Curricular Unit: Elementary School Engineering Design Field Day

Contributed by: RESOURCE GK-12 Program, College of Engineering, University of California Davis

A photograph shows a group of 20+ students in matching purple T-shirts posed in a group outside a school on an award stage; they are competition participants from the winning school.
Engineering Field Day competitors pose with their medals.
Copyright © 2016 Denise Jabusch, University of California Davis


This unit provides the framework for conducting an “engineering design field day” that combines 10 hands-on engineering activities into a culminating school (or multi-school) competition. The activities are a mix of design and problem-solving projects inspired by real-world engineering challenges: kite making, sail cars, tall towers, strong towers, egg drop, dry pasta derby cars, strong bridges, ball and tools obstacle course, and water bottle rockets. The assortment of events engage children who have varied interests and cover a range of disciplines such as aerospace, mechanical and civil engineering. An optional math test—for each of grades 1-6—is provided as an alternative activity to incorporate into the field day event. Of course, the 10 activities in this unit also are suitable to conduct as standalone activities that are unaffiliated with a big event.

Engineering Connection

Each individual engineering design field day “event” (activity) promotes engineering and design concepts that directly relate to real-world engineering problems. In each activity, students are presented with a problem to creatively solve within given material and time constraints. The culminating competition serves as a testing ground to evaluate whether their designs meet the criteria. For example, the designing and building of craft-stick bridges tests the weight-bearing capability of the bridges as well as the weight of the bridges themselves. Since weight serves as a measure of the overall material used, reduced weight simulates the economic advantages associated with fewer required construction materials while still meeting the project requirements. Furthermore, the project materials are fixed, so students must use their creativity to find optimal ways to exploit the materials at hand.

Competition is a common aspect of the engineering world. For example, “calls for proposals” essentially set up competitions among companies to win jobs. Winners are selected based upon economic, technical, efficiency and aesthetic criteria. To surpass their competitors, engineers must be creative and resourceful. Students are introduced to this concept through the field day activities.

Finally, in the engineering profession, entire teams must work together to complete projects. Cooperation and flexibility are necessary for success. These virtues are especially fostered through activities that require group collaboration such as in the Race to the Top! Modeling Skyscrapers and Engineering Derby: Tool Ingenuity activities.

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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 (

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?
  • Students will develop an understanding of engineering design. (Grades K - 12) 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?
  • Design involves a set of steps, which can be performed in different sequences and repeated as needed. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Modeling, testing, evaluating, and modifying are used to transform ideas into practical solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Unit Overview

The activities expose students to various engineering principles across a wide range of fields including aerodynamics (Design and Fly a Kite, Water Bottle Rockets, Wind-Powered Sail Cars), collaborative problem-solving (Engineering Derby: Tool Ingenuity), Newtonian mechanics (Spaghetti Soapbox Derby), and structural stability (Race to the Top! Modeling Skyscrapers, Straw Towers to the Moon, Operation Build a Bridge and Get Over It). By holding the event in the form of a competition, students become deeply invested in designing and building their projects to beat their competitors’ designs. A concluding awards ceremony recognizes the winners of each competition for their achievements, setting an example for all students to excel in engineering.

Unit Schedule

As described in this document, the suggested culminating “field day” competition takes about seven hours, while the student design/build preparation requires additional time in advance, which varies by activity. See the Example Engineering Field Day Schedule for a 7AM-2PM “field day” schedule that is based on a multi-school event held in Sacramento, CA, in April 2015 that hosted ~420 students from 12+ elementary schools. You may want to customize the plan and schedule for your situation, perhaps setting up a more or less complex event, drawing on different or fewer activities.
Planning Suggestions and Tips:

