Lesson: Time for Design

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

Photo of three boys holding a model bridge made of straws and tape.
Students explore the Engineering Design Process
Copyright © ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2003.


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. Students come to realize that they can be engineers and use the design process themselves to create tomorrow's innovations.

Engineering Connection

Everyday, engineers use the design process to explore solutions to complex, real-world problems, enabled by brainstorming to devise creative and innovative inventions and processes. Engineers address society's needs and challenges: safe water supply, complex communications systems, development of new medical technologies, warning systems and so many more. The design process — enabled through brainstorming techniques — can be used by professional engineers to address complicated problems, or by everyday people and students exploring solutions to any kind of problem.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Relate that engineers create things to benefit society.
  • List some of the components of the engineering design process.
  • Obtain information about how different communities protect Earth's resources through renewable resource design.
  • Compare and contrast the scientific method and the engineering design process.
  • Explain why brainstorming is important to engineering design.
  • List several rules of a brainstorming session.

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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 (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.

  • Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5) 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?
  • When designing an object, it is important to be creative and consider all ideas. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Models are used to communicate and test design ideas and processes. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above


Engineering is about creating new things that help people in some way. But what kinds of things do you think engineers create? When some people think of engineers, they think of complicated spaceship designs or making tiny cell phones that are cameras, connect to the internet, and play music. But engineering can be more simple technologies, too! In fact, you have probably acted like an engineer without even knowing it. Have you have ever tried to make something that never existed before? Have you ever made a fort? What materials did you use to make it? You probably had to think about what objects to use and how to use them to make a sturdy fort that would stand up. Or, have you ever been bored and wanted something to play with when there was nothing around? I once crumpled the aluminum foil from my lunch to make a ball to play with and solved the problem of being bored by making a ball out of a material one might not think of as fun. Professionals are not the only ones who use engineering!

No matter how simple or complicated a challenge may be, most engineers use a structured process when trying to find a solution or design; it is called the engineering design process. At first, when trying to find a good design, there may be no clear way to go. After some thought, you might come up with many different ideas for possible designs, but you might not know which will work or which will be best. Using the engineering design process helps engineers create good designs quickly.

Photo of one girl holding a paper plate and paper cup contraption, and another girl blowing on it.
Copyright © ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

Does everybody remember the scientific method? The scientific method is similar to the engineering design process because it guides us in a structured way through the experiments that we do. (To support this discussion, write the contents of Table 1 on the board as you go.) The first important part of the scientific method is the question or challenge. The engineering design process also has an important first step, only it asks "What can we make to solve this?" rather than, "How can we prove this theory wrong or right?"

The second step of the scientific method is seeking background information and conducting research. In the engineering design process, the similar step is thinking of several different ways that the question or problem might be solved.

The third step of the scientific method is creating a hypothesis to test. The similar step in the engineering design process is picking one of the design alternatives that you think may be the best solution.

Step four in the scientific method is describing the procedures you will use to test your hypothesis. The design process has a similar step, in which you explain how your design will work and why you think it is the best solution. After that, the scientific method leads you to an observation of the experiment and its results. In the design process, you build and test your designed product to make sure it is a solution that solves your challenge or problem.

The last step of the scientific method is to draw a conclusion based on your experiment. In the design process, you review your engineered product and decide if the design that you created is a great solution, or if you can make a better solution by incorporating what you learned into a new design. Since engineers frequently decide to redesign several times — each time incorporating new knowledge in their design — the design process can be thought of as iteration, or doing something again.

Scientific method challenge: How can we prove this right or wrong? Followed by steps: background and research, hypothesis, describe procedure, observation, conclusion. Design process challenge: What can we make to solve this? Steps: Brainstorm many different design ideas, select a design from your ideas, explain your design, build and test your design, review and decide if your design is the best one possible, and redesign (iterate) based on what you learned.
Table 1. Comparing the scientific method with the engineering design process.
Copyright © Megan Podlogar, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Optional: Pass out the Design & Brainstorming Handout.

