Hands-on Activity Improving Your School’s COVID-19 Procedures Using the Engineering Design Process

Quick Look

Grade Level: 7 (6-8)

Time Required: 2 hours 30 minutes

(three 50-minute class periods)

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.00

Group Size: 3

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Data Analysis and Probability, Measurement, Problem Solving, Reasoning and Proof

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

A teacher wiping down desks in a classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A teacher wiping down a desk
Copyright © 2020 Amy A. Wilson-Lopez, Utah State University RET


This activity is meant to introduce students to the concept of industrial and safety engineering, using real-world COVID-19 prevention procedures (from their own school or researched online). Students consider cases where schools were forced to close due to outbreaks, then collect data and evaluate real-world procedures designed to prevent outbreaks. Their evaluation will lead students to determine how common processes are falling short and use that information to provide recommendations to their own school.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Safety engineers spend a good deal of time evaluating the efficacy and safety of the systems around them. In the business world, inefficiency can lead to wasted time and money. During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone relied on similar systems to stay safe from COVID-19. Students, perhaps more than anyone, adapted to new systems within their schools. This real-world event is a great opportunity to teach students how to utilize some of the skills industrial engineers use every day to manage efficiency and safety.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Evaluate COVID-19 safety procedures.
  • Read data from Excel charts.
  • Write a safety report.
  • Understand the cyclical nature of the engineering design process.
  • Explain how industrial engineers manage systems.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria.

Alignment agreement:

Analyze and interpret data to determine similarities and differences in findings.

Alignment agreement:

There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem.

Alignment agreement:

  • Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Students will develop an understanding of engineering design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs:

For the entire class:

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/usu-2577-improving-covid-procedures-school-engineering-design] to print or download.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should have some familiarity with how COVID-19 affected schools (from their own experience or from online readings/research). A basic understanding of how diseases spread is also necessary. Familiarity with reading charts will be helpful.


Let me set the stage: it’s the beginning of the school year, fall 2020. Millions of students across the U.S. have gone back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, but things haven’t gone back to normal. Even though schools are open, they’re instituting a wide range of preventive measures to keep students and their families from getting sick. Because school districts across the U.S. largely operate independently, virtually no two schools are using the same procedures.

With your health at stake, how can you be sure that your school’s safety procedures are working? Questions like this are answered every day by safety engineers (a type of industrial engineer), who review company processes to ensure that they’re as efficient and safe as possible. In this activity, you’ll:

  • Learn what U.S. schools are doing to combat COVID-19
  • Compare the procedures your school put in place
  • Research how effectively these procedures worked at your school
  • Evaluate your school’s overall system, and provide recommendations for how to improve it

(Once you’ve read this to students, you can bring up and begin to move through the PowerPoint Presentation.)



In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 (2019 Novel Coronavirus) a pandemic. COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. It can spread when people are in close contact with each other (less than 6 ft apart) through droplets of saliva, which occur when talking, coughing, sneezing, etc. Though most cases of COVID-19 result in mild symptoms like fever, some cases cause a loss of taste and smell and serious symptoms include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.

Many businesses and institutions closed or adapted during the initial months of the pandemic, including schools. To protect the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, many schools worldwide changed from teaching in-person to remote learning practices. As the pandemic continued into Fall 2020, many schools aimed to minimize impacts on K-12 education and reopen for in-person learning or hybrid models (a combination of in-person and remote learning) (Kolb, 2020). Since people were still at risk of getting or transmitting the virus, often school implemented safety procedures like maintaining social distance of 6 ft between individuals, increased handwashing, and wearing masks (WHO, 2020). As the pandemic continued, researchers, engineers, and doctors gained more knowledge about COVID-19 and safety procedures were refined.

Industrial engineers have played a key role in keeping schools, hospitals, and businesses safe. Engineers have developed models of the spread of COVID-19 and optimized manufacturing of personal protective equipment (https://news.psu.edu/story/621285/2020/05/26/research/industrial-engineering-department-pivots-address-covid-19). Other engineers helped hospitals make the best use of their space and resources https://www.raeng.org.uk/grants-prizes/prizes/prizes-and-medals/awards/presidents-special-awards-pandemic-service/application-industrial-engineering). In this activity, students act as engineers to examine COVID-19 procedures at their school (or from online research on similar schools) and optimize the safety practices.

