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The Engineering Design Process

(Adapted from teachengineering and Engineering Is Elementary.)

Safer highways. Cool phone apps. Green buildings. Thrilling roller coasters. What do all these things have in common? All bear the stamp of engineering design – a process of brainstorming, building, testing, and refining to create a product, service, or system within time or resource limits.

Some people equate design with veneer or decoration. To Apple founder Steve Jobs, however, it was “the fundamental soul of a human-made creation.” For engineers, the design process is a series of steps that helps teams frame and solve complex problems. Anyone can do it!


  • What is the Challenge?
  • Are there limitations or requirements?
  • What do we know already?


  • Brainstorm possible solutions
  • Consider Design Options


  • Choose the best design
  • Draw a picture
  • Identify appropriate materials


  • Build solution based on plan
  • Test it out


  • Study test results
  • Modify design to make it better
  • Test it out again

To figure out how to build something, engineering teams gather information and conduct research to understand the needs and challenges to be addressed. What is problem. What do we want to accomplish? What are the project’s requirements and limitations? Who’s the customer? Then they brainstorm many imaginative possible solutions, even wild and crazy ideas, selecting the most promising one for their design. The process includes drawings, analyzing and deciding on what materials and technologies to use, and creating many prototypes that get improved upon until the product design is good enough to meet their needs. The process includes figuring out what data to collect to be sure the design works well, and assigning team tasks.

Tips for incorporating engineering design in the classroom

A key theme of the engineering design process is teamwork. Since students design in small groups, encourage them use the steps of the engineering design process. How will they work well together, listening to and respecting all ideas in the brainstorming session, reserving any judgment until a decision is made? Even then, make the decision-making process as democratic as possible, with all opinions being heard.

Once a teamwork base is established, build upon that with a creative design. If a team of students is excited about their idea, they can come up with some fun methods for improving or extending the original idea. Reinforce with them that the end goal is a design solution that is a seamless blend of creativity and utility. And remember, there are no bad ideas!

More resources about the engineering design cycle:

Engineering is Elementary, developed by the Museum of Science in Boston.

NASA (grades K-4 graphic) (grades 5-12 roster) NASA for Kids “Intro to Engineering” [YouTube video 2:42]

The Works Hands-On Museum “YOU are an engineer” design cycle poster.

PBS’s Design Squad activities, lesson plans, and video, plus engineering design process poster [pdf].

Images top to bottom: NASA graphic

4 Responses to “The Engineering Design Process”

  1. I was looking for this info for a very long time. it is brief and informative-reader friendly. Thank you

  2. Thank you for the reminder! I have this posted on my classroom walls in a few formats, but one more review is always welcome!

  3. There is a fundamental flaw in all versions of the design CYCLE: Because there is no alert or suggestion that it is highly unlikely that the steps in the cycle will proceed in order. Think about this! What is the probability that anyone – expert or novice – can select the best choice for the next step once the previous step is completed. Of course, for trivial assignments, the probability can be greater; but for meaningful assignments, very small… Note that for me, trivial assignments would include (but NOT be limited to) those for which a correct answer is known AND is obtained by most all teams addressing the assignment!!!

    But that simply means “looping back” to some earlier step based upon honest consideration / reflection of why the last choice was not a good one. Poor choices or mistakes are expected and acceptable for meaningful assignments – as long as the procedures used and the outcomes resulting are assessed for further guidance.

    Leaders making the assignments or teachers designing and making the assignments probably understand that “looping back” will be required. But when the design CYCLE is sketched with arrows pointing the way and no discussion of the likelihood of poor choices requiring that looping back, students will almost certainly believe those experienced with use of the design cycle will proceed around it in an orderly fashion. Very misleading for the students …

  4. That’s a good point, John. The real-world engineering design process is not so orderly and simplistic as most graphics imply. The beauty of the approach is that as we move our best ideas forward, we learn their limitations, causing us to step back to earlier stages of the process in order to improve the idea/solution. To students, we often say that the process is cyclical and iterative, and may begin at, and return to, any step—which is a challenge to show in an age-appropriate graphic!

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