The Engineering Design Process for Kids

Written by Aziz Shaik
Last updated on December 9, 2021

The Engineering Design Process is used to solve countless problems and create innovative, cutting-edge solutions. Solutions we use in our everyday lives. From bicycles to cars to yes, even our smartphones. The process isn’t exclusive to complex problems, technology, or engineers. In fact, it can be used to tackle almost any task! Whether it is planning a vacation, a DIY project, or even creating art. 

Why should kids learn it though? Besides the obvious academic benefit, it gives them a framework to harness and improve on critical skills from problem-solving, creative thinking, to collaboration. Kids are natural inventors. Give them a specific object and watch them come up with a dozen uses for it. All they need is a process to follow.

As a Software Engineer, I’ve used it to develop many solutions in my career. I can tell you first-hand the many benefits of the Engineering Design Process.

But that alone will do you no good. So I dug around for a full day to find the best resources to teach your kids the Engineering Design Process. Along the way, we will also learn what the entire process is about, how we can apply it, and its many benefits. So let’s jump right in!


What is the Engineering Design Process?

No solution is ever spontaneously discovered. Rather, it is found through an iterative approach of research, trials, and tests.

The beauty of the Engineering Design Process is that it can be applied to any problem to come to a solution. Notice that I said “a solution” and not “the solution”. This is because, with the Engineering Design Process, multiple solutions are inevitable. This leaves us with the luxury of selecting the most suitable solution.

Engineering Design Process Flow Diagraam

In my humble opinion, the Engineering Design Process is a major contributor to STEM education - more on this later. It ties in perfectly by giving kids a platform on which they can harness their imagination with a supportive thought process.

It teaches kids a plethora of hard and soft skills. We will discover all the exciting ways a child can benefit from this super useful process. It’s a process that applies in an educational setting or even everyday activities.

The Steps of the Engineering Design Process

For the sake of completion, I have listed out the complete 7 steps of the Engineering Design Process. You will see varying numbers of steps from other resources, but the primary essence of the process is present regardless of the number of steps.

If you prefer a simpler approach for introducing to kids, check out the engineering design process for kids as laid out by the Museum of Science in Boston at eie.org/why-eie.

With that in mind, let’s review the 7 steps and what each step requires of us.

1. Ask - Identify the problem we are trying to solve.

  • Ask yourself and within your team - What am I trying to solve here?
  • Ask the target user-base or audience. What are their pain points?
  • Is there an official requirements document? Review it, and ask the document owners any questions for further clarification. Let them know of any constraints so there are no surprises in the end.
  • The key is to ask away and come away with a crystal clear vision of the end goal - you will thank yourself in the later stages.

2. Research - Use every resource available and take notes.

  • Read up on books, search the internet, and ask people.
  • Check for any previous solution attempts. Where did they fall short?
  • Note down any potential roadblocks, limitations, or constraints. Specifically, those that may affect the final solution.

3. Imagine - Brainstorm as many ideas as possible.

  • Use the notes you took from the previous step when brainstorming possible solutions.
  • Use your imagination along with the facts to come up with unique and interesting ideas.
  • Do not discount any ideas, no matter how silly they may seem. These are hidden gems, so build on these ideas. You may end up taking bits and pieces from that otherwise silly idea to use in your final solution.
  • While it’s good to go wild with your ideas, remember to stay focused on the main goal.

4. Plan - Decide on and design solution.

  • This is going to be the most difficult step as it will affect the remaining steps. Evaluate your ideas and pick one that checks all the boxes. Keep in mind you can always take a step back and go with another solution - that is the essence of the engineering design process.
  • When planning, use your prior research and notes to design solutions. Make a diagram or sketch out the details as needed. Make a plan on how to take it from concept to production.
  • Make a list of any limits to the solutions. Also, make a list of required equipment or tools.
  • Ensure that the design meets the requirements. It is completely fine to take a step back and go with another idea if you find the selected one won’t pan out as expected.

5. Create - Build out or implement the solution.

  • This is where all the hard work pays off. Build and experiment until you have a working solution.
  • It is OK to fail here. Look at it as a stepping stone to what will be the eventual solution. Go back to the ‘Plan’ phase with the lessons learned and get ready to try a new approach!

6. Test - Test the solution and have others test it. Gather feedback.

  • First, test to see if it checks all the basic requirements.
  • Testing from different perspectives is key. If it’s a physical item or structure, imagine all the different ways it could be used and structure your testing based on that. Look for gaps.
  • Note down all input and feedback. This will help determine what happens in the next step.

7. Improve - Evaluate and improve upon the solution.

  • Fill in gaps. Improve it to make it more efficient, simpler, or better in any way.
  • This may be the final step depending on your test results. Your solution either works or doesn’t. If it works, look for ways to make it even better. If it’s falling short in some areas, find ways to improve it.

Remember, the key with the Engineering Design Process is to cycle through as many times as needed. How do you know when you’re done? It all depends on what you come back within the ‘Test’ step. That’s your litmus test on the viability of your solution.