With the Students

Day 1: Establish the Problem & Introduce Industrial Engineering as a Possible Solution

  1. Go through the PowerPoint Presentation that lays out how COVID-19 is spread, and how industrial engineers use the engineering design process as well as the industrial engineering triad to solve similar problems.
  2. Kids may already know that schools across the U.S. implemented COVID-19 measures and that sometimes they had to shut down anyway. However, they might not have details on what other schools did compared to their own. As a class, read the attached New York Times Article on COVID-related school openings and closures. Take breaks from the text to discuss important points and how they relate to what your school did.
  3. Once you’ve finished the article, have a class discussion using the Discussion Questions. You can opt to have students fill this in individually if you’d like. The idea is to get them thinking about their own school compared to others.

Note: If your class periods are shorter, you can elect to just read part of the article, or just go through the first few questions. This part of the unit is just meant to get kids on the same page in terms of how COVID is spread and how some school districts are handling it.

Day 2: Compare Data with Other Schools

  1. Show kids the measures that other schools are taking by providing them with the Real Schools Data Sheet. Ask students to fill in the blank “your school” column in small groups. Allow students access to the interview and their school’s website to research which measures their schools took if they are unsure.

Hand sanitizer and wall signage in a school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Examples of COVID-19 procedures at one high school
Copyright © 2020 Amy A. Wilson-Lopez, Utah State University RET

Note: Students should take about 20 minutes to do this, and should discuss the merits and drawbacks of the various measures.

  1. Evaluate the efficacy: Assign students (in small groups or in pairs) one of the measures from the data sheet that was practiced at your school (e.g. wash hands before lunch) and ask them to do an observation as homework to evaluate strengths and weaknesses in how it's being implemented. Each student should have a blank Observation T-Chart to fill in. (See Troubleshooting for suggestions if students can no longer observe COVID-19 procedures in person.)

Note: Take some time to review the Example Observation T-Chart as a class to clarify how their T-chart should look.

Day 3: Synthesizing Data

  1. Compare results in small groups: Ask students to compare the results of their observations with a small group, <5. Have them compile their results via Google Docs, Google Classroom, Canvas, or other system so they have access to each others' T-charts. As a group, decide on the most effective and least effective processes.
  2. Compare results with the whole group: Each small group will share the most and least effective measures they discussed with the class. Have a full-class discussion on how these procedures are working in practice, and what could be done to improve them.
  3. Remind students that having discussions like these is one way that safety engineers use the engineering design process to improve company processes to ensure that they’re as efficient and safe as possible. Have students reflect on how they used the engineering design process (they researched the problem in Day 1, gathered data and examined possible solutions in Day 2, and evaluated the solutions and discussed improvements in Day 3).

Homework: Individual Evaluation (Final Assessment)

Students complete a writing assignment (see Final Assessment) in which they will write a safety report, including: 

  1. Recommend ways for the school to utilize its best strategy in an even more effective way -- since it seems to be working, can it be expanded?
  2. Suggest a revision on the least effective strategy. Since there is room for it to fail, how could it be tightened up?
  3. Grade their school’s overall strategy and make big-picture comments.

They can complete the Final Assessment by discussing any of the Observation T-Charts filled out by the class. They should have ongoing access to all T-Charts so they can write about the procedure that most interests them.


cohort: A group of people banded together or treated as a group.

efficient: Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.

human error: When someone makes a mistake which causes an accident or causes something bad to happen.

procedures/processes: A series of actions conducted in a certain order or manner.

technology: Electronics, devices, or other items that are involved in the solution.


Pre-Activity Assessment

US Schools & COVID-19: Have students read the New York Times Article on COVID-related school openings and closures and follow the Discussion Questions to facilitate a class discussion about how COVID-19 impacts schools.

