Monthly Editor's Pick

May 2017

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!

April 2017

Snazzy Sneakers Maker Challenge

Woo-hoo! TeachEngineering has joined the MAKER MOVEMENT! We just added "Maker Challenges" to the collection—like this one about making shoes! Students come up with their own design requirements for a new type of shoe— for a specific activity or a specific "look." They sketch plans and build prototypes, then test and improve them. As with all Maker Challenges, the experience is student directed and easy to scale up or down. TeachEngineering provides the basic challenge along with suggested materials and teacher prompts. If you have maker activities that worked well with your students, consider writing them up and submitting to TeachEngineering for publishing—to share with others!

March 2017

Chromatography (for Informal Learning) Sprinkle

In this easy-prep, “taste of engineering” activity, youngsters see the separation of ink into its components. They place permanent marker ink on coffee filter paper that is dipped into isopropyl alcohol; then they repeat with water to see if the results are different. The process—called chromatography—is a way to look at complex mixtures by separating them into their components. It’s not a chemical process; it’s a physical process because the mixture components are not chemically combined. To wrap up the 45-minute activity, students share their findings and learn that different inks have different properties such as how well they dissolve in certain types of solvents—which is important for many real-world applications like criminal evidence investigation and pollution cleanup. This engaging “sprinkle” is ideal for after-school clubs and scouts, and is also available in Spanish!

February 2017

Glaciers, Water and Wind, Oh My! Activity

What is erosion and how does it relate to math and engineering? In this hands-on, math-enriched activity designed for fifth graders, students learn about five types of erosion (chemical, water, wind, glacier and temperature) as they rotate through stations and model each type on rocks, soils and minerals. Students learn about the effects of each erosion type and discover that engineers study erosion in order to design ways to protect our environment, structures and people’s lives. In a series of real-world scenarios (math word problems), students make calculations about the effects of erosion, including calculating erosion damage on forest, personal property and mountains, as well as determining the cost of damage. This activity includes two student worksheets and is part of a nine-lesson and 16-activity elementary-level unit called “Engineering for the Earth.” The activity meets several state and national math standards including CCMS, and science and technology standards, including NGSS and ITEEA.

January 2017

Let’s Learn about Spatial Viz! Lesson

"I love this curriculum. It’s scalable for middle and high school students, and it’s an important skill that is typically overlooked," said one of our partner teachers. While years of research have linked spatial visualization skills to success in engineering, NEW research shows that spatial visualization skills can be LEARNED. To begin this lesson, students complete a 12-question, multiple-choice spatial visualization practice quiz. Then, through four associated activities, students work through hands-on, interactive and tangible exercises on the topics of isometric drawings and coded plans, orthographic views, one-axis rotations and two-axis rotations. Finally, students take the quiz again to see how they've improved. This curriculum is the result of years of testing with first-year engineering college students, and has proved successful in improving student spatial visualization skills—thereby setting them up for success in engineering. Bring SV into your classroom today!

December 2016

Visual Art and Writing in Science and Engineering Lesson

How can engineers display data and results in an aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-understand way? In this high school lesson, students learn the value of—and connections between—art and writing in both science and engineering. They learn the principles of visual design (contrast, alignment, repetition and proximity) as well as the elements of visual design (line, color, texture, shape, size, value and space) to acquire the vocabulary to describe visual art and design. Engineers often need to convey their designs and ideas visually to create buy-in, appeal to clients or win research funding. So engineers must be able to creatively and clearly communicate their work and designs—often using art. Students also learn about the science and engineering research funding process and heat flow/thermal conductivity basics, which prepare them for the associated engineering design activity in which they create visual representations to communicate their collected experimental data. This lesson and activity meet many math, science and technology standards, including CCMS, NGSS and ITEEA.

November 2016

Just Breathe Activity

Breathe in. Breathe out. What is happening to your lungs as you inhale and exhale? In this popular hands-on activity, students learn about the respiratory system and explore the inhalation/exhalation process of the lungs. Using everyday materials (2-liter plastic bottles and balloons), students act as engineers and create model lungs to analyze their function and the overall breathing process. They learn that during inhalation, the volume of the thoracic cavity increases while pressure in the lungs decreases, and that during exhalation, the volume of the thoracic cavity decreases while pressure in the lungs increases. By studying the respiratory system, engineers have been able to create life-saving technologies such as the heart-lung machine that keeps patients alive during heart transplant procedures. Students learn about the many engineering advancements that have helped people who have respiratory system difficulties. At activity end, student teams demonstrate their models and explore what happens to the respiratory system if punctured. This upper elementary-level activity meets science and technology standards, including NGSS and ITEEA.

