decrease the students' confidence in their engineering, problem-solving abilities.
  • For upper grades, divide the class into engineering teams of 2-4 students each. As a class, agree upon a problem statement. Then, have each group complete the remaining engineering design process steps independently. For the "Explain" step in the Procedure section, have each team present their design solution to the entire class. Provide class critiques. Decide the best solution, or some combination solution.


Abarca, J., Bedard, A.J., Carlson, D.W., Carlson, L.E., Hertzberg, J., Louie, B., Milford, J., Reitsma, R.F., Schwartz, T.L. and Sullivan, J.F. (2000) "Introductory Engineering Design: A Projects-Based Approach," Third Edition, Textbook for GEEN 1400: First-Year Engineering Projects and GEEN 3400: Innovation and Invention, Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado at Boulder. http://itll.colorado.edu/index.php/courses_workshops/geen_1400/resources/textbook/


Megan Podlogar; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson; Jackie Sullivan


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of these digital library curricula were developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: June 21, 2018