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Lesson: Problem-solve Your School

AA042869(Lesson courtesy Teachengineering and the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder) Grade Level: 4-12. Group Size: 28. Time Required: one to two class periods.  Activity Pdf.


Students in grades 4-12 apply the engineering design process to a real-life problem that affects them at school. The class jointly selects a single problem then comes up with and tests a design solution. By doing so, students undertake the role of problem-solving engineers.

Engineering Connection

Engineers use the engineering design process to find creative solutions to a wide range of challenges. In addition to designing consumer products, the process is also used to design solutions to infrastructure and systems that benefit society: How do we remove dirty water from homes and make it into clean water? How do we manage the resources of a river to supply everyone’s’ needs without destroying the natural environment? How can we efficiently and responsibly produce energy and deliver it as electricity to where people need it? How can we design a factory to optimally produce a specific product? How should we lay out the streets and traffic routes to provide access, efficiency and safety?

Pre-Requisite Knowledge

A basic understanding of the steps of the engineering design process and brainstorming, as described in this eGFI lesson plan, using a helpful diagram. See also the Teachengineering lesson Time to Design.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain the important steps of the engineering design process.
  • Relate how engineering incorporates this design process in many applications.
  • Apply the engineering design process to multiple design challenges in their school setting.

Educational Standards

Colorado Science Standards (For other states, please consult the Teachengineering page).

  • Standard 5, grades 0 – 12: Students know and understand interrelationships among science, technology, and human activity and how they can affect the world. 1995
  • Standard 1, grades 0 – 12: Students understand the processes of scientific investigation and design, conduct, communicate about, and evaluate such investigations. 1995

Materials List

Each student needs:


After you woke up this morning, did any of you experience something that just didn’t go right? Maybe you hit snooze on the alarm clock too many times, or you couldn’t find your glasses, or you spent too much time picking out something to wear. Did you think about what could be done next time if it were to happen again?Who remembers the steps of the engineering design process? Remember that the process starts with stating a problem or recognizing a need. This step is important to help us get started thinking of creative solutions or designs to help address our problem. Sometimes a real-world challenge is given to engineers to solve, but other times, an engineer must think, “Is there a problem here?” or, “How can this thing or process be improved?” Sometimes engineers come up with exciting new ideas for a problem by thinking, “Wouldn’t it be neat if…?” In other words, engineers might have to come up with a problem themselves. Today, we will identify a problem around our school or in our classroom — maybe the long lunch lines, or your hand hurting from taking a lot of notes. And, then we will use the engineering design process to think of some possible solutions for it.

In the engineering design process, we first define our problem statement. The next step is to come up with many potential design solutions by brainstorming. Then, we select of these designs by voting on which is the best one. Next, we explain the design to make sure everyone understands it, and we might even present our idea to the principal if we need permission to try it out. After that, we will test the design to make sure it works. Finally, we will review and decide if it is in fact the best solution or if we should iterate our design and start over again based on what we learned from our first design. Let’s get started!


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 problem.

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


Note to teachers

  • This whole-class activity was designed specifically for students in 5th grade, but can be adjusted for use with for older students and more sophisticated  problems. Please see the note on activity scaling, below

Day 1

1. Introductory activity. Open discussion and consideration from the class by  soliciting, integrating, and summarizing responses to the following questions:

  • What is good or works well in our school or classroom?
  • In what ways could we improve our school or classroom?

2. Defining the problem

a) The class will work together to  come up with a problem statement. Begin by having the class brainstorm, making a list of several problems within the school or classroom. All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position, encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have students raise their hands to respond,  and write their ideas on the board. Omit any ideas that may have limiting factors, such as high cost or safety.

Examples: Getting to school on time;  long lunch lines;  crowded halls after assemblies;  backpacks don’t fit in locker or coat closet; difficulty sitting next to all your friends at lunch because the tables are long and narrow; pencil eraser always runs out; no running at halls when late to a class; difficulty in taking taking notes for a long time; items in classroom are too high to reach;  the classroom is too hot or too cold, etc.

b) Take a class vote to decide which problem to try to solve. Change the problem issue into a problem statement by talking with the class, and write the agreed-upon problem statement on the board.

Suggestions: Make it a short, carefully thought-out sentence explaining the problem in a way that is open to multiple solutions. For example, instead of: “Insulate my lunch bag,” a more general statement might be: “Keep my lunch cold until lunchtime.”

c) Distribute the Problem Solve Your School Worksheet. Have students copy down the problem statement at the top.

3. Devising a solution

a) As a class, brainstorm different design solutions to the problem.

