With their breathtaking elevation changes and thrilling speeds, roller coasters rides are the star attractions of amusement parks—and engineering plays a huge role in their design! All the various loops, curves, and dips work because of gravity, inertia, and friction. Guide students through the engineering design process as they build a simple roller coaster, all while considering the same forces that professional engineers do when designing rides.
Creative Crash Test Cars Maker Challenge
How does mass affect momentum in a head-on collision? Using a raw egg as a "crash test dummy" students take on the challenge of designing safety features for wooden car kits. By running the prototypes down ramps into walls, collecting distance and time data, and videotaping of their crash, students make calculations and look for relationships between car mass, speed, momentum and the amount of crash damage sustained by their vehicles.
Creating an Electromagnet Activity
We may not even realize that we interact with electromagnets on a daily basis, but engineers use them in a wide range of designs including refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, doorbells, and even clocks. When it comes to using electromagnets, the possibilities are endless! This activity is an attractive way to engage students in building and testing the properties of several electromagnetic designs right in the classroom.
Spaghetti Bridges Activity
Explore the world of civil engineering and become a bridge designer using a favorite food: spaghetti! In this activity, students play the role of civil engineers by making bridges out of spaghetti, and then test their designs by applying weight in order to see when they break. Allow your students to create designs using a variety of different pastas and see which bridges can last the longest under stress!
Sled Hockey Design Challenge Activity
Engineering helps democratize sports by introducing designs that allow individuals with physical disabilities to compete. Explore the engineering behind one such innovation used in sled hockey: the sled hockey stick! By applying geometric methods to solve design problems as well as through tension and flexure testing, students build hockey sticks that can face-off against the rigors of game play on the ice. Shoot for the goal in this unique engineering challenge!
Cool Puppy! A Doghouse Design Project Maker Challenge
Design a doghouse to keep our furry friends safe during the summer! Students use the engineering design process to build and test doghouses that will shelter a "puppy" from heat and light sources. This maker challenge lets students build a number of doghouse designs while considering material, size, and cost constraints. Later, students test them by taking thermometer readings under hot lamps and then think of ways to improve their designs—a great project for learning about energy transfer, absorption, insulation, and material properties.
Engineering Polymers from Potatoes Activity
What can the properties of a potato tell us about polymer science? Have your students take on the role of chemical engineers to create and test a plastic made from starch extracted from an everyday tuber! After testing their potato-based plastic, students design a product that takes advantage of the polymer’s unique properties. This activity guides students through the fundamental engineering concept of why a change in the chemical structure of polymer molecules affects the properties a plastic.
Engineer a prosthetic leg and save a team member from a zombie horde! The scenario: a group of students must rush to build a prosthesis for an injured individual who "lost" their leg to amputation. Using the full engineering design process, students act as engineers to design and fabricate a replacement limb using specific starting materials. The students also face the additional challenge of overcoming a set of constraints, but time is running out... and the zombies are approaching!
Draw like an architect, design like an engineer! In this cross-disciplinary activity, students learn what it means to follow a set of requirements and meet given constraints as they create their own model parking garages. Student teams follow the engineering design process as they design, build, and test their models. Along with drafting blueprints of their designs, students select construction materials and budget their expenditures. They also test their structures for strength and calculate maximum loads. Which model garage can hold the most cars while standing up to the challenge?
What's the difference between a "qualitative" measurement and a "quantitative" one? In this activity, students examine these key measuring concepts and learn how engineers use them when designing or evaluating a product. After gaining an understanding of what goes into a qualitative and quantitative assessment, students put their newfound knowledge to the test by using a ruler, scale, and pencil to describe and measure a variety of classroom objects.
How do civil engineers design structures that can withstand local weather conditions? Whether you live in a climate with heavy snowfall or not, this engaging activity helps even very young students consider the advantages of different roof shapes under a "snow load" by sprinkling cups of flour onto model houses. What happens to snow when it sits on a curved roof? What are the design advantages to building an A-frame roof versus a flat roof? As a class, test the roof shapes of three “model” houses. Then discuss and explore different shapes and materials to create buildings that are strong enough to exist in a winter wonderland!
Can engineers build soaring towers with reused materials? While reinforced concrete and steel reign supreme as traditional building materials, many engineers are exploring ways to incorporate reused and recycled materials into their designs. In this activity, elementary-level students take on the role of engineers to design their own towers! Along with the challenge of designing their towers under a number of constraints, students also simulate "stress tests" to test the stability of their designs. Will your students' designs hold up under the simulated strong winds and earthquakes?
