Assessment Part 3: How and When

In the first part of this assessment series, I highlighted four questions that you need to keep in mind when developing assessments for Engineering Design projects.  Those questions were as follows:

  1. What do you want to assess?      will this be on test 2
  2. When do you want to assess?
  3. Who will you assess?
  4. Why do you want to assess?

Traditional assessments typically focus on content, end-of-unit tests, individual performance, and determining a grade. Using a project-based approach that requires students to work in teams and to apply what they know (and the new ideas they discover along the way) adds some additional components to the assessment picture. A project or performance task allows you to assess skills, group or team efforts, and the overall process. As I noted in the previous post, you don’t need to change everything, but you do need to re-evaluate the components of your assessment. We have already looked at what and why in the two earlier posts; this article deals with the more practical aspects of when and how.

Create a Vision to Guide Your Assessment Choices

Every project has some unique assessment needs and challenges, but it helps to keep a few core principles in mind. I typically follow these percentages guidelines for most projects;

Process / Product             65% / 35%

Group / Individual            70% / 30%

Skills / Content                 60% / 40%

My guidelines are based on my overall approach to education and what I hope to help young people learn; how you design your assessments should reflect your vision. I believe that a problem-solving process has far more value than any one product. It can be and often is (as reported by students) a method that finds a way into lots of other projects and disciplines. Current and future jobs require a team approach due to the shear complexity of many factors affecting them, so collaboration is a critical skill. Assessment that highlights group work is important if we hope to teach collaborative skills. And content can be found everywhere, but the skills needed to apply and to master new ideas need to be learned and practiced. Think about what it is important for your students to learn and develop assessment guidelines that will support those goals. Setting percentages such as those above provides a landing spot for the various assessments you will employ. You can employ both formative and summative assessments in line with guidelines you have set, or you can focus on defining a grade based on summative assessments based on the percentages you have in place.  Depending on your school norms and where you are on the assessment spectrum, your percentages may be different than those above. Keep the idea of incremental change in mind and make adjustments when you and your students are ready.


How to Assess

Most project-based learning practitioners make use of rubrics for formative and summative assessment. The three that I most commonly used are a peer assessment rubric, a single-point rubric, and an analytic rubric that covers the various components and skills that make up the Engineering Design Process. They can be used as both formative and summative assessment components depending on your needs. In addition to these rubrics, more content and project or skills-specific rubrics can be used to highlight important learning objectives. Parts 1 and 2 of this series identified a number of helpful resources, and you can also find a terrific compilation of rubrics and information on Kathy Shrock’s website. In our work, we are increasingly using single-point rubrics for student and group self-assessment at the middle school level. Some of the teachers we work with use content assessments that are similar to the ones they have traditionally used. They feel this gives them additional feedback about the effectiveness of the project in developing understanding.

When to Assess

As I noted before, the project your students are working on is an assessment. It is a performance task that challenges them to think critically and creatively while working together to apply their knowledge to solve a problem. That sounds great, but it can be overwhelming to assess in a way that allows you to make sense of the degree of learning and to generate a fair grade. Since my work focuses on using the Engineering Design Process as a framework for projects, I use key points in the process for formative and summative assessments.

The teachers we work with at ProjectEngin like the idea of thinking of the Engineering Design Process as having three or four phases, rather than being a cycle of multiple steps. It makes it possible to insert small summative assessment measurements at the end of each of those phases if you choose to. This might be an important consideration if you are working on a lengthy project and there is pressure (student, administrative, or parental) to report progress in terms of some grades. In other words, there should be evidence of problem definition before moving onto the divergent thinking phase of generating multiple solutions. An evaluation of effective brainstorming and some planning should precede the building phase. The principal summative evaluation is at the end of the project when students provide evidence of process (Engineering Notebook or ENB), a product (a prototype), and they are able to present their work. The table below summarizes where different assessments can be made throughout the process.  Please note that the steps and assessment points correlate closely with the Engineering Design Disciplinary Core Ideas, Performance Expectations, and Practices specified in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Assessment Points in Process

What is most important about this table and the idea that the process always frames the project is that it allows for assessment to be ongoing and focused on both skills and content. The framework of the Engineering Design Process (EDP) enables you to identify and highlight the skills needed to solve a problem and it can be used to do the same for your students. Making the EDP the organizing core of your projects gives both you and your students the opportunity to focus on increased mastery of skills as you move through multiple challenges.