October 2016

Considering Trade-Offs and Maximizing Efficiency in a Fast Food Restaurant Activity

Can you improve the efficiency of a fast-food restaurant through engineering analysis and design? In this thought-provoking activity, students attempt to improve the efficiency of a fast-food restaurant that is financially struggling due to inefficient daily routines by considering trade-offs and constraints. Acting as engineers, students identify strengths and weaknesses in the existing system and generate a plan to improve efficiency—such as restructuring employee responsibilities, revising a floor plan and delegating tasks—while following requirements and limitations. Students culminate their analyses by writing argumentative essays summarizing and defending their suggested changes and improvements. This activity is especially engaging for students with workforce experience, helping them make meaningful connections between their everyday experiences and engineering. The activity is suitable for middle and high school students and meets science and technology standards, including NGSS and ITEEA.

September 2016

Alloy the Way to Mars Activity

NASA needs your help! What alloy would you recommend they use for a new engine intended to transport astronauts to Mars? In this straightforward activity that requires few materials, students must think like real-world engineers to help NASA decide which material to use for its RS-25 engine and turbine design. Student groups work as engineering teams, taking various measurements and performing calculations to determine the specific strength of different alloys. Students test to look for a material that is both strong and lightweight and discover that a higher specific strength yields a stronger, more lightweight material. Students learn about the ultimate tensile strength, the maximum amount of stress a material can sustain before failing, and use that and the material density to calculate specific strength of the various alloys. The activity culminates in a creative writing project as students compose letters to the Deputy Program Manager at NASA outlining their recommendations. Geared towards middle school students, this activity meets science and technology standards including NGSS and ITEEA, and comes with a preparatory lesson.

August 2016

Intraocular Pressure Sensor Design Challenge Activity

Imagine one day that you open your eyes and realize that you can only see a small portion of your surroundings—much of your range of vision is gone! Many people with glaucoma experience this every day. In this engaging activity, middle school students experience how engineers help people; they act as biomedical engineers to design pressure sensors that measure eye pressure and use 3D software to design and print 3D prototypes of their sensors (or modeling clay as an alternative). Presented with personal stories of two people with glaucoma, student teams are challenged to develop prototypes that can help them identify pressure changes in the eyes. Students learn about radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and conduct research on pressure gauges. They are given project requirements: designs must use RFID technology, be lightweight and small, and measure eye pressure. Over seven days, teams determine an appropriate pressure gauge, design an intraocular pressor sensor prototype given constraints, 3D print the prototypes, and present them to the class. This activity meets many STEM standards, including CCMS, NGSS and ITEEA.

July 2016

Prosthetic Party (for Informal Learning) Sprinkle

Imagine you are a runner, but you lost a leg in an accident—how can you keep running? In this easy-to-prep informal learning "sprinkle," middle school students design, build and test prosthetic legs in two hours using ordinary household materials. First, students learn about prostheses, the importance of replacement legs for individuals who have lost their leg(s) to accident or injury, and are tasked to follow the steps of the engineering design process to make prosthetic leg prototypes. Student teams discuss important features of replacement legs and brainstorm design ideas. They choose fabrication materials from provided supplies, sketch their design plan and gain instructor design approval prior to constructing their prototypes. After building, students test the prosthetic limbs, making sure they can be used to walk successfully around the classroom (crude but functional!). Students improve their designs as necessary and present them to the class at the end. This engaging and fun "sprinkle" is also available in Spanish!

June 2016

Growing and Graphing Activity

How tall are you? In this kindergarten activity, students get to meet older schoolmates and explore their schools while measuring the heights of the older students using large building blocks, which they later translate into pictorial bar graphs. This activity provides a fun and refreshing way to introduce young students to measurement and graphing at an early age; they learn how to take real-world measurements and then graph and examine the data. The kindergarteners visit second and fourth grade classes and work in pairs to make height measurements of students and adults by using large building blocks and keeping tallies. Back in their classroom, they glue pre-cut construction paper rectangles (~1-3 inches in size, representing the building blocks they used for measurement) onto lined chart paper to make bar graphs of the different height measurements. Then they compare the heights of second-graders, fourth-graders and adults—discussing the differences and patterns, sorting the heights from tallest to shortest and determining the median height. This activity meets many math, science and technology standards, including CCMS, NGSS and ITEEA.