  • Arrange for the preparation of student team project submissions for each event in advance of the field day, as specified in the 10 activity write-ups. The various activities require different amounts of preparation time. Using the suggested schedule, any given student can participate in up to four events.
  • Each activity write-up provides its own information and attachments for that event’s construction and competition rules and guidelines that cover topics such as project construction, eligibility criteria, testing conditions and judging/scoring rubrics.
  • Arrange for volunteers and helpers (organization and judging). Each activity needs to be overseen by a lead teacher/volunteer since during each period, numerous competitions are being held concurrently in different school/classroom locations. Before the day of the event, get them schedules and rubrics so they know what they’re doing, where and when (including 7AM arrival that day).
  • If possible, invite engineering professors, engineering students and/or practicing engineers from local colleges and engineering firms to the engineering field day (or to be volunteers and judges!) so that the children meet scholars and professionals, which plants the seeds for engineering futures.
  • Plan on about an hour of preparation time before beginning the field day to make sure all activity stations, check-in, awards and lunches are set up and organized before the children arrive.
  • Plan on about 30 minutes for check-in. Have students check-in their projects and register for the day. Registration includes providing nametags to place on the projects and a schedule of the events students are signed up to participate in during the day. It is helpful to prepare for each student a nametag that also lists the events s/he is participating in during each period to minimize confusion and misplaced students. Provide designated locations for students to drop off their belongings and pre-made projects. Also have teachers check-in so that they can gather their students and help direct them to their first locations.
  • Allow about 15 minutes for a welcome and orientation to all participants and visitors.
  • During the day, events are held in four, 45-minute blocks with 10-minute passing periods between the activities so students have time to travel to the next competition site. Students participate in up to four competitions, provided they have projects prepared for each.
  • At each event location, the lead begins by verifying that each student group submission meets the eligibility criteria set forth in that activity’s competition rules. Furthermore, it is helpful if the lead teacher has a master schedule with a list of all the students and the activities they are signed up to participate in to safeguard against confusion that might result from lost name tags.
  • Depending on the popularity of each event, stagger the schedule to facilitate students’ ability to participate in multiple events without time conflicts. For example, the attached schedule provides for two runoffs of each of the 10 activities. Students who opt to participate in fewer than three events need to be occupied for the periods in between. For these times, plan ahead to have non-competitive “float” activities to occupy them and/or encourage them to observe the other events. Example float exercises include What a Drag! (plastic bag parachutes), Head’s Up (cut/folded paper airplanes) and Static Cling (cereal and charged combs)—or other TeachEngineering activities and sprinkles.
  • As an additional competition, consider incorporating a math test for each participating grade level in the field day; see the Attachments section for example tests. Adding this event enables students to demonstrate their capabilities in a way that may not be captured in the other events. Including the math test requires either adding an additional period to the schedule or dedicating the first period to administering the math test to all students. If doing the latter, realize that doing that limits each student to participating in a maximum of three activities.
  • After all activities are completed, provide a 45-minute lunch period, during which time the judges, volunteers and/or organizers determine the winners of each competition.
  • Conclude the day with a 45-minute awards ceremony to recognize all of the competition victors.


Each of the 10 events (activities) has its own assessment suggestions, many in the form of pre/post quizzes. See the specific activities.

Overall Event Assessment

Teacher/Volunteer Survey: To evaluate the event as a whole, supply teachers and volunteers with the seven-question Overall Event Assessment Survey to get feedback from people closely involved in the event, which helps you make improvements for the next time.



Jean Vandergheynst; Alisa Lee; Eric Anderson; Josh Claypool; Destiny Garcia; Duff Harold; Kelley Hestmark; Lauren Jabusch; Jeff Kessler; Alexander Kon; Christopher Langel; Sara Pace; Andrew Palermo; Nadia Richards; Travis Smith; Tiffany Tu


© 2017 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2015 University of California Davis

Supporting Program

RESOURCE GK-12 Program, College of Engineering, University of California Davis


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed by the Renewable Energy Systems Opportunity for Unified Research Collaboration and Education (RESOURCE) project in the College of Engineering under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0948021. 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: May 4, 2017