Looking at the steps of the design process, which do you think is the most important? Why? Coming up with many different ideas is clearly an important step, because you can sometimes combine several of your ideas into one great design. How can we think of many different ideas? Brainstorming is the term used to describe a group of people working together to come up with a list of ideas. In a group, people can get ideas from building off of others' ideas. That is why brainstorming works so well and why professional engineers use it all the time! These are the guidelines for a creative brainstorming session:

  • No negative comments are allowed. (This way, people are more likely to say more of their ideas.)
  • Encourage wild ideas. (Many creative solutions come from wild ideas.)
  • Record all ideas. (Seeing someone else's idea might make you think of a different one.)
  • Build on the ideas of others. (This is the whole point of brainstorming!)
  • Stay focused on the topic. (Keep the challenge or goal in mind.)
  • Allow only one conversation at a time. (So you capture ideas from everyone in the group.)

Photo of an alligator clip clasping two wires together.
Figure 1. The alligator clip was an invention based on the wild idea of using a mouse to bite wires together.
Copyright © Megan Podlogar, ITL Program, University of Colorado at Boulder.

By following these guidelines, engineers come up with many different, creative designs. For example, engineers at General Electric were once brainstorming to find a way to connect electrical wires temporarily. One engineer had the wild idea that a mouse could bite the wires together, holding the wires in its teeth. This idea seems crazy at first, but in fact, it led to the idea of the alligator clip which is now often used to temporarily connect wires (see Figure 1). Brainstorming can help us think of ingenious new ideas, too! Today, we are going to use brainstorming and the engineering design process to help us think of new ideas and solutions to some challenges. Are you ready?

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

There are different ways to describe the engineering design process. Below is the basic outline, in six steps. Many engineers use these steps to help find good design solutions to a problem, and most of the steps can apply to your students' projects, too.

  1. First engineers consider the need. What does the thing you are making need to do? For professional engineers, this step has real-world implications. To find a solution, or sell a product and make a profit, engineers find out and evaluate what the customer wants and needs. How does the solution to your problem need to be better than the competition? For a student project, the "customer" is probably the student him/herself, creating a solution to a problem that they have.

What is the problem you're trying to solve? Write a problem statement, which is a short, carefully thought-out sentence about what problem or challenge you are trying to solve. The problem statement should be general enough to be open to any kind of solution. For example, one student team might say their problem statement is: "To make a better can opener." A better statement would be: "To get the contents out of a can." That way, the problem is open to any creative solution, not just the can opener solution.

Also in this step, engineers find out from the customer any design requirements, using specific numbers if possible. For example, if the customer wants the solution to be lightweight, write down that it must weigh less than X pounds or kilograms.

  1. Think of many different ideas that might be possible solutions to the problem statement. This is the most important step. The more ideas you consider, the more likely you will find a great solution. Besides brainstorming, engineers try to look at the problem in different ways. They use a few approaches to generate different ideas. Inversion means thinking of an idea that is somehow opposite of an idea you already have, like looking at it upside down or inside out.

Another way to look at the problem differently is by analogy, which means seeing how the problem is solved in a completely different environment or context. For example, Velcro was a solution invented by a person who saw that burrs stuck to his clothes. He took an idea from something that occurred in nature and turned it into something useful for people.

Another way to look at the problem differently is to explain it to another person. Simply explaining the problem to your friend might help you think of something that you didn't think of before. Or, your friend's response might trigger an idea for you.

Another tool that can help you think of several ideas is called SCAMPER. Each letter stands for a way that you can change a design that you already have:




Modify, Magnify or Minify

Put to other uses


Reverse or Rearrange

  1. Select the best design. One way to narrow your design ideas from many to a few best ideas is to make a list of all the design requirements, such as weight, appearance, safety, size, cost and ease of use. Then, rate the design criteria for what is most important in solving your problem, using 1 as least important and 10 as most important (see Table 2). Then, for each design idea, rate how well that design meets each criterion – using a scale from 1 (poor) to 5 (great). Then, multiply each importance rating by each design idea rating, and add those numbers. This sum represents how well the design solution meets the criteria. Compare the sums from many different design solutions, and look more closely at the top two or three. Don't just pick the design idea with the highest score, because sometimes it might not be the best. Use your judgment to pick which one of the higher scoring solutions is the best overall solution.