May 2016

Right on Target: Catapult Game Activity

Ready, set, catapult! In this hands-on activity, student groups are tasked with designing and constructing precise and accurate catapults using everyday materials and guidance from the engineering design process. With the goal to launch ping-pong balls to hit different targets, student teams experiment with different designs. Will the catapult shoot the ping-pong ball far enough to hit the target? Students must apply an understanding of projectile motion to determine the best launch angle to travel the farthest distance. They analyze the different forces acting on their catapults and make their structures robust enough to withstand them. After constructing their catapults, students test their structures and see how many targets they can successfully hit. Teams earn points for hitting targets and tally their scores to determine a winning team. Students present their designs to the class, suggest improvements and discuss the characteristics of successful catapults. This engaging and playful activity meets many math, science and technology standards, including CCMS, NGSS and ITEEA.

April 2016

Physics of Roller Coasters Lesson

Ack! You are at the top of a roller coaster about to drop—then, thanks to physics and engineering, you make a safe landing despite all the jitters! In this lesson, middle school students learn about the physics behind roller coasters, investigating potential and kinetic energy as well as friction and gravity, and explore how engineers apply the basics of physics to roller coaster designs. They learn how the force of gravity drives roller coasters and that the conversion between potential and kinetic energy is essential to its motion. In addition, they learn how roller coasters slow down due to friction and the role that velocity and acceleration play in the motion of these exhilarating rides. This imaginative lesson provides the necessary background knowledge for its associated activity, "Building Roller Coasters," in which students design and build model roller coasters. This lesson geared towards upper middle school students meets many science and technology standards, including NGSS and ITEEA.

March 2016

Zero-Energy Housing Activity

Brrr! It's a chilly March night—can you think of a way to heat your house without using an electric or gas heater? In this hands-on activity, teens design and construct one-bedroom model houses within specified constraints (and a variety of material options) and are challenged to warm up their houses as much as they can and maintain the heated temperatures for as long as possible using passive solar heating design techniques. Students learn about solar heating (including how insulation, window placement, thermal mass, surface colors and site orientation are all essential in design), and apply learned concepts to the design and construction of their model houses. After constructing, students test their model homes during simulated daytime and nighttime conditions to examine thermal gains and losses. Finally, students present and compare their designs and suggest improvements. This engaging high school activity meets multiple science and technology standards, and is NGSS and ITEEA aligned.

February 2016

Light Your Way (for Informal Learning) Sprinkle

Quick! The power is out, you're in the dark and immediately grab your flashlight. Ever wondered how flashlights work? What makes them light up so easily? In this easy-prep informal learning “sprinkle,” elementary students design, build and test their own flashlights. Student first learn and discuss the essential components of flashlights: the importance of a switch, how flashlights are composed of a simple series circuit, and that the batteries and switch must be correctly oriented to work. Given a list of available supplies, they sketch their own flashlight designs that incorporate a switch, a reflector-enhanced light (such as with foil) and batteries contained in a paper tube. After building, students test for reliability, checking to see if the light can be turned on three times in a row. Students improve their designs as necessary and present their flashlights to the class at the end. This is a great starter engineering project—good for afterschool clubs and rainy afternoons. Also available in Spanish!

January 2016

Engineering a Mountain Rescue Litter Activity

Imagine hiking in the mountains, suddenly getting injured and being unable to walk. In this hands-on design challenge, elementary-age students consider this situation and act as engineers to create rescue litters/baskets for use in hard-to-get-to places such as mountainous terrain. Using a potato to model an injured person, teams build small-sized prototypes that meet given criteria and constraints: lightweight and inexpensive, break down to be small and portable, quick assembly and stable transport of an injured body. They learn about the human body’s nerves and spinal cord and the importance of protecting it. They "purchase" ordinary building materials such as toothpicks, paper towels, craft sticks, foil and sponges to design and build prototypes. Through timed tests, they assess their design success in assembly and transport of the injured person (potato). Then students compare statistics (litter mass, cost, stability and rescue time) and graph all team data, analyzing the results to determine which designs performed best. Part of a biomedical engineering unit, this engaging activity meets many science and technology standards, including NGSS and ITEEA.

December 2015

Clearing a Path to the Heart Activity

Can you think of a way to unclog blood vessels? In this open-ended design project, student teams act as biomedical engineers to create and build devices capable of removing and/or flattening plaque build-up inside artery walls. They follow the steps of the engineering design process, apply their knowledge of the circulatory system and learn about existing methods to treat blocked arteries (angioplasty/stent and coronary bypass surgery). First they gain an understanding of the need (chest pain, heart attacks), then brainstorm ideas, design and plan, create and test a prototype, and then refine their designs. Students assess their success by first observing how two liters of water flows through model “clogged arteries” (tubes with play dough or peanut butter in them) and then timing how fast the water flows through the cleared arteries. Students present their designs to the class, explaining what worked and what improvements are needed. This middle school activity is part of a larger biomedical engineering unit and meets many math, science and technology standards, including CCMS, NGSS and ITEEA.