In summary, the answer to the questions of when and how to assess is to do it throughout the project and to do it with student involvement. Specified criteria for success and connections to the full spectrum of the learning experience are more effective than a “cover the material, take a test approach”. Time for feedback, reflection, and modification is critical if we hope to develop lifelong learners.  And remember that part of modeling never-ending learning is to continually assess and modify the assessments to align with the skills and ideas that you hope students will learn.

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Assessing What Matters – Part 2 of 3

In my last blog posting, I outlined an overview of the challenges of effectively assessing learning in the context of Engineering Design projects. An Engineering Design challenge supports the development and mastery of content knowledge through application. It requires students to solve a somewhat messy problem by following a process. And it connects your classroom to the real world. elephant assessment cartoonThis is in contrast to practices that teach to a test, units that follow a highly linear progression, and the student perception that the end-goal of learning is the coveted “A”. Students need to know that  learning is not test-taking. They need authentic challenges that go beyond an arbitrary test, requiring them to apply and find out what they need to know. And we need to assess much more than what they know. How they learned it matters. Our assessments need assessment if they are to align with how we hope to teach.

Project-based learning has far more layers than direct instruction, so it makes sense that you need more ways to think about and structure assessment. At ProjectEngin, we typically look at balancing three main areas:

  • Content and Skills
  • Product and Process
  • Individual and Group

In traditional instruction and assessment, the focus is on content, product, and individual. You may already have effective methods to provide both formative and summative assessment for all of those. Most of the teachers we work with find that the challenges lie in developing assessments that focus on the aspects that are hallmarks of project-based learning – skills, process, and collaborative group work. It is worth looking at the categories above in order to structure project assessments to complement what you already use. Here are some thoughts and tips on the both the “how” and “how much” of each category. In my final blog posting on assessment, I will look at key points, methods, and rubrics for formative and summative assessment in all these areas.

Content and Skills

Content assessment can range from more traditional quiz/test formats to performance tasks. Most Engineering Design projects are done in groups and it can be difficult to assess content understanding for individual students on a group basis. This is one area where a version of the tests or quizzes you may have previously used can be helpful. Keep in mind the standards you are following and don’t drill down to the smallest fact.  An individual assessment that checks for general understanding as a background for the project insures that all students have a reasonable starting point. Most of the teachers we work with will use a quiz on key concepts at this point, with a provision for retakes if needed. Remember that in addition to checking for understanding of concepts, you want to be certain that all members of the group have the background they need to succeed. Additional evidence of content understanding can be a required component of the final presentation and it can also be part of the required documentation in the Engineering Notebook, making the connection between concepts and design decisions. Most teachers find that it is easier to make assessment of content understanding a component of the individual grade for the project.

Assessing skills is a challenge. Unlike content, there are no clear boundaries or discrete checkpoints; our mastery of skills generally follows an often non-linear continuum. Rubrics are generally the most effective form of skills assessment. As mentioned in the last blog posting, the Buck Institute has some great resources and rubrics on its PBLWorks website. Student self-assessment of improvement in terms of the 4 C’s is also helpful. The Department of Defense’s  Education Activity program has created a good compilation of rubrics for both teacher and student assessment of 21st century skills. The document also has some good resources and references.

Most teachers are comfortable assessing collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Assessment of creativity is often a bigger challenge. No one should ever be told that they are not creative; that just perpetuates an incorrect fixed mindset about creativity. Assessment of creativity should be strictly formative and it should provide constructive feedback. There should also be a high degree of student involvement in understanding (perhaps even designing) and employing the rubric or feedback form. As Ken Robinson points out in his book, Out of Our Minds, far from being an innate gift, creativity can be taught but doing so presents assessment challenges. “The educational value of creative work lies as much in the process of conceptual development, as in the creation of the final product. Assessment needs to take this into account…” (Robinson, 2011 ed.).  This brings us to a consideration of product versus process.