Calculations are made to evaluate three designs for how well they each meet six design requirements. Designs A, B and C are scored with totals of 137, 121 and 160, respectively.
Table 2. Example comparative analysis among three design alternatives.
Copyright © ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder.

  1. Communicate your design so that others understand. Create a report, an instruction manual, a presentation, or a poster for the design that you choose. Make sure other people can understand why your design works and how it is a solution to the problem statement.
  2. Create (build and test) your designed product. It is important to make a model or prototype of the design to make sure it works. A prototype is the first product that is made from the design, which you use to analyze whether or not it addresses the problem adequately. There are many different types of models that you can use to test the design. You could make a physical model of clay, cardboard or foam. A conceptual model is a precise, hand-drawn sketch, drawn to scale. Engineers also use computer simulations to model behavior of a complicated design. Your goal is to make several prototypes, each improving on the one before or modeling some new feature. Keep in mind that prototypes help engineers learn from their mistakes and discover improvements to their original ideas — so they should not be fancy. Lots of ideas that "work on paper" turn out to be lousy solutions, so building early prototypes helps engineers see the flaws in their thinking.
  3. Review and decide if your design is the best one possible. After following this procedure, a student might have an excellent solution to a problem, or s/he might have to go back to step one. Many professional engineers think of the engineering process as iteration or a cycle because it is common to return to step one after going through the whole process. In this way, they experiment and learn, so they eventually come up with a great solution.


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 challenge.

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

Associated Activities

  • Hot Problem Solving - Students follow the steps of the engineering design process to find a way to get everyone from the playground play set to the sidewalk, without touching the ground.
  • Problem Solve Your School - Students identify a way that their school needs improvement, and follow the steps of the engineering design process to come up with a solution.

Lesson Closure

Who can tell me the steps in the engineering design process? (Answer: Find the need or problem, brainstorm ideas, select a design, explain your design, create and test a model of your design, review and decide if your design is the best solution, iterate your design) We know that brainstorming is really important! What are some of the rules of brainstorming? (Answer: No negative comments are allowed, encourage wild ideas, record all ideas, build on the ideas of others, stay focused on the topic, and one conversation at a time.) Now that we know all about the engineering design process, we can use it in our own lives. It can help us find solutions to our own challenges, like keeping our lunch cold on a warm day. It can help us in class and when we do engineering activities. Many engineering activities include designing something to help make things better. We can use the steps of the engineering design process to come up with the best new solution to any engineering challenge!



Pre-Lesson Assessment

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

  • What do you think engineers do?
  • How do you think they come up with ideas to address real-world challenges?

Post-Introduction Assessment

Voting: Ask a true/false question and have students vote by holding thumbs up for true and thumbs down for false. Tally the votes and write the totals on the board. Give the right answer.

  • True or False: Engineering includes making things that already exist, except making them better. (Answer: True. This is how engineers make design improvements to existing technologies, like adding cameras to cell phones or making running shoes that provide more support.)
  • True or False: Building a fort the same way you usually do can be considered engineering. (Answer: False. Building a fort a new, better way would be engineering.)
  • True or False: You can work like engineers anytime. (Answer: True. Anytime you are trying to find a solution or create a brand new design, you use the engineering design process.)
  • True or False: The engineering design process is the same as the scientific method. (Answer: False. Even though they are similar, the scientific method is about proving a hypothesis, while the engineering design process is about creating new solutions.)
  • True or False: Brainstorming is one of the most important parts of the engineering design process. (Answer: True. Coming up with many different ideas can help you find better solutions.)
  • True or False: While brainstorming is a good way to come up with ideas, crazy ideas don't help at all. (Answer: False. Crazy ideas can help people look at the problem in different ways and come up with more creative solutions.)
  • True or False: Negative comments about the ideas of others are not allowed during brainstorming sessions. (Answer: True. Everyone should feel comfortable saying what is on their mind so that we get the most ideas possible.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Diagramming: Ask students to illustrate the engineering design process by making a diagram with arrows. It should include the most important steps, such as defining the need or problem, coming up with ideas, selecting an idea, testing a design, and deciding if the solution works. Hang these flow charts around the classroom.