Suggestions:Write all ideas on the board. Encourage wild ideas and building off of each others’ ideas. Remind students that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is “silly.”

Examples: For a “keeping my lunch cold” problem, students might suggest adapting an idea from somewhere else, such as other products that use insulation. To help them generate ideas, ask them to think of other possible uses for an insulated bag, which might trigger different ideas. Or, is there something we can eliminate that might be transferring heat? Can we rearrange anything? They may come up with ideas, such as: wrapping each lunch item with aluminum foil so as to not leave any item exposed, or lining the lunch bag/box with bubble wrap.

b) Select. Work together to narrow down to the best 5-6 designs. Have students record these on their worksheet. Next, take a vote for the best design solution. Example: Wrapping each lunch item with aluminum foil.

c) Explain. Write the chosen design on the board. Explain the plan again to make it clear to everyone, or have several students take turns explaining the plan to the class. Example: We will insulate our lunch by wrapping each food item with aluminum foil. Have each student write his or her own explanation on the worksheet, taking the time to elaborate on the opposite side, and draw diagrams or charts.

d) Prepare. As a class, determine what materials will be needed to devise the solution and test its outcome. For homework, assign students to collect the necessary materials to test the design. If there are proposed variations to the solution, divide students into different teams to work on a particular approach.

Day Two

1. Test the solution: Divide students into small teams to test similar designs;  alternatively the entire class can work on a single solution.<

Example: Test several identical lunches, taking temperatures in the morning and then at lunchtime. Change one factor for each test lunch: the amount of foil used. Use one layer of foil on one lunch, two layers on another lunch, and three layers on another lunch. With a fourth lunch, fill all empty space in the bag/box with crumpled foil balls.

2. Review the Solution. Does it work? If not, brainstorm as a class and figure out why it is not working, or try one of the other ideas. If it works, the class solved the problem!

Example: Were the lunches at least as cold as necessary? If not, what did we learn that could help us with a better design? If so, which lunch lost the least heat? Was using a lot of foil worth the extra insulation, or would this method be a waste of money?

If the solution does not work, guide the class as to why it does not work and what might make it work. If the class still cannot get a solution that works, explain that some problems are too complicated to find solutions for in a short amount of time, but engineers keep iterating until they find a good design solution. Then, try a less complicated problem with a surefire solution, to cultivate the students’ confidence in the helpfulness of a structured design process.

3. Finally, ask students to propose ways to make the design work even better. Explain that through the process of  re-engineering, or iteration, engineers continuously improve upon their designs.


1. Iteration: Have students write out or sketch ideas for how they might re-engineer (iterate!) and improve their design.

2. Class Discussion. Have students brainstorm about other system and design challenges in their lives and in the world.

How can a particular system or item be improved? (Possible answers: Make [a product] stronger, lighter, less expensive, last longer, more dependable, not wear out as quickly, recyclable, etc.)

Wouldn’t it be neat if…? (Possible answers: Medical doctors could see what is going on inside of a body without harming the patient, we could take photographs using a more lightweight and inexpensive device, there was enough water in the river at the end of the summer, the lights automatically turn off when you leave a room, or people could travel to or live on other planets.)

2. Use the eGFI cards to generate student ideas for design challenges and future solutions (available for purchase from the online eGFI store). Each card suggests a “future challenge” for one of 14 engineering disciplines.  Teachers can also direct students to the online cards on the eGFI site.

3. Have students explore recent inventions and solutions offered by engineers in the eGFI “e-news” section, trailblazers,  or videos. What innovations strike them as the most promising, useful, or outrageous?

4. Journal Reflection: Have  students write a paragraph to explain how engineers use the engineering design process to create new inventions that help people do something they have never done before. For extra credit, have students document in their journals a drawing and description of an engineering idea or invention of their own creation.

5. Class Presentation: Have the class present their engineering design to another class or the rest of the school with a poster or short skit.

Activity Scaling

For lower grades, be sure to choose a problem statement for which it is relatively easy to find a solution. Choosing a problem that is too hard may decrease the students’ confidence in their engineering, problem-solving abilities.

For upper grades, teachers can divide the class into engineering teams of 2-4 students each. As a class, agree upon a problem statement. Then, have each group complete the remaining engineering design process steps independently. Once teams have devised their solution, they can present their design solution to the entire class, then compare and critique the solutions.


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.

Contributors: Megan Podlogar, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise Carlson, Jackie Sullivan

Copyright © 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado. The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a Discovery Learning Apprenticeship by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program.

Supporting Program: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder

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