On your mark, get set, build! Using lifesaver-shaped candies, plastic drinking straws, Popsicle sticks, and other simple craft materials, students design, build, and test model race cars as a way to explore independent, dependent, and control variables. After constructing their "mint-mobiles," it's time for the race! Students measure the changes in distance traveled while adding mass to their vehicles. Through this activity, students engage in the steps of the engineering design process by brainstorming, planning, building, testing, and improving their racers. Wave the green flag, and let the engineering begin!
Crack the code, engineer a rescue, and be the hero! In this engaging activity, students encode, decode, transmit, receive and store messages for a hypothetical rescue mission. They are challenged to rescue four misguided climbers who are stranded on a snowy mountainside—with temperatures plummeting fast! Once students find the climbers, it's a race against time to communicate to basecamp using coded messages about whether or not the climbers are injured. Additionally, students need to communicate the climbers’ locations using only flashlights, a map, and a code sheet. Through this activity, students practice coding and decoding, which are important aspects in electrical and computer engineering. Several activity extensions enable students to explore real-life coding and communication applications.
Ready, set, escape! In this open-ended design activity, students are challenged to create a simple yet accurate timing device that measures a period of exactly three minutes in order to enable a hypothetical prison escape. Constrained with limited supplies, students exercise their creativity and engineering knowledge to design devices. They also follow the steps of the engineering design process and document this on a student handout: they brainstorm ideas, select the best solution to pursue, and sketch their designs. After building prototypes, students test and record their times, and then iterate their designs for improvement—to obtain a more accurate time. During this process, students learn about harmonic design while observing and explaining the effects of conservation of energy. This activity aligns to NGSS, ITEEA as well as state science standards.
How is oil found? In this hands-on elementary-level activity, students explore the layers under the Earth’s surface and learn how they are used by engineers to find and extract oil. Students learn how fossil fuels are formed over time and where they can be located under the Earth's crust. Student groups use six colors of modeling clay to make models of the planet Earth. They learn about core drilling as a method to find oil using cores taken from deep below the Earth’s surface. They use clear plastic drinking straws to model core drilling and take core samples—as if they are looking for fossil fuels. Then the teams analyze their samples and make informed decisions as to whether or not they should "drill for oil" in specific locations. This activity aligns to NGSS and includes a helpful YouTube video that models the activity.
As one of our partner teachers said, “This is a great open-ended design activity with lots of redesign built in—and it ends with the class building the best prototype membrane with contributions from each group.” The challenge is to make a semipermeable membrane prototype that does not immediately let water pass through. Students brainstorm, create and experiment with possible solutions. They get valuable practice in evaluating competing design solutions for how well they meet the criteria and constraints, and modeling cell functions like osmosis and diffusion—experiences that meet engineering and science NGSS. Typically, many middle school students have heard of dialysis and might know that it has something to do with filtering blood. After this activity, they will have experienced a cool engineering design project and gained a better understanding of how filtering occurs in this common medical procedure. A pre/post quiz, student worksheet and project rubric are provided.
The challenge: get the entire class from one location to another spot 20 feet away without touching the ground between because it is covered in hot lava! In this open-ended, physically active elementary-age activity, the entire class works together to problem solve—and learn the steps of the engineering design process as they go. Together, students brainstorm, sketch and compose a well thought-out plan, which they test and revise outside. A concluding discussion connects students' problem-solving experience to real-life engineering challenges, such as inventing new products or better ways to run a factory. Keep this activity handy for a day when the kids want to be outside—or for an ice-breaker, afterschool club or summer camp! Includes a design and brainstorming handout. Meets NGSS and ITEEA engineering design standards.
Can’t find anything in the closet? Broken backpack strap? Bookshelf that keeps falling over? Being able to “solve everyday problems” is a skill worth cultivating! This exemplar activity shows middle school students how to apply the engineering design process to daily life situations that need improvement—and it meets all four NGSS engineering design standards. Students learn the steps through a slide presentation and a written case study with photos. They walk through two real-life examples of how kids figured out and implemented solutions to improve a teacher’s homework return process with a desk organizer and address the chaos of a student’s school locker. They learn to define project criteria and constraints, brainstorm ideas, evaluate multiple possible design solutions, and optimize the best solution. This prepares students to develop their own innovations to real-life problems, and to conduct the optional open-ended hands-on extension—to creatively design and construct their own locker organizers using scrap materials. Students gain the tools to view the world as a place where they can actively make a difference.