Product and Process

Traditional assessments typically focus on the product. A multiple-choice test shows us little about the thought process that lead to the answer, or final product. Artifacts such as papers and presentations are often assessed in their final form with little focus on the research or editing process. But there is an enormous amount of critical thinking and creativity inherent in constructing and revising those artifacts. One of the benefits of using the Engineering Design Process to frame projects is that various steps in the process highlight those skills as well as content development.

In our experience, putting more weight on the final product in assessments has a “beauty contest” effect. Students are more likely to take a “hands-on” approach, skipping over much of the “minds-on” learning that you hoped to promote.  A physical prototype will look better, go faster, or fly higher but much of the development will be occur in a trial-and-error method to see what works. A focus on the process will enable you to stress the need for planning, research, decision-making, and connections to curricular concepts. An Engineering Notebook allows students to document the decisions and connections that are part of the process. It can be used as a formative and summative document to assess the group’s work as they move toward a solution.  Much of the transferable learning is in the process and I suggest that you consider making your assessment of how well it was employed at least 65% of the final project grade. As educators, we are all aware that we cannot keep up with the explosion in knowledge. Developing a way to think about and use that knowledge is a lifelong skill that should be one of the key learning goals in our classrooms.

Individual and Group:

This is typically the most challenged part of any project assessment. There can be pushback from both students and parents, particularly those used to high marks on the individual assessments that make up most recorded grades. It is important that you have a clear explanation, identifiable guidelines, and as much transparency as possible. It makes sense to have a group component in your overall assessment since the work was done collaboratively and, in most cases, the project was designed to make it necessary to have a team approach to successfully complete it. But you need to be attentive to the fact that group dynamics are rarely perfect in a classroom environment. Student Non collaboratorcontributions and commitment will vary. Some of your assessments, such as those relating to content understanding and creativity, will necessarily be of individual progress and achievements. In my own classroom, I generally kept the individual component of the final project grade at anywhere from 30-35%. That gives most students a sense of control while stressing that the work of the entire group is key. You may need to adjust this weighting based on the age of your students and the community attitude toward grading, but try to keep portion of the grade that is based on the collaborative effort at or above 50%. Be sure your students know what is expected of them in terms of collaboration and support them in promoting equal participation by all members.

That individual component of the grade can be made up of content assessments, peer review, and your own observations of time-on-task along with any student self-assessment of skills. The group grade can be based on the final product and presentation (product), the Engineering Design Notebook (process) and your assessment of the group’s use of the Engineering Design Process and their problem-solving skills. You may also want to add a group self-assessment as well. Just be sure you have made all your assessment components and guidelines clear and reasonably weighted based on the project tasks and the learning goals.

In the third part of this series, rubrics and milestones for formative and summative assessments will be provided. Start thinking about how you want to structure the components of what you assess. Keep some of what you already use to assess content, products, and individuals while considering how to add consideration of skills, process, and collaborative efforts. If your students are going to be ready for a future that demands innovation and collaboration, that needs to be part of your classroom today.

dr seuss


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Tackling the Assessment Elephant

At ProjectEngin, we have conducted many workshops designed to help teachers begin the process of incorporating Engineering Design practices and thinking into their classrooms and curriculum. And we are generally successful in terms of creating engagement, enthusiasm, and commitment to change in the educators we work with. But there is a moment in every workshop when someone says “This is great, but I need grades. How do I assess this?” And the room goes silent…

Whenever you use active and project-based learning approaches, assessment becomes more challenging. When you intentionally focus on skills such as creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, in addition to curricular content, developing a meaningful way to assess learning may seem close to impossible.einstein-exam-cartoon Couple all of that with the disconnect between forward-thinking teaching and high-stakes, standardized testing programs and it can easily deflate the atmosphere in any room of once enthusiastic educators.