November 2015

Mars Rover App Creation Activity

Did you know that the Mars Curiosity rover discovered water on Mars?! How do engineers develop such an intelligent vehicle capable of such vast exploration? In this activity, students explore the programming and technology realms to discover and create Android apps capable of controlling LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT robots to simulate a planetary rover remote sensing task. Using MIT's App Inventor software, student teams create their own mobile applications that they execute on Android devices to control specific aspects of an NXT robot. They might program actions such as driving the robot, moving an arm, detecting objects, applying a game or using a light sensor. Student teams follow the steps of the software/systems design process and gain programming design experience. Groups present their apps to the class and demonstrate how they control a robot. This middle/high school activity meets many science and technology standards, including NGSS and ITEEA.

October 2015

Above-Ground Storage Tank Design Project Activity

Most people take no notice of above-ground storage tanks in their communities! The tanks might contain water or petrochemicals in liquid or gas form, or other industrial explosive and toxic materials. What's important is that engineers design the tanks to be structurally sound—and hopefully strong enough to remain intact during major storms and hurricanes! In this activity, teens act as engineers in design teams tasked to examine the stability of certain above-ground storage tanks (and demonstrate their understanding of Archimedes' principle and Pascal's law). Guided by worksheets and during five class periods, they derive equations and make analyses to determine whether the storage tanks will displace or remain stationary in the event of flooding. Then they are challenged to think of improved designs to prevent displacement and buckling. They present their results and design ideas to the class. This high school activity concludes the Above-Ground Storage Tanks in the Houston Ship Channel lesson, which is part of The Physics of Fluid Mechanics unit, and meets many science, math and technology standards, including NGSS and Common Core Math.

September 2015

What to Wear? What to Drink? Weather Patterns and Climatic Regions Lesson

Youngsters know the foods they eat and the clothes they wear, but may have never made the connection to climate. In this elementary-level lesson, students learn the effects of climate on our food options and water sources, as well as on our clothing and shelter types. In small groups, students role-play families living in different regions around the globe and determine where they live based on their clothing and food (provided on notecards). They discuss factors that affect the climate such as latitude, elevation, land features and weather, and learn about different climates such as tropical, desert, alpine, oceanic. They also learn how engineers develop technologies to predict and be protected from weather and climate. In the associated activity, students learn the steps of the engineering design process as they explore ways to provide water to a (hypothetical) community facing a water crisis. This lesson is part of a nine-lesson unit, "Engineering for the Earth."

August 2015

Composting – Nature's Disappearing Act Activity

What happens to trash when you throw it away? What does it mean to be "environmentally friendly"? Elementary school students build and then observe small model landfills over five days as a way to learn about biodegradability and the processes that engineers use to reduce solid waste. The simple model landfills are created in cut-apart two-liter plastic bottles with four garbage samples tested: paper, apple, lettuce and plastic. Students make predictions and then note how the different items biodegrade over time. From this, they learn that engineers optimize the composting process and improve landfills so food, animal and other waste are converted into high-nutrient soil. They experience modeling; a common engineering approach to understand and improve how things work. This fun activity meets many science, math and technology standards, including NGSS and Common Core Math.

July 2015

Build an Anemometer (for Informal Learning) Sprinkle

What is an anemometer? And how is it useful? In this easy-prep informal learning sprinkle (which takes less than an hour to conduct!) student pairs build and use simple paper-cup anemometers to measure wind speed as if they were engineers identifying good locations for wind turbines. Elementary students are able to determine relative speeds by counting rotations of the spinning paper cups. By measuring wind speed at five outside locations, students see how it varies and where it is strongest, which helps them understand how knowing wind speed at multiple locations is important. For wind turbines, stronger winds generate more electricity! Real-time wind speed data collected at airports helps pilots safely take off and land. Continuously measuring wind speed at uncountable locations around the planet provides essential data for weather prediction and public safety alerts.