Did you know that engineers can create replacements for nonfunctioning body structures—without any donors(!)—through bone tissue engineering?! In this hands-on and engaging activity, high school students act as biomedical engineers to design turkey femur prototypes intended as bone transplants for birds. They use calipers to take exact measurements of a real turkey femur, aiming to make their 3D models match the structure, mass and density of the real bone. Using modeling clay and other craft materials, students create 3D bone prototypes. Then they cut and measure the turkey femur cross-section, draw it in CAD software and print it on a 3D printer. Throughout the activity, students follow the steps of the engineering design process to design their prototypes. They also watch an informative TED video about using 3D printers to create organs to address the problem of long waits for organ transplants. This activity aligns to several science and math standards, including NGSS and CCSS.
Can You Hear Me Now? Activity
Have you ever received an electronic device in the mail only to find it damaged during shipping? How frustrating! In this hands-on and relatable activity, students act as engineers to solve the real-world challenge to design a better packing solution for shipping cell phones. They apply scientific, mathematic and engineering ideas to design, evaluate and refine a solution that minimizes the force on an object during a collision. They work through the engineering design process to create new packaging that prevents shipping damage while considering design constraints such as cost and weight; they combine different materials—such as cardboard, fabric, plastic and rubber bands—to create new “composite material” packaging and use pieces of glass to model a cellphone during testing. Additionally, students apply their knowledge of linear regression to accurately predict the optimum drop height that can be obtained without the “phone” breaking. At the end, students write summary lab reports to describe what they did in the project, their results and findings. This activity aligns to several science and math standards, including NGSS and CCSS.
3D bioprinting can be used to treat injuries! In this informative and engaging hands-on activity (that does not require 3D printers!), a humorous one-minute video presents high-school students with a hypothetical scenario that introduces "Bill," who has been badly injured in an automobile accident, damaging some bone, muscle and skin beyond repair. Students act as biomedical engineers to replace Bill’s injured areas with bioprinted bone, muscle and skin grafts. They create mock bioprinters from ordinary materials—cardboard, dowels, wood, spools, duct tape, zip ties and glue—and use squeeze-bags of icing to lay down tissue layers. Student teams apply what they learned about biological tissue composition and tissue engineering in the associated lesson to design and fabricate model replacement tissues. They tangibly learn about the technical aspects and challenges of 3D bioprinting technology. To conclude, teams present their prototype designs to the class. The activity includes helpful videos of mock 3D-bioprinter assembly and use instructions. This activity aligns to several science and math standards, including NGSS and Common Core.
Big Data, What Are You Saying? Activity
What exactly do we mean by “big data”? These days, big data is the accumulation of vast amounts of information from various sources—such as online user browsing and shopping—and the creative analysis of that data to learn from it. In this math-strong activity with a trending real-world connection, high-school students act as R&D entrepreneurs researching variables affecting the market of chosen products using big data to form and support conclusions. Students first identify a product (maybe a video game, shoe, food) and brainstorm production and marketing variables (such as product cost, price, materials). After researching and collecting pertinent consumer data, they import, organize and analyze the data using Excel and other software to inform their product production and marketing plans. They calculate statistics and generate graphs to discover relationships between variables that are essential for decision-making. Based on their findings, students suggest product launch strategies and present their conclusions to the class. This activity is ideal for high school statistics classes and aligns to several math standards, including CCSS.
Mmm Cupcakes: What’s Their Impact? Activity
Who doesn’t like cupcakes? In this activity, students apply their math skills to determine the environmental impact of this favorite snack over its life cycle. As a class project, they conduct a life-cycle assessment of one cupcake. To do this, six teams examine and make calculations about the energy use and emissions release at each of the six steps in the cupcake life cycle. They pull together the numbers and compare various life-cycle stage options, such as two possible disposal endings—landfilling vs. composing of discarded cupcake paper liners. Students come to see how every object they encounter has a complete life cycle—from cradle to grave—which is worth critiquing to design smarter. After finishing this activity, one fifth-grade student stated: I liked learning about life cycle assessment. I got to know how people could see where an object came from and all the energy it needs at each step to make it. Now I look at things around me and try to think where they came from.”