So how do you manage this elephant in the room? Designing assessments that truly reflect and monitor learning is always a challenge and it becomes even more challenging when you are dealing with project-based learning. We encourage educators to do it one step at a time. Keep the assessments you have and think about ways to modify or add to them. Make use of some real-time in-class formative performance assessment first – it minimizes your work outside of class and solidifies your role as a guide in classroom projects. Involve your students in the development of assessments by brainstorming what they think truly reflects what they know and how well they have learned.

It helps to keep four questions in mind before you even move onto the question of how to assess.

  1. What do you want to assess?
  2. When do you want to assess?
  3. Who will you assess?
  4. Why do you want to assess?

In traditional forms of assessment, the answers to those questions is often content, final product, individuals, and “for a grade”. And even when there is a change in the delivery of a lesson or unit, those things are still significant components of assessment.

Things change a bit when you start to use a more skills-oriented project-based approach. There are more components to assess, more milestones where you can include assessments and generally, a change in the design of the assessment.


Traditional Curriculum Unit

Engineering Design Challenge  (Project-based Learning)





















For a grade; often mostly summative


Measure of learning; increased formative information

Using the Engineering Design Process to frame projects and activities can help you to develop formative and summative assessments at key points. It also provides a way to value and assess the process more than the final product. Because Engineering Design challenges and projects are active learning tasks that ask you to apply what you know to solve problems, they are performance assessments. So, in many ways, there is no reason for having to think of assessment as being a separate task or assignment that students need to complete. Following the process of analyzing and understanding a problem, considering multiple solutions, and prototyping, testing, and modifying one possible choice provides ongoing evidence of creativity, collaboration, communication, critical and systems thinking. There is assessment built into the steps of the project. You just need to know how to look for it and how to categorize, manage, and analyze it.

The following characteristics of Engineering Design projects make them a little more challenging to assess and it would be helpful to keep them in mind as you develop assessments.

                         Engineering Design Projects – What and How to Assess

Characteristics of Engineering Design Projects

Impact on Assessment

Resources and Suggestions

Student-led learning Ongoing formation of ideas and concepts requires  ongoing formative assessment and checkpoints; providing summary of key concept understandings provides framework for concept-based summative assessment.


Systems thinking, impacts, connections

Assessment of complexity and connections is challenging. Standards-based rubrics and concept maps may be helpful. A Structure for Assessing Systems Thinking also provides some standards.


Multiple solutions/no one right answer

Contrary to traditional summative assessments. The project should provide evidence of learning through application of concept; makes it an authentic assessment. Constructed scenarios that involve evaluation or ranking of possible solutions against constraints, criteria, and user needs allow for assessment of both process and product understanding. Scenarios focused on meeting constraints due to curricular concepts (i.e., restrictions due to gravity, environment, etc.) can allow for assessment of concept understanding.

Skills AND content rich

Process should always matter more than product; rubric-based assessment of skills probably most effective; student self-assessment also valuable. Buck Institute rubrics for creativity, collaboration, presentation, and critical thinking are excellent starting points.

Traditional assessments of content can be used as checkpoints or individual assessments.

Group work

Group should function as team; evaluating collaboration can be challenging – peer and self-assessment summative assessments  can be helpful; ongoing teacher observations can provide formative assessments. The Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University has some good guidelines for assessing group work.


This is where much of the learning happens. Need documentation of the process for both formative and summative assessment; value of the Engineering Notebook; periodic group “check-ins”; daily observations; single-point rubric focused on EDP for self and formative assessment.

Real world; messy problems

Summative assessment requires a focus on connections, rationale for decisions; critical thinking and creativity are paramount as well as understanding of key concepts and identification of “need to know”; Buck Institute rubrics (above) extremely helpful. For generalized assessment of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, a hypothetical design challenge or an actual case-study example (older students) can be useful.

Well-designed projects are performance assessments that can provide both formative and summative feedback on content understanding and skills-based learning. My Fulbright research in Singapore focused on the use of an Engineering Design project as a performance task related to a secondary Physics mechanics unit. Not only did it result in better understanding of force and energy concepts, but it made clear the creative and innovative nature of Engineering.  It also allowed teachers to stress and assess creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication while maintaining clear connections to the subject content (Kaiser 2014).