Role-Playing: Have students role-play "good" versus "bad" brainstorming behaviors. Ask four students to come up to the front of the class. Give them a brainstorming challenge, such as: "come up with a new design for a water toy." Have them act out a scene using bad brainstorming techniques (for example, students do not listen to each other or make fun of each others' ideas). Ask the rest of the class to suggest ways to improve the brainstorming session using the brainstorming guidelines. Have the same students re-enact the scene using good brainstorming techniques.


Household Hunt: Assess students' understanding of the lesson by assigning them to make a list of everything they use in their homes that was designed by engineers. Suggest that they pay close attention to everything around them. Answers should cover a range of topics, for example: shelter, heating, communications devices, medical devices, cooling, food storage and preparation, household appliances, entertainment, transportation, clean water, etc. (See additional ideas in the Lesson Extension Activities section.) Lead a ten-minute discussion during the next class period, asking students what they learned from the homework assignment.

Lesson Extension Activities

  1. Have students apply the engineering design process to a problem from a storybook, such as The Three Little Pigs or Three Billy Goats Gruff, to come up with the best solutions.
  2. Lead a brainstorming session to see how many ideas students can generate to the question: "What have engineers designed that improves your life?" If students need help, remind them that engineers design solutions that address society's needs and problems. Possible answers: Ways to keep food cold, ways to heat water, ways to cook food in your house, your house, your school, delivering cleaning drinking water in your house, household appliances to wash and cook, soaps and shampoos, smoke detectors, ways to measure and predict weather, medical technologies, replacement arms/legs, lighting, heating, cooling, telephones, music players, televisions, computers, computer games, subways, buses, cars, bicycles, skateboards, roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, dams, energy/power generators, skyscrapers, factories, city water systems, sporting equipment, new fabrics, new technologies, etc.
  3. Go through some examples of ways different communities have used the engineering design process to improve upon a technology and take advantage of natural resources. Go through the following examples and encourage your students to consider the steps that most likely developed to create these innovative technologies:
  • Denmark with windmills – the geography of Denmark is such that it is a prime location to take advantage of wind energy. You can easily google images of beautiful wind turbines off the coast in the ocean to show the students. This could easily transition into the Teach Engineering "Wind Power!" or "Wind Energy" activities. The students can use what they've learned from this lesson to work through the design process and make their own wind mills or wind turbines.
  • Solar cookers in underdeveloped areas – Some areas that lack electricity to use conventional ovens have taken to the use of solar ovens. Solar ovens use the energy from the sun to cook food and boil water! This could easily transition into the Teach Engineering "Cooking with the Sun – Create a Solar Oven" activity. The students can use what they've learned from this lesson to work through the design process and make their own solar oven.
  • Hydropower in the northwest United States – 20% of the world's electricity is supplied by hydropower! Specifically, the northwest United States has taken advantage of this low-cost renewable technology with as much as 80% of all electricity supplied by hydropower. This could easily transition into the Teach Engineering "Power, Work and the Waterwheel," or "Waterwheel Work," activities. The students can use what they've learned from this lesson to work through the design process and make their own waterwheels.

Additional Multimedia Support

Link to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE)'s list of the Top 20 Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century: http://www.greatachievements.org/. Good information is provided on each item, giving students an historical perspective on modern conveniences they may take for granted. These engineering accomplishments made great contributions in addressing disease, pollution, deforestation, treacherous working conditions, and enormous cultural divides, resulting in a healthier, safer, and more productive world.


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/
Introduction to Design in the Classroom. Summer 1996. Classroom Compass, Volume 2, Number 3, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Accessed April 26, 2006. http://www.sedl.org/scimath/compass/v02n03/design.html


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 this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.