High school students jump into biomedical engineering in this hands-on stimulating lab activity by simulating a real-world diagnostic screening test that’s used around the world daily to identify diseases present in people. Students model the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test, which is a simple blood separating test based on the sedimentation technique that medical professionals use to provide diagnostic and medical care. In their lab work, student teams modify a blood model composed of tomato juice, petroleum jelly, butter and olive oil to simulate conditions such as anemia, rheumatoid arthritis and leukocytosis. They explore the three stages of sedimentation—aggregation, settling and packing—and measure the ESR as the plasma height that lies over the erythrocyte sediment. If a disease is present, the ESR value deviates from the normal value because diseases alter blood composition such as density and viscosity, enabling students to correlate their measurements for each blood sample with disease conditions. This activity is packed with numerous informative videos and aligns to NGSS, ITEEA and other science standards—a great way to bring biomedical engineering into chemistry class!
Gears: Lift It Up! Activity
Using the “right” gears can be like having superpowers! Finding the ideal gear ratio can make seemingly impossible tasks possible. In this optimization activity geared towards middle schoolers (pun intended!), students learn about the trade-off between speed and torque. They are challenged to design a gear set that can lift a given load (provide enough torque) as fast as possible. Using a LEGO robot pulley system with two independent gear sets and motors that spin two pulleys with weights attached by string, teams test and refine their designs to attain an ideal gear ratio for the system. They learn how to choose the gear ratio for a specific task and discover the trade-off between power and speed. A pre-activity teacher demo illustrates the effect of adding increasing amounts of weight to pulley systems with different gear ratios. This activity aligns to NGSS, CCSS, ITEEA and other science and math standards. Pre/post quizzes and a student worksheet are provided.
Mutation Telephone Activity
Who remembers playing “telephone” as a kid? In this engaging biology activity, teens learn about DNA mutations. They enact the popular childhood “telephone” game to illustrate how DNA mutations occur over several cell generations—each communication step representing a biological process related to the passage of DNA from one cell to another. The game starts off with the first student in a line receiving a set of instructions that represent a single gene from an organism’s DNA. This student whispers the instructions to a second student, the second to the third, and so on until the message reaches the last student who then performs the instructions that s/he was told! Comparing the initial and final instructions reveals the types of mutations (normal, substitution, deletion or insertion) that occurred in the person-to-person (cell-to-cell, natural or genetically engineered) communications. In the second part of the activity, students use their results to test how mutation affects organisms' survivability in the wild by demonstrating natural selection through “predatory” enactments. This activity aligns to NGSS, ITEEA and other science standards, and includes a worksheet.
Volumes of Complex Solids Activity
"This is dense, creative curriculum—a gem for AP calculus teachers," said one of our partner teachers. In this challenging week-long activity, students are presented with a hypothetical engineering situation for which they need to determine the volume of a nuclear power plant’s cooling tower. In order to complete the task, students learn a detailed volume estimation procedure for complex solids. They first practice using the volume procedure on small objects before independently estimating the volume of a cooling tower. During both guided and independent practice, students use free geometry software, a photograph of the object, a known dimension of it, a spreadsheet application and integral calculus techniques to calculate the volume of complex shape solids within a <5% margin of error. Students create a blueprint of their complex solid of revolution and use an appropriate scale factor to estimate its dimensions, which can be used to calculate its volume. This activity meets many science, math and technology standards, including NGSS, CCSS and ITEEA.
A pair of glasses, a hearing aid, a cane and a crutch—what do these objects have in common? They are all assistive devices that help people see, hear and walk! In this project-based activity, students act as biomedical engineers as they design and test assistive hand device prototypes to help a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy grip a cup. In doing so, students learn how biomedical engineers create assistive devices for persons with fine motor skill disabilities; they also learn about types of forces (balanced and unbalanced), form and function, and hand structure. Given design criteria from the client—including limited materials and a $50 budget—teams follow the engineering design process steps by conducting research, brainstorming ideas, sketching, constructing and testing prototypes. They test to see if the prototype devices can grip a cup with 200 ml of sand. Then they redesign, re-test, and make improvements. Finally, students reflect on their designs and the process. This activity meets science, math and technology standards, including NGSS, CCSS and ITEEA.
Elementary School Engineering Design Field Day Curricular Unit
Have you ever considered having an "engineering design field day" at your school?! The 10 design project activities in this unit are each great on their own: spaghetti soapbox derby, naked egg drop, and building skyscrapers, towers, wind-powered sail cars, bridges and water bottle rockets. But consider combining them to give middle school students practice in the engineering design process as they prepare their designs for an entertaining and culminating seven-hour field day competition. As a bonus, include a "math competition" as part of the day—using the provided six math tests for grades 1-6 students. End the day with awards for the winning designs!