Students learn about the process of reverse engineering and how this technique is used to improve upon technology. Students analyze push-toys and draw diagrams of the predicted mechanisms inside the toys. Then, they disassemble the toys and draw the actual inner mechanisms. By understanding how the push-toys function, students make suggestions for improvement, such as cost effectiveness, improved functionality, ecological friendliness and any additional functionality they determine is an improvement.
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- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- Next Generation Science Standards: Science
- Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success. (Grades 6 - 8)  ...show
- Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved. (Grades 6 - 8)  ...show
- Define reverse engineering as the process of disassembly and careful analysis with the goal of duplicating or improving a device or component.
- Demonstrate the process of reverse engineering using a given object or component and suggest areas of improvement.
- 2-3 copies of the Engineering in Reverse Worksheet (pdf), one per student
- 1 push-toy (available for ~$US 7 each at http://www.drtoy.com/2002_c/classic_02_28.html or at most toy stores including Toys R Us® or Target®)
- 1 small Phillips-head screwdriver (borrowed from other school classrooms or purchased at Lowe's® or Home Depot® for less than $US 1 each)
- 1 small bowl or bin for screws and small pieces
|diagram:||A visual representation of a system, process, technique or individual components that make up a part or product; often is black and white.|
|reverse engineering:||The process of taking something apart to understand how it works and suggest improvements.|
- Ask – What is the problem? What have others done?
- Imagine – What is the best solution? Brainstorm ideas.
- Plan – Draw a diagram. List the materials you need.
- Create – Follow your plan and test it out.
- Improve – How can you improve your design? Go back to Step 1.
Before the Activity
- Gather enough push-toys for the class, one for each group of 2-3 students.
- Make copies of the Engineering in Reverse Worksheet (pdf), one for each student.
- Explain to students that reverse engineering is the process of carefully taking something apart to understand how it works and suggest possible areas of improvement.
- Write the definition of reverse engineering on the board
With the Students
- Divide the class into groups of 2-3 students each and give each group one push-toy.
- Tell students to spend about five minutes testing the push-toys and discussing within their groups how the toy functions. Encourage students to consider the mechanisms inside the toy.
- Hand out one worksheet to each student. Explain that the worksheet contains three sides: the first page is completed before disassembling the toy and the rest is completed after disassembly.
- Students should complete the first page of the worksheet by drawing their predictions of the inner mechanisms of the toy. Allow enough time (about 15-20 minutes) for students to complete detailed drawings.
- While students are working, ask the following questions to the groups:
- Be sure the students have completed their initial drawings before handing out screwdrivers for disassembly.
- Allow groups to begin taking apart the push-toys. Remind all groups to be extra careful not to lose any pieces (such as small screws, tiny washers, springs, etc.). Instruct students to immediately place all pieces in a small bowl or bin to keep them safe for the reassembly.
- Once the groups are done disassembling their push-toys, have them complete the rest of the worksheet by drawing the actual mechanisms.
- Be sure to leave enough time for students to reassemble the toys.
- As engineers, how do we figure out how something works? For example, suppose we want to know how a toaster works? (Answer: We learn how things work by taking them apart. By doing this, we can figure out what is inside and how it works.)
- What do you think reverse engineering means? (Answer: Reverse engineering is the process of taking something apart to understand how it works.)
- Other than learning about how an object functions, what is another goal of reverse engineering? Example? (Answer: Other goals of reverse engineering are to improve the device's function, make it more cost efficient, make it more ecologically friendly, change the function, or create another use for the object. An example: finding out that one of several screws are not necessary for the performance or durability of a particular product, which could save huge manufacturing costs when hundreds or thousands are produced.)
Activity Embedded Assessment
- Describe how the device was disassembled.(Students may explain where the screws were located and how the inside components were taken apart from each other.)
- What did you learn about the device's design and function? (Students may explain that the toy is designed to be used by small children, so it is difficult to take apart and is very robust. Also, it contains simple mechanisms that work for a very long time.)
- Describe the key components and how they function. (For example, the spring turns the gear, which is attached to the wheel axle.)
- Suggest changes that would improve the device's function. (Students may explain ways to redesign the toy so that the spring does not get stuck, the toy goes faster, etc.)
- How could the device be more cost effective to produce? (Students may suggest that fewer screws be used, child-safe glue is used instead of screws, or fewer gears be used.)
- Have the groups present the mechanisms they reverse-engineered to the entire class. Then, have the groups re-design a toy that uses at least two of the different mechanisms they just learned about.
- Have students create an advertisement (print, video or audio), marketing the re-engineered push-toy to an identified target audience. Students should describe the purpose of the object and the improvement(s) they have made.
- For lower grades, disassemble one push-toy as a class. This prevents them from getting frustrated from using a screwdriver and losing small parts.
- For upper grades, have students reassemble the toys to perform different functions. For example, the reassembled toy must go backwards or must turn in one direction. This challenges students to really understand how the mechanisms work.
Abarca, Javier, et al. Introductory Engineering Design: A Projects-Based Approach. (Textbook for GEEN 1400: First-Year Engineering Projects course.) Third Edition (spiral bound), Eds. Janet L. Yowell and Denise W. Carlson. Boulder, CO: Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado at Boulder, Fall 2000. http://itll.colorado.edu/index.php/courses_workshops/geen_1400/resources/textbook/
Boston Museum of Science, Engineering is Elementary, "The Engineering Design Process," accessed June 24, 2009. http://www.mos.org/eie/engineering_design.php
Megan Schroeder, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell
© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Last modified: September 3, 2015