How the Engineering Design Process benefits kids?

Benefits of Engineering Design Process

The Engineering Design Process is a gift that keeps on giving.

From an educator’s perspective, we are better able to engage students in problem-solving activities. The Engineering Design Process gives us a concrete step-by-step framework for kids to follow - no vagueness, no doubts.

Each step allows them to practice different skills. All the while opening up the gates to many other STEM topics. Whether that be in the science/technology realm where we are developing computer programs or in the creative realm where we are writing a paper.

From a child’s perspective, the benefits are many! Here are just a few.

  • Introduces pre-school and elementary school kids to the world of engineering. It puts them in the role of engineers. They are now responsible for driving the process from problem to solution on their own.
  • It teaches kids problem-solving skills and promotes critical thinking. They're better able to dissect a problem in many ways.  Which then allows them to determine possible solutions in a creative and calculated manner. No shooting blindly and hoping for the best here.
  • Students learn the fundamental art of preparation. The ‘Ask’, ‘Research’, ‘Imagine’, and ‘Plan’ steps of the Engineering Design Process teach how to best prepare with limits and constraints in mind.
  • Kids learn to work in an environment where they’re constantly collaborating and communicating. To create and develop the very best solution, one must attentively listen to and work with others.
  • It opens them up to the concept of open-ended questions and design thinking. With formal education, students begin to think of each problem as having one pre-determined solution. The Engineering Design Process flips this thought process on its head. It teaches them that innovative solutions are seldom found in a book or on the internet. Instead, they must use their imagination. They must research, design solutions, and evaluate. They must combine their accumulated knowledge and skills in creative ways.
  • Kids retain information better when learning and applying principles in a concrete manner. There are no abstract or vague theories going into one ear and out the other. No, if they’re to find and create different solutions, they must apply these learned theories and principles.
  • Fosters a growth mindset as kids don’t stop at the very first solution. The ‘Improve’ step encourages further improvements upon testing. It forces them to evaluate and think outside the box. This results in removing constraints and is where true innovation is achieved.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, students learn to take risks and handle failure. The repetitive nature of the Engineering Design Process sets up failure as a stepping stone to the eventual solution rather than a dead-end.

How do you teach the Engineering Design Process to kids?

Let’s get one thing clear, you do not have to be an engineer to teach it. The “engineering” is there simply because that’s how engineers solve problems. All you need is to learn the structure of the engineering design process and what each step entails. Then you can take and apply it to just about any problem.

Let’s look at some creative hands-on ways of teaching the engineering design process for kids. These can be used for pre-school or elementary school kids at home or in a classroom.

Videos

Kids will frown when asked to read a small article. Tell them to watch a video, their eyes will light up!

Here are a couple of simple and engaging explainer videos you can show them to get started.

A quick 5-min explainer for kids by CrashCourseKids.

Explainer with a real-world example by PBS - Taco Party (my personal favorite!).

Activities

Once they have a decent understanding of the Engineering Design Process, let’s get them practicing the steps. Let's get them creating!

Science Buddies have a couple of great activities for just that.

PBS Kids has an engineering challenge with an interactive group activity for grade levels 3-8

Learning Kits

Teachers Pay Teachers have good engineering learning materials available for purchase at reasonable prices.

Some notable ones...

You can also search for more teaching material on their website.

Articles and Books

The Institute of Education Science has an in-depth article on teaching the Engineering Design Process.
www.files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1171674.pdf.

The World Economic Forum compiled a list of 5 children’s books teaching engineering principles.
www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/07/childres-books-engineering-creativity-persistance/

Everyday Activities

I’m a firm believer in the always-learning approach. Here are a few ways you can incorporate the Engineering Design Process into your kids’ daily lives. 

  • Get your kids involved in creating solutions for a real-world problem such as a DIY home project.
  • Always encourage teamwork when appropriate.
  • Get them to plan family or school events.
  • Ask them to evaluate and find shortcomings in certain processes or products used on a daily basis. What can be improved? How can it be improved? Are they any constraints? How would people benefit from these improvements?
  • Enroll them in an engineering camp or program. These consist of fun and engaging team activities where students apply engineering principles.

Wrapping it up

I hope this article gave you some ideas on how to apply the Engineering Design Process for kids.  The cool part about it all is the process applies to truly any problem, be it big or small, educational or personal.

The benefits are plenty and it will serve as a solid foundation to further STEM-related exercises and learning.

So check out the resources above, and build on them with your own research. You will find plenty of exercises and problems for your kids to solve!

Article written by Aziz Shaik
Aziz grew up taking anything and everything that he could get his hands on apart. This curiosity eventually led him down a career path in Software Engineering. Before that, he delved into other majors during his time in college ranging from Chemistry, Microbiology, and Advanced Calculus. Eventually, he found his true passion in Computer Science, though continues his love for other STEM topics by finding creative ways in teaching his kids.

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