Lesson What Is Engineering and What Is Design?

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (5-7)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Lesson Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

Two images: A group of eight young students smile at the camera, looking like a happy team. An old black and white drawing titled "space shuttle concepts," shows one "base line" rendering of a reusable spacecraft and five very different "alternate" designs.
It takes creative teams of engineers to design amazing things that have never existed before—such as the space shuttle. (Early U.S. space shuttle design concepts.)
Copyright © (kids) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (shuttle designs) 2008 NASA via Wikimedia Commons http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/developmentaldisabilities/about.html http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Space_Shuttle_concepts.jpg


Students are presented with an overview of engineering and design. Various engineering disciplines are discussed in some detail using slides and an online video and website. The concept of design is introduced by presenting the basic steps of the engineering design process. Students learn that design is not necessarily restricted to engineering, but a general concept applicable to all walks of life. To strengthen their understanding, students are challenged to design a picnic for their friends by considering its various components as they go through the design process steps. This prepares them for subsequent design challenges such as those in the associated activities of this unit. A PowerPoint® presentation, pre/post quizzes and worksheet are provided.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers apply their in-depth understanding of scientific and mathematical subjects to design and create devices, structures and systems that improve our lives. While scientists investigate what already exists and discover new knowledge by peering into the unknown, engineers create what has not been—they make things that have never existed before. Engineering teams follow the steps of the engineering design process: understand the need/problem, brainstorm different designs, select the best design, make a plan, create and test a prototype(s), and improve it until a satisfactory solution is achieved. The process is cyclical and may begin at, and return to, any step.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Define engineering and identify different engineering disciplines/fields.
  • Define design and provide examples.
  • Identify the different steps in the design cycle and apply it to an example.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

3-5-ETS1-1. 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)

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This lesson focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Alignment agreement:

Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

Alignment agreement:

People's needs and wants change over time, as do their demands for new and improved technologies.

Alignment agreement:

  • Students will develop an understanding of the characteristics and scope of technology. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Students will develop an understanding of the relationships among technologies and the connections between technology and other fields of study. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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

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  • Students will develop abilities to apply the design process. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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

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  • Designed objects are used to do things better or more easily and to do some things that could not otherwise be done at all (Grades K - 5) More Details

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Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/lessons/view/umo_challenges_lesson01] to print or download.


Humans have designed the many objects you see around you—-the classroom and school, your house, the refrigerator, bicycle, cell phones and computers you use, roads and cars—almost everything that doesn't occur naturally! How do engineers go about designing all these varied items? Indeed, what is engineering? And what is design?

(Show students the What Is Engineering? video)

Today we will look at the various fields of engineering, and then learn about the design cycle. Let's get started.

(Continue by showing the presentation and delivering the content in the Lesson Background section.)

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

This first lesson in the unit introduces students to engineering and design, which prepares them for the unit's subsequent design challenges that use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® taskbots.

Be ready to show students the 19-slide What Is Engineering? What Is Design? Presentation, a Microsoft® PowerPoint® file, to teach the lesson. Have ready a computer/projector with Internet access to also show students an online vide and a website. In advance, make copies of the Engineering & Design Pre/Post Quiz (two per student), provided both as attachments and slides, and the What Is Engineering? What Is Design? Worksheet (one per student).

What Is Engineering? What Is Design? Presentation Outline (slides 1-19)

  • Administer the pre-quiz by handing out paper copies; the quiz is also on slide 2. The answers are provided for the teacher on slide 3 for discussion after students have completed the quiz.
  • (slide 4) Introduce students to the "big" challenges being presently considered by engineers, including a list of 14 "grand challenges for engineers of the 21st century," listed on slide 5.
  • (slide 6) Define engineering, and then inform students that many types or "fields" of engineering exist. Show them the excellent, 4:17-minute "What Is Engineering?" video (link on slide 6 and in the Additional Multimedia Support section).
  • (slides 7-10) Take students through the various types of engineering disciplines via the American Society for Engineering Education website. Click on the interactive flashcards on the ASEE's Engineering—Go for It! (eGFI) web page to explore different disciplines. Then read through 23 engineering discipline examples presented on three slides.
  • (slide 11) Define the broad concept of design as "creating something that does not exist." Point out that design is not limited to engineering, for example you could conceptually "design a story."
  • Introduce the engineering design process using the ASEE definition and the six steps that are presented in the cyclical graphic on slide 12. The steps include 1) state the problem, 2) generate ideas, 3) choose the best solution, 4) create a prototype or object, 5) test, evaluate and improve it, 6) present the results and final solution. These steps are repeated (iterated) as often as necessary until a good solution is achieved. Sometimes the design process is called the "design cycle" or "design loop."
  • An alternate but equivalent design cycle is provided on slide 13. In this description of the design process, the steps are: 1) ask/concept, 2) imagine/preliminary designs, 3) plan/definitive design, 4) create, and 5) improve/iterate. Read the questions under each step, which helps students understand what to think about and do at each stage.
  • If time permits, have students conduct some of the 20 Engineering is Elementary engineering design units developed for elementary students, some of which are listed on slide 14 (see the source URL in the Additional Multimedia Section). At a minimum, review the academic subjects, design challenges and engineering types on the slide to show students examples of the range of engineering challenges that exist, even for K-12 students. Then make the point that the concept of design is applicable to life problems in general, and inform students that they will be given a non-engineering design challenge next—to design a picnic—as described on the next slide.
  • (slide 15) Introduce the design challenge: To design a picnic for your friends. Provide each student with a worksheet. Give students 15 minutes to individually come up with their ideas for each of the steps of the design cycle (on slide 13). A list of example questions for students to answer as they develop their picnic designs are provided for the teacher on slide 16.
  • After 15 minutes, assemble students as a class and discuss the picnic design challenge, especially focusing on what they learned and issues encountered.
  • Administer the post-quiz by handing out paper copies; the quiz is also on slide 17 and is exactly the same as the pre-quiz. The answers are provided on slide 18. Vocabulary terms and definitions are provided on slide 19. Next, conduct the associated activity Maze Challenge where students are introduced to the logic for solving a maze. 