June 2015

Animals and Engineering Lesson

What do animals have to do with engineering? Some students might be surprised to hear that animals are directly related to engineering! In fact, some of the most remarkable engineering innovations were inspired by animals and nature. In this lesson, students learn the role of animals in engineering innovation, particularly how animal characteristics and features are mimicked in engineering design to create new technologies—otherwise known as biomimicry. Such examples of biomimicry include airplanes, boats, underwater sea vessels, and antibiotics and healing drugs. Additionally, students learn about animal interactions and the basic animal classifications to better understanding how animals live and to relate the natural world to engineering innovation. This informative and interesting lesson, targeted for elementary school students, meets both NGSS and Common Core Math standards. Image source:

May 2015

Ice, Ice, PV! Activity

As the use of renewable energy grows, most teenagers have seen photovoltaic solar panels in their communities and on everyday items such as back packs, battery chargers and outdoor lighting devices. These photovoltaic (PV) solar panels generate power that can be used in many applications in their lives. In this activity, students explore variables that affect the power output of PV panels to answer the question: “If engineers installed the exact same power plant in Las Vegas, NV, and Fargo, ND, would it produce the exact same amount of power over the course of a year?” Student teams collect data in this engaging hands-on activity and apply mathematical equations based on electrical power and the temperature coefficient to learn how temperature and climate affect PV panels and to predict the power output of PV panels at different temperatures. This activity also meets NGSS and Common Core Math standards. Photo credit: Candice Nyando, Black Rock Solar.

April 2015

Gravity-Fed Water System for Developing Communities Activity

Imagine having to carry water dozens of miles, up and around mountains, just to be able to boil that water for cooking and cleaning! Students learn the important role engineers play in the management of groundwater, and the importance of clean, accessible water. The realities of how water is acquired, and subsequently used, for daily survival—especially in developing countries—can be a new concept for students, especially Americans used to readily available clean water. Creating a system to transport water, helps “water poor” populations whose water does not come directly from a faucet! Students learn exactly how such a water transportation system is developed and used. This middle school-level activity meets one NGSS design problem standard.

March 2015

Cooking with the Sun - Creating a Solar Oven Activity

Making solar ovens is a classic, fun and delicious engineering activity—and one with great potential to help others worldwide. Middle school students learn the value of solar ovens as they use cardboard, insulation, foil and Plexiglas to design, construct and test devices that apply their understanding of thermal energy transfer. Student teams devise solutions to meet problem criteria and constraints, as well as collect and analyze data to determine the effectiveness of their designs. Then, expand students' context for how a project like this can help others by showing them a video clip about Infinity Bakery—a low-cost solar oven design being prototyped in Burundi to enable smoke-free and fuel-free cooking and baking. This activity fits into many areas of study, including energy, social studies, planets and seasons, graphing and analysis—and meets many NGSS and Common Core Math standards.

February 2015

Using Nanoparticles to Detect, Treat and Protect against Skin Cancer Curricular Unit

In this NGSS-aligned unit, high school students learn about environmental and biomedical engineering through the study of nanotechnology and its relationship to skin cancer. Through three lessons and three associated activities, students learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, wavelengths and how the ozone helps block ultraviolet radiation; how repeated exposure to ultraviolet radiation impacts our skin with harmful, long-lasting effects; and how persons with skin cancer are treated with nanoparticles, a result of modern technological advancements employed by engineers around the world. After this unit, students will have an understanding of the causes, diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer and an appreciation of the vital role biomedical engineers and nanoparticle research play in preventing humans from the (oftentimes life-threatening) condition of skin cancer. This unit requires approximately 12 days (60-minute periods) to complete.

January 2015

Sugar Spill! (for Informal Learning) Sprinkle

Oh no! There has been a major pollutant spill, and environmental engineers must clean it up fast. How can it be done? What can be used to "soak up" the spill? In this informal learning sprinkle, students see how environmental spills are contained through "bioremediation"—a process that plays an important role for engineers to quickly and efficiently clean up toxic (or non-toxic, but messy) spills. Through the use of common household products—in this case sugar, yeast and vinegar—students learn that engineers do not actually "soak up" environmental spills, but use chemicals to safely degrade (or "eat up") harmful bacteria to restore balance to an area affected by a contaminant.

December 2014

Oil on the Ocean Activity

Engineering design activities can play an important role in helping students make connections among the STEM subjects. This activity does that by engaging fifth-grade students in a fun, hands-on project to design, build, and re-design prototype oil booms to contain oil spills. This project weaves together a range of scientific concepts and topics, including ecosystems, material properties, density and pollution as well as considerations for the impact on wildlife, habitat and food supplies, related economic and political issues, and the use of technology by humans. Over three, hour-long class periods, student teams experience the full engineering design process, from understanding the problem and brainstorming solutions to drawing, prototyping, testing and redesigning solutions. Like real-world engineers, students work within given requirements and constraints, use assorted ordinary materials—duct tape, cotton balls, straws, sponges—and test their designs in miniature oil spill simulations. As a bonus, teaching this activity meets numerous NGSS (science) and ITEEA (technology) educational standards.