As teachers, we are too often faced with those who directly equate assessment with grades. Students want to know what it takes to get an A; parents look at grades as evidence that their child is working hard and shows academic promise; and administrators often view the number of grades in a gradebook as evidence of sufficient course content and rigor. If you are trying to change how you teach, how you assess will need to change. It will need to match what happens in your classroom. sally assessmentYou can expect some pushback against group-based assessments; you may still be expected to give written exams; and you may have to justify that there is enough objectivity in your assessments. Move slowly, realizing that there is a broad range between traditional assessments and the assessments that will truly measure the impact of the learning experience you hope to create.

In the next two posts, we will look at the specifics of individual versus group assessments, provide ways to assess skills, and highlight the role and placement of summative and formative assessments. But you don’t need specifics to take inventory of how well your current assessments fit the way you hope to teach. If your students need lots of review before a test, if the “Will this be on the test?” is a frequent concern, and if students show little interest in understanding their mistakes, the assessment is just a separate task, not a part of the learning experience. Start thinking about change on that level and the details will follow.                       ldh quote



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Connect the Dots

Da VinciSir Richard Branson has a mantra that runs through all his endeavors – “ABCD” or “Always Be Connecting the Dots”. And Seth Godin notes that “The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.”  (Fast Company November 2013). Whether you think of information as dots or facts or even grades, is the culture in your classroom one of collecting or connecting? Are your students engaging in the messy process of connecting dots or are they moving along a very structured path from A to B to test time, and simply picking up pieces in order to fill in the correct blanks on a piece of paper? Are they learning techniques and processes that will help them to tackle any problem, now and in the future?

With the holidays approaching and the first half of the academic year wrapping up, it is a good time to reflect and re-assess. You know your students well by now so identifying what works and what doesn’t is a bit easier. Take the time to think about whether the culture in your classroom supports collecting or connecting. Step back and look to see if your classroom culture encourages learning from failure, student-directed learning, multiple solutions, and systems thinking. And if you decide it is time to change to a more dot-connecting way of doing things, consider using Engineering Design challenges and activities to give you the framework you need to move forward. But create a culture shift before you change your curriculum. Failing forward, making choices, and looking at implications and consequences are at the heart of the Engineering Design mindset; they all go a long way to encouraging dot connecting, not just dot collecting.






Engineering Design Culture

Acceptance of Failure


Not an option; reflected in low grade


Learning from mistakes; room for improvement; failing forward


What needs to be learned






Possible Solutions


Quest for one right answer

Many options/identifying optimal solution

Path from problem to solution


A →B →C

Lateral; synergistic;





Taking a test


Developing best solution given needs, constraints, and criteria; always room for improvement

Unfortunately, the traditional model of education is a highly linear system that is segmented and siloed. Most classrooms still follow a centuries-old compliance model of education. And while this compliance model does little to support risk-taking and creativity, it does reward dot- collecting as evidence of success. If we hope to equip students for a rapidly changing world, we need to allow time and space for dot connecting. Tony Wagner notes that “Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today.” (Creating Innovators, 2012).  Bringing Engineering Design into your classroom empowers students to apply what they know and engages them in deeper learning more as they seek to develop innovative solutions to challenges. Engineering is all about using facts and ideas to develop solutions to real problems. The most effective solutions connect a lot of the facts that have been collected, requiring learners to engage with ideas on a deeper level.

Think culture first and curriculum second. Trying to insert an Engineering Design project into an environment that lacks collaboration, respect, and creativity is rarely successful. It is very much like trying to wear the wrong size shoe. It might work for those first few steps, but you will never get very far without a significant amount of pain. Be intentional about including some of the hallmarks of Engineering Design listed in the table and start thinking of your classroom as one of dot connectors, not just dot collectors. Move from “failure is not an option” to “failing forward”; from “learn this” to “what do you think you need to know?”;  and from one right answer to limitless possibilities. Once an Engineering culture begins to take root,  design challenges and activities can blend in with what you already teach in order to enhance the learning experience for your students, and for you as well. And more of the dots will start to become connected.