Associated Activities

  • Maze Challenge - For their first design challenge of the unit, students are introduced to the logic for solving a maze. They observe a blindfolded student volunteer being guided through a classroom maze by the simple verbal instructions of another student. Then student groups apply that logic to program LEGO robots to navigate through a maze, first with no sensors, and then with sensors.


design: Loosely defined, the art of creating something that does not exist.

engineering: The use of science and mathematics to solve problems to improve the world around us.

engineering design process: A series of steps used by engineering teams to guide them as they develop new solutions, products or systems. The process is cyclical and may begin at, and return to, any step.


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Pre-Quiz: Before starting the lesson, administer the two-question Engineering & Design Pre/Post Quiz by handing out paper copies (also on slide 2). Students' answers reveal their base knowledge about engineering and design. Example answers are provided on the Engineering & Design Pre/Post Quiz Answer Key (and slide 3). Administer the same quiz at lesson end.

Post-Introduction Assessment

Learning about Engineering and Design: Throughout the presentation, observe students and ask questions about the content to assess their engagement and level of understanding. If computers are available for each student or small student groups, pause on slide 7 and let students explore the interactive engineering discipline flashcards on the ASEE's eGFI website (link in Additional Multimedia Support section). Ask students to explain what they learned about at least one specific field of engineering.

Picnic Design Worksheet: Have students complete the What Is Engineering? What Is Design? Worksheet by explaining how they would follow all the engineering design process steps to design a picnic for their friends. This exercise assesses students' comprehension of the design process, provides them with practice in thinking through all the design process steps, and connects the engineering design process to every day design problems. Refer to the Worksheet Example Answers Outline for how students might do this.

Lesson Summary Assessment

Post-Quiz: At lesson end, administer the Engineering & Design Pre/Post Quiz again by handing out paper copies (also on slide 16). Compare students' answers to their pre-quiz answers to assess how well they learned the concepts during the course of the lesson. Expect to see different and more-varied post-quiz answers. Example answers are provided on the Engineering & Design Pre/Post Quiz Answer Key (and slide 17).

Additional Multimedia Support

During the lesson presentation, show students the University of Newcastle's excellent 4:17-minute video, "What Is Engineering?" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bipTWWHya8A.

During the lesson presentation, let students explore the interactive engineering discipline flashcards on the American Society for Engineering Education's "Engineering—Go for It!" website at http://www.egfi-k12.org/#.

Consider downloading and conducting some of the 20 free engineering design units for elementary students from the Museum of Science, Boston's excellent "Engineering is Elementary" website at http://www.eie.org/eie-curriculum/curriculum-units. In the presentation, a placeholder at slide 14 indicates a good point to conduct them in class, as time permits.

In advance of teaching this lesson, review the reasons why teaching K-12 engineering in your classroom is valuable for your young students at the "Why K-12 Engineering?" web page at https://www.teachengineering.org/whyk12engr.php.

See good resources about engineering careers at the Discover Engineering website at http://www.discovere.org/discover-engineering/engineering-careers.


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eGFI (Engineering—Go for It!). American Society for Engineering Education. (A multitude of K-12 teacher and student STEM resources) http://www.egfi-k12.org/#

"Engineering." Last updated December 2014. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed December 2013.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engineering

Introduction to the Grand Challenges for Engineering. Last modified June 30, 2008. National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies. Accessed December 2013. (The NAE has identified 14 grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century that fall under four broad realms of human concern.) http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/cms/8996/9221.aspx


© 2014 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2013 Curators of the University of Missouri


Sachin Nair, Pranit Samarth, Satish S. Nair

Supporting Program

GK-12 Program, Computational Neurobiology Center, College of Engineering, University of Missouri


This curriculum was developed under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0440524. 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: March 1, 2020

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