Activity Embedded (Formative) Assessment

Your School & COVID-19: Have students complete the Real Schools Data Sheet and Observation T-Chart to examine which COVID-19 procedures their school implemented and how well they were working. Check that students are conversing amongst themselves in their small groups and ask the Investigating Questions (as appropriate) to encourage discussion.  

Post-Activity (Summative) Assessment

Evaluate Your School: Students complete the Final Assessment to synthesize their findings and provide recommendations for how to improve COVID-19 procedures at their school.

Investigating Questions

  1. Why do you think every school has its own unique COVID-19 procedures? (Possible answers: each school has different needs based on how affected its location has been by the virus; some school have more students than others; etc.)
  2. What is the best way for schools to learn how effective their procedures are? (Possible answers: study and observe how their procedures are working; use the engineering design process, etc.)
  3. How could schools minimize “human error” in their procedures? (Possible answers: teach students/faculty/staff the procedures in a special online class or seminar; send out video examples of procedures; have signs reminding proper procedure, etc.)
  4. How is the engineering design process useful for improving COVID-19 systems? (Possible answer: the iterative nature of the design process provides guidance to study how the systems work with the goal of improving them)

(All opinion/warmup questions)

Safety Issues

  • If applicable, students must be sure to follow all social distancing and safety guidelines put in place by their school and recommended by the CDC when collecting observational data.

Troubleshooting Tips

This activity is meant to be flexible. Teachers should feel free to adjust things like group size depending on their classroom needs. Along these lines, if it works better for teachers to have students do observations individually, in pairs, or small groups, they should choose the method that works best for them. Ultimately this will not change the final assessment.

If observing COVID-19 procedures in-person is no longer viable, students can complete their T-chart based on prior experience or observation. Allow students to research different procedures online; they may find videos that demonstrate different procedures and imagine how effective each procedure might be in real life. (Possible sources: https://www.nasn.org/nasn/nasn-resources/practice-topics/covid19/nasn-return-to-school-video-series, https://hcoe.org/covid-19/videos/). Alternatively, an example T-chart is included. Teachers can have students use this as a starting point.

Activity Extensions

  • Have students refine their final essays and submit them to your school principal.
  • Have students create a campaign to raise awareness among their peers about the importance of adhering to procedures.

Activity Scaling

For Shorter Duration/Younger Students: Eliminate the New York Times Article and instead summarize its contents in the form of a discussion. Use the Discussion Questions as loose talking points.

For Differentiated Instruction: Eliminate the essay requirement and have students answer the same questions in the Final Assessment in a PowerPoint or video presentation. 


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Buckheit, Miranda. “Industrial Engineering Department Pivots to Address COVID-19.” Penn State News, https://news.psu.edu/story/621285/2020/05/26/research/industrial-engineering-department-pivots-address-covid-19. May 26, 2020,

Kolb, Liz. How COVID-19 Has Impacted K-12 Education. https://publicengagement.umich.edu/how-covid-19-has-impacted-k-12-education April 23, 2020.

Mervosh, Sarah & Hubler, Shawn. As the Coronavirus Comes to School, a Tough Choice: When to Close. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/us/school-closing-coronavirus.html. August 13, 2020.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities. The National Academies Press, 2020, doi:10.17226/25858.

“Rapid Application of Industrial Engineering Capabilities in Hospitals Helps to Address COVID-19.” Royal Academy of Engineering, 2020, https://www.raeng.org.uk/grants-prizes/prizes/prizes-and-medals/awards/presidents-special-awards-pandemic-service/application-industrial-engineering.

World Health Organization. Checklist to Support Schools Re-Opening and Preparation for COVID-19 Resurgences or Similar Public Health Crises. World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240017467. December 11, 2020.


© 2021 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2021 Utah State University


Christina M. Hartman; Amy A. Wilson-Lopez; Angela Minichiello; Theresa Green

Supporting Program

Learning from Engineers to Develop a Model of Disciplinary Literacy, College of Engineering, Utah State University


This material was developed based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. EEC 1664228—Learning from Engineers to Develop a Model of Disciplinary Literacy in the College of Engineering, Utah State University. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Last modified: May 28, 2021

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