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Too Much Stuff, Too Little Time, So Much Engineering!

Let’s apply the idea that Engineering is design under constraints to meet certain criteria. It’s the end of another school year and you had hoped to include some Engineering Design in your classroom but you never quite got there. Or maybe your students are distracted, tired, and running out of energy. End the year on a fun note that secretly sneaks some skills-based learning about Engineering into the mix.  Here are some ideas we use in our workshops. They are designed to help you introduce some key Engineering habits of mind to your students, while everyone has fun using the odds and ends leftover from a year of learning.

Before you start, make a somewhat organized collection of all the “leftover” goodies in your classroom. Please do not buy anything, but feel free to help other teachers in their year-end “cleaning by adding their stuff to your collection. The best design is often due to the need to get creative with limited resources.  Organize your materials in whatever way makes sense. We like the idea of categorizing materials into three types and we often travel with a bin for each of these groups:

Surface materials – sheets of paper, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, bubble wrap, plastic or paper bags, etc.

Structural items – straws, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, tooth picks, etc.

Fastening items – paper clips, string, tape, rubber bands, etc.

Next try some of these activities which are designed to focus on specific Engineering mindsets and skills. The descriptions are intentionally broad to help you modify for the grade level and ability of your students.

Empathy: Knowing your end-user

Engineering is all about solving the problems and challenges that people face. One of the key tenets of good Engineering is that you need to know who you are designing for. Interviewing that person can be one of the most effective forms of research and it always helps in terms of better defining a problem. Put students in pairs and have them follow the procedure below, using one of the following scenarios:

  1. Each partner shares information about an object or process that frequently “bugs” them.


  1. Each partner shares information about some “messy” food that they really like to eat.

The overall procedure goes something like this (modify as needed):

  • Person A shares their information with Person B. B merely asks questions and makes notes, trying to get as much information about the problem as possible. (2-3 minutes)
  • Reverse, and A now interviews B about their particular issue or favorite food. (2-3 minutes)
  • Each person now has 2 minutes to quietly sketch a potential solution to their partner’s problem. If you have chosen the scenario in Case 2, instruct your “engineers” to think in terms of a utensil or some sort of serving ware.
  • Give the students about 5 minutes to construct a model (prototype) of their solution to their friend’s problem. They should only be allowed to use the materials that you set aside. Scissors, tape, glue, markers are optional. The prototype does not have to

    Prototype of “Shoes that Grow”

    be totally functional; it just needs to help them explain what they envision as a possible solution.

  • Engineers share what they identified as the problem and their potential solution with each other and with the whole class.


Sustainable Design: Creative Constraints and Upcycling

Often, we get creative and engineer because we must. If we never had to deal with constraints like money, time, and resources, we would not need to be very innovative.

Engineering has created enormous benefits in terms of the quality of our lives. But we have used an enormous amount of nonrenewable resources in the pursuit of advancing technology. Growing awareness of the lack of resources and the hidden energy and water costs in modern production methods has led to a great deal of innovation in terms ways to re-use items. Upcycling challenges designers to use discarded objects and materials to create something new and often more useful and/or valuable. It is a great way to bring sustainable design into our classroom. You can find lots of examples here.

Give small (3-4) groups of students different challenges and ask them to use what you have available to create a potential prototype. Stress that they are designing under constraints since the materials are limited to what is on hand. Your only criteria is that it meets the challenge that you have given them. (Be resourceful and check with other school personnel for any materials that they want to get rid of and create a fourth “Miscellaneous” bin.)

Here are some challenges that you might want to try:

  • Design a container for plants
  • Design a desk or drawer organizer

    upcycled tennis balls

    Tennis ball towel holders

  • Design a toy
  • Design any device that would help organize something in the classroom
  • Design something that would be helpful in the cafeteria (classroom, car, home, etc.)
  • Or simply design something that has more value or purpose than the original materials.


Finish your upcycling challenge with a gallery walk to share the amazing new designs. Better yet, share them with another calls or teacher!


