Running an Engineering Design Challenge – 5 Tips to to Get Anyone Started

Engineering-themed design challenges are my absolute favourite way to transform STEM concepts into hands-on experiences for students. Typically, an Engineering Design Challenge is a hands-on approach to learning that engages students in inquiry and the Engineering Design Process. I love how the Engineering Design Process acts as a simple framework to help guide students through any Engineering Design Challenge.

  1. Choose a challenge that will capture student interests and decide what STEM concepts you would like to include. Write them all down and see where there is a natural fit. One simple tool that I love to use, is think through what fits together is an old-school venn-diagram. Forcing concepts in with a problem that does not actually appear in real-life can make it challenging for you to manage, and will also make it difficult for your students to explore solutions that will lead them in many directions. Integrating a limited amount of STEM concepts that fit with the unit you are currently working on, like the effects of society on water systems, is plenty for a focused challenge. I’ve also included multiple STEM concepts for a culminating challenge, however having students use anything they covered through out the year is overwhelming. My best Practice is to look for those concepts that fit together. Going back to the society and water systems example, adding concepts that include the effects of toxic materials on the environment, human water systems and filtration systems, and strong shapes and structures. Providing a rubric or chec-list can help students keep track of what concepts you want them to consider while running through the challenge. I love these resources from Stanford d.School to help you create the right challenge for your students.
  2. Choose a problem that includes a variety of needs. One of my tricks to creating a problem statement for an Engineering Design Challenge that will lead students in many directions, is allowing students to create their own need statement and POV statement. Once you explain the problem to your students, allow them to investigate into the stakeholders and the problem itself. Students can then brainstorm needs that match what they have learned during their investigations. This will help keep your students diving into different directions and, in the end, different solutions. This is a very important part of my best practices for 2 reasons: First, it emphasizes the reality of the challenge when everyone arrives at different solutions. If everyone arrives at the same solution it feels like there is a “right answer” and those who may have thought outside-the-box a bit more can feel unsuccessful in the end. Finally, when everyone shares their thinking in the end and how they arrived at their solution, students gain more insight and leads to a great conversation. Stanford’s d.School has a great guide to creating need and POV statements here.
  3. Choose a challenge that will include a variety of stakeholders.  Investigating different stakeholders can lead students in many directions, as well as a wide range of solutions to the problem. You can start this brainstorm by asking your students, “Who matters in this problem?” Their responses can be anything from the environment, to a particular animal species, families, children, college students, parents, teachers, students – the list goes on! When you are forming your Problem Statement, try thinking through who the various stakeholders can be, but through your student’s perspective. I also like students to choose 3 from the group brainstorm. If you want to simplify for evaluation purposes, providing them with stakeholders can be a benefit. I suggest allowing students to choose because it allows them to take ownership of the decisions they are making, but also allowing students to choose stakeholders that resonate with them has engaged my students in the past.
  4. Provide beneficial feedback that helps shape their solution, but does not take away ownership of the group’s idea. Testing and evaluating a prototype is a valuable stage of the Engineering Design process and will also be a useful tool in pushing your students’ ideas forward. I urge those giving feedback to not focus on aesthetic components of a solution unless it goes back to the need that the group chose to design their solution around. I have some “back-pocket” questions that I love to help push a group forward and use to generate meaningful feedback for my students:
      • What part of your solution addresses the need of your stakeholders? How?
      • How will this solution benefit this stakeholder?
      • How can we add to your solution to help meet the stakeholder needs better?
      • How does a stakeholder interact with your solution? Might there be another way?
  5. You don’t need a fancy maker space, but I would recommend these materials to have on-hand for making prototypes:
      • Sticky notes
      • Chart paper or paper large enough that everyone in a group can gather around it and add their ideas
      • Markers
      • Sketch paper and construction paper
      • String and pulleys (or something that can act as a pulley)
      • Cardboard and construction paper
      • Paper cups and plates
      • Craft Foam
      • Craft sticks
      • Paper clips and binder clips
      • Pipe cleaners
      • Tape and glue

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This article was written by Erin Carmody, an experienced educator, consultant, and Content Manager at STEM Village.