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Lesson: The Total Package

Modified lesson courtesy of the Educator Resource Center of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Center. Level: grades 6-12. Time Required: One to two 50-minute class periods.

The Total Package



Who hasn’t been frustrated by hard-to-open, clumsy containers? Assuming the role of engineers, students learn about the design process and examine the packaging of everyday products. They then analyze a specific product and devise a better design, producing a written report that recommends helpful changes.


State Standards

National Standards:

  • Science

Standard 6. Understands relationships among organisms and their physical environment

  • Geography

Standard 14. Level IV. Understands how human actions modify the physical environment


Understands the role of humans in decreasing the diversity of flora and fauna in a region.

Standard 16. Level IV. Understands the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution and importance of resources

4. Knows issues related to the reuse and recycling of resources.

  • Writing

Standard 1. Level IV. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process


Writes persuasive compositions that address problems/solutions or causes/effects.

  • Working With Others

Standard 1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group

  • Thinking & Reasoning

Standard 5. Applies basic trouble-shooting and problem-solving techniques


Students will:

  • learn about the engineering design process
  • identify packaging requirements and problems of a product
  • design a prototype for an improved product package
  • compose a written report that contains recommendations for their new design


“Let’s Make a Change” handout: Lets Make a Change handout.doc

Design process diagram from The Works online museum.

Aveda Corp. Design USA: Contemporary Innovation from CooperHewitt

Educators may also wish to consult Cooper Hewitt Museum’s online Educators Resource Center for background on design and design education, videos, and additional lesson plans.



Building Background

Identifying Packaging Problems

The purpose of this activity is to provide an opportunity for students to examine how products are packaged, as well as the costs surrounding packaging and the impact that packaging has on the environment.

1. Introduce students to the concept of the engineering design process using the diagram to illustrate the basic principles. The class will undertake the first three steps of this process, though not actually creating new product packaging.

Share and discuss the following: Did you know that up to one out of every 10 dollars you spend at the store pays for packaging? When all packaging is accounted for, it adds up to about one-third of all the trash that’s thrown away in the United States.

2. Explain that not all packaging is wasteful or undesirable. Have students brainstorm a list of the reasons why manufacturers use packaging for their products, including: protection from damage during shipping; protection from contamination and spoilage; inclusion of necessary information about the product; ensuring tamper-proof and child-resistant safeguards.

3. Share with the class an example of an item that uses excess packaging and one item that uses “smarter” packaging. Engage students in a discussion of how the items were packaged and the various requirements of different products, such as electronics or packaged fruit. Students may also discuss package designs that are both efficient and appealing, incorporating ingenious or useful design. To what extent, and in what ways does packaging contribute to environmental damage?

Steps for Learning

Take Action: Let’s Make Some Changes

The purpose of this activity is to provide students with an opportunity to use the steps of the design process to solve a product-packaging problem.

1. Divide the class into small groups. Give each group a copy of the “Let’s Make A Change” handout and an item that contains excess packaging.

Teacher Note: Suggestions for products that use excess and/or non-environmentally friendly materials include individually wrapped snack food containers, such as applesauce with foil lids; plastic-wrapped sandwiches; microwave popcorn or fast-food meals; action-figure dolls or other toys; and electronic equipment, such as USB flash drives.

2. Ask students to imagine that the companies that produce their assigned product have asked them to design a new, less-wasteful and more environmentally friendly package for the item. Explain to students that they are going to analyze the item and make recommendations for how the package design could be improved to use less, and/or more environmentally friendly materials.

3. Allow students appropriate time to work through the questions of their handout. The written report in step five below may be completed as a homework assignment, or you may choose to have groups prepare a PowerPoint type presentation and present their design to the “company” officials.

From the Student Handout:

STEP ONE: Identify the problem

What is the problem with the way the item was packaged as it relates to excess or non-environmentally friendly packaging?

STEP TWO: Analyze the packaging

Analyze the materials used in the packaging of your product. Answer the following questions and record your answers and observations in the space below.

  • Is the type of packaging necessary to avoid contamination, spoilage, or damage during shipping?
  • Is the type of packaging necessary in order to include information about the product?
  • Are the materials used in the packaging environmentally friendly?
  • What else do you observe about the packaging?

STEP THREE: Create a new design for the product

Use the space below to record the design ideas from your brainstorming session. Build a prototype for your product.

STEP FOUR: Evaluating your design

After you have completed your prototype, ask the other groups to offer you feedback on your design. After receiving the feedback, make any final adjustments to your design. Record feedback and ideas for product improvements in the space below.

STEP FIVE: Communicate.

Write a report to the company that outlines your recommendations for changes in the packaging design. Use the space below to organize your ideas for the report.



Create a class rubric with your students that will help them understand the effectiveness of their design process. Use the following guidelines to help create the rubric.

-How effective was your brainstorming in generating ideas?

Excellent Good Adequate Poor

-Rate how effectively you analyzed the information you used to identify your problem.

Excellent Good Adequate Poor

-Rate the effectiveness of your solution.

Excellent Good Adequate Poor

-Rate how clearly you communicated the problem you wanted to solve.

Excellent Good Adequate Poor

-Rate how clearly you communicated your solution.

Excellent Good Adequate Poor

-Rate your effectiveness as problem solvers.

Excellent Good Adequate Poor


Extension Activities:

1) The class tackled three of the six steps of the engineering design process. Engage students in a discussion of what it would take to see the process to completion. How would construction and testing of materials help? Why are the first steps of the design process also important?

2) Mini Landfill: Build a mini landfill in your class. Fill the landfill with a variety of packaging materials. Observe which packaging materials break down in the landfill. There are several Internet sites that provide instructions for the creation of a mini landfill. You may find one of these or use the instructions on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection website:

2) Extend the consideration of design and the role of engineers in product manufacture.   Have students visit the Cooper Hewitt’s “Peoples Design Award” site to examine award-nominated designs. Teachers also may wish to consult the related lesson plan in which students nominate a design of their own choosing. Take a look, as well, at our eGFI article on innovative chair design.


Food Packaging. In this hands-on lesson plan developed by Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, students learn how food packaging is designed and made.

Packaging Lessons: What’s the purpose of packaging? How do you estimate the true costs? These and other ideas are explored in middle school environmental science activities developed by teachers in North Carolina State University’s Kenan Fellows program.

Designing Plant Packages. Thinking Inside the Box curriculum unit for grades 1-5 from the Museum of Science Boston’s Engineering is Elementary includes videos of classroom teachers doing this activity with students.

Why Design Now? Product nutrition labels and greenbox projects. CooperHewitt exhibition:

Aveda Corp. Design USA: Innovative Packaging CooperHewitt exhibition:




updated Sept. 1, 2016

One Response to “Lesson: The Total Package”

  1. Updated the activity and added some new resources and links to packaging design activities, but all links to “Let’s Make a Change” handout appear to be broken.
    – eGFI producer

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