It’s All Connected: Systems Thinking, Processes, and Communication

 We live in a highly connected world. Good engineers know that a solution to one problem can create additional problems. They also know that even a simple design could have complex factors associated with it.  Systems thinking is becoming more and morecats in borneo important as we work to engineer sustainably with maximum positive impact and fewer negative consequences. The teachers that we work with love this video about Cats in Borneo. It is a great introduction for your students. We also find that students are drawn to the idea of Appropriate Technology, which is often referred to as “technology as if people mattered”. It is often a small-scale, locally resourced approach that focuses on creating the most positive good with the least negative impact.

To encourage systems thinking, try one of the following activities. You can have students try the Draw Toast activity, which focuses on a communicating a process. Debriefing by sharing drawings and watching Tom Wujec’s TED Talk is a great learning experience.

Or you can combine some of the ideas of upcycling and systems modeling and communicating by asking students to create pictorial instructions for how to make their unique new creation.  A great follow-up to that is to have them trade with another group to learn how well they communicated the assembly of the system.

We hope that you will try some of these activities as the year wraps up. If you don’t have time now, plan to try some as the new school year starts; they are great team-building exercises. They are designed to get your students to think a bit differently. Hopefully, they will begin to understand some of the creative approaches that engineers take in designed our built world. And please check back here over the summer since we will explore each of the above ideas in more detail and give you some subject-specific connections that you can make as work to include more Engineering Design in your classroom.


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Engineering a Great Ending to the School Year

Engineering in Your Classroom – Five Activities to Try

Change in the classroom can be an overwhelming process. At ProjectEngin, we always try to break any large-scale project or program into smaller steps in order to make entry easy. We focus on some core skills when encouraging teachers to think of Engineering Design as a powerful pedagogical tool. Before trying any long term projects, we encourage teachers to begin to change their classroom culture from passive to active, from individuals to collaborative groups, from routine to innovative, and from perfect to failure. Here are some ideas to try in your classroom along with prompts and tips to maximize the Engineering-related learning. Once you see how your students respond, you will be ready to make the leap to using Engineering Design to support a whole new kind of learning experience.

  1. Silly Synthesis: Focus on creativity and innovation.

Give pairs of students two cards with two very different items on them. Challenge them to design something (s) by combining both. Have them think in terms of both physical and functional attributes. Think telephone plus computer equals smart phone. What seemed impossible less than 40 years ago is commonplace today. Think big, think crazy, innovate, and invent.


  1. Imagination Innovation: Focus on improvement of current products or processes.

Give students chart paper or white boards and ask team to re-design the classroom for students in 2030. You will learn a lot about how they view their learning space and needs. You may even get some ideas of what you can do now. Explain that everything can be engineered better. What stops us?

  1. Failing Forward: Focus on failure as a learning experience.

Have groups of 2 or 3 students build towers out of 3 sheets of newspaper and 10-12 inches of Scotch tape. The tower must be free-standing and at least 18 inches tall. Load them with books or other objects and film the failure. Did they tip, twist, or crumple? Based on what you saw happening, could you improve your building?


  1. Engineering with empathy: Focus on the end-user

Have students learn what it means to function differently. Have them hold one hand behind their backs and complete simple tasks or close their eyes and cross part of the room. What simple technologies (tools or ideas) can help to make things easier for someone who functions differently? The best engineering starts with understanding the needs of your end-user. Most of our teachers who choose to do a prosthetic hand project start with type of “research”.

  1. Your inner engineer: Engineering solutions to daily challenges; identifying constraints and criteria

Give students a selection of appropriate objects (photos or images also work well) and ask them to engineer a solution based on limitations (constraints) and criteria (goals). For example: “Can you make a tasty (criteria) lunch out of the ingredients in a refrigerator (constraints)?” Have them think about how they dress for school or some other specific event. You are limited by the clothes you have (constraints) and your sense of style (criteria). Can students think of other situations in which they “engineer” solutions?

These activities all highlight different steps in the Engineering Design Process in a fun, low-risk manner.  By starting with challenges, ideas, and objects that are familiar to your students, you can present Engineering as a different way of thinking and problem-solving. It is a great way to “test the waters” with little upfront cost to you in terms of preparation, direct instruction, or class time.

Start small and you can begin to engineer big changes in your STEM classes! Contact ProjectEngin for more ideas.


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Engineering, Naturally

At ProjectEngin, some of our most exciting curriculum work centers around creating Engineering Design challenges that look to Nature for inspiration.  Biomimicry provides a terrific platform for incorporating Engineering Design projects into Life Science, Environmental Science, and Biology curriculum.

Engineering is all about problem-solving and finding innovative solutions to meet human needs and improve our lives. Good engineering demands an understanding of systems impacts, trade-offs and unintended consequences. Nature inherently operates on those principles, taking a long-term, sustainable approach to optimization. And nature has been successful for 3.8 billion years. There is clearly much we can learn by modeling our approach to design on Nature’s processes. As Janine Benyus, a champion of biomimicry, says, “The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”train_bird_comparison_crop-729ec57f51d51e1fd9205d29c2424e4e

All of our curricular projects are centered on the Engineering Design Process. The way structures, processes, and systems in Nature are engineered follows the same process mapped out in the NGSS and other standards. Different parameters and a longer timeframe exist in the natural world. The table below compares Nature’s approach to the process we have employed to create the modern industrial world in less than 300 years.   

Engineering Design Process Nature’s Approach Human Approach
Define the  Problem Sustain life Make life “better”

Identify Criteria


Non-toxic, low temperature, recyclable, renewable Bigger, stronger, cheaper, safer, appeal to target audience
Determine Constraints Only locally available resources Least expensive resources, limited time
Testing and Modification Slowly over time, prolonged use, extensive population Rapid, often limited scenarios, small pilot samples


Sustain life with least negative impacts; positive impacts outweigh negative consequences Bigger, better, faster, more profitable; often maximize not optimize

Clearly, as we face the challenges of limited resources, increasing population, and relatively rapid changes in our environment, there is much that we can learn by studying the structures, processes, and systems that Nature has engineered.

In terms of the curricular projects we design we think of biomimicry in terms of increasing levels of complexity that fit well into increasing grade level skills and progressions. Our focus at lower grades levels is on structures and patterns. We then move on to processes such as photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and heat transfer. For students who are older, modeling based on natural ecosystems provides a comprehensive approach to systems thinking and renewable design.

Here is a sample of some of ProjectEngin’s Engineering Design projects that are inspired by Nature.FullSizeRender (8) (2)

Hidden in Plain Sight: This challenge asks students to design camouflage for a nature photographer. Students explore patterns and designs in nature while learning about adaptation and natural selection. The final prototype is a T-shirt for designed to hide the photographer in a specific environment.

Get a Grip: This project tackles the challenges of adhesives and other joining technologies. Students look at the benefits of using geckoshape and form to join objects (think burr-inspired Velcro and wall-climbing geckos) instead of using chemicals and high-temperature bonding techniques like soldering and welding. They are challenged to mimic Nature to design their own innovative “adhesive”.


Have a House: Nature has engineered housing to meet the needs of all creatures in a wide range of climates and conditions. Students explore the wayspenguins that structures and processes that support thermal transfer are integral parts of natural engineering. Termite mounds, penguin feathers, and camels all provide inspiration for thermoregulation.

Complete the Circle: This project, designed for older students, focuses on the idea of cradle-to-cradle processing and manufacturing. It uses some of the resources about the circular economy developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.  It looks at small ecosystems and biomes as the inspiration for local sourcing, efficient use, and upcycling and recycling. After analyzing the actual water, energy, and materials footprints of certain products, students are asked to emulate nature and develop a circular process to produce an object.

There are so many ideas you can use to bring a Nature-inspired focus to your Engineering and STEM projects. Here are some of our favorite resources:

Green Biz

The Biomimicry Institute

Ask Nature


The Circular Design Guide

Engineers have always worked to solve problems, but our future lies in our ability to solve those problems sustainably and with less negative impacts. Looking at how Nature has engineered for 3.8 billion years can inspire and empower the engineers in your classes.

 “Look deep into Nature and then you will understand everything better.”  

                                                                                                                            Albert Einstein


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