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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Phase 3: Develop a Solution

Descriptions and graphics concerning the Engineering Design Process (EDP) can be found in many different resources and websites. They generally contain 6-8 steps in a cyclic, iterative arrangement. This can sometimes be overwhelming to a teacher who is new to Engineering Design projects and activities, particularly when one considers the dynamic environment of a classroom and the need to manage multiple groups of students.  At ProjectEngin, we believe that everyone “engineers” at times and we work to help teachers fit that natural inclination into the EDP.  In our workshops, we often find that dividing the Engineering Design Process (EDP) into three phases helps newcomers (both teachers and students) navigate through it more intuitively. The two previous parts of this series focused on Phase 1, Know Your Problem, and Phase 2, Knowing Your Options. The final phase, Develop a Solution, ties it all together and often sets the stage for revisiting earlier steps.

EDP in Classroom

Our use of three phases is not arbitrary. It has been developed based on observations and input from the teachers we work with and from an understanding of the process of designing.

Modified Double Diamond Model of Design

Don Norman The Design of Everyday Things

The three phases reflect the need to move back and forth between convergent and divergent thinking throughout the design process.Keeping in mind the different types of thinking involved in the different steps and phases of the EDP helps teachers to keep the focus on skills and the value of the overall process.



This last part of our 1, 2, 3 Engineer series focuses on Phase 3 – Develop a Solution. It begins with a transition from the divergent thinking processes evident in Phase 2 to a group agreement on the best option for moving forward. Once multiple ideas have been put forth and explored, the group needs to decide which best fits their criteria and the given constraints. This decision- making process can be challenging. There many options for managing it and some will be discussed in more detail in a future blog post. We highly recommend that, at a minimum, the group settle on 3-5 options and then quietly vote by individual ballot using a ranking scheme. Ballots can then be tabulated and the options can be listed from most to least popular. Skipping the actual voting process and allowing a simple verbal group consensus sometimes creates a “groupthink” mentality or a situation where one member of the group dominates. Keep it democratic by allowing each person to have a say via a ballot.

The key steps in Phase 3 are present in the box in the graphic above: (1) Prototype, (2) Test, and (3) Modify in order to optimize. Let’s look at each in a little more detail.

Prototype: Prototypes can take many forms and can have varied functions. From the start, stress to your students that a prototype is, first and foremost, an aid to visualizing a solution. In some cases, a prototype can be a simple sketch that helps you explain an idea. It can also be as advanced as a full-size functioning model of a new product. In most classroom projects, a prototype will be a small scale model of a device or solution. It will often be made of materials chosen to substitute for the actual materials that would be used in the final full-size version.

Hand project

Prototypes of prosthetic hands; to be tested for grip

The reasons that you have students prototype is for them to have something that can help them explain their approach, test for some functionality, or enable end-users to provide feedback. It is critical to remember that this is the role of the prototype. It is not mean to be perfect and it should never be more than 20-30% of the overall grade for any project. The real learning happens in following the full process above, not in simply making a prototype. We never advocate that you make the final prototype the summative assessment for the project.

Testing: Teachers and students always have lots of questions about what it means to test a prototype. Think of testing as needing to evaluate one or more of the following:

  • Evaluating functionality or cause and effect. Does a given input create the desired output? This type of testing is closest to the testing typically done in a science experiment. Characteristics can include dependent and independent variables, a control, consistent and precise measurement.
  • Determine the reliability or repeatability of a device or product. This type of testing is similar to testing routinely done for consumer safety and use. Does it perform safely and/or can it repeat the same function numerous times? Bicycle helmets may be dropped over and over again and at forces in excess of those expected in a crash, pen tops are clicked thousands of times, chairs are subjected to loads above the assumed weight of a large person. This video of how cell phones are tested can be helpful in understanding this type of testing.
  • Obtaining customer and end-user feedback. Do people like it, do they use it correctly, would they buy it, what might make it more attractive to them? This type of test marketing is routine for most consumer goods. The most effective way to obtain good data in this case is through a combination of Likert scale (1-5) survey questions and observations and interviews.

Work with your students to identify what feature needs to be tested, what procedure should be followed, what data should be obtained, how it will be analyzed, and what the standard for acceptable performance should be.

Modification: This is where Engineering testing differs from science experiments. Engineers use testing data to modify and improve their designs; scientists are typically seeking verification or refutation. We have noted that many teachers skip the modification phase at first. This is most likely due to time constraints since most “first runs” of projects take about 20% longer than planned. We urge you not to skip this step. If time is too short to allow for physical modifications to a design, or if the testing was somewhat destructive in nature, asking students to answer a question or two about how they would modify their design can be part of a good summative assessment.  Whether you allow time for actual modification or ask for a written description of the planned modification, keep a few things in mind:

  • Allow one modification at a time. That is the only way to gauge the impact of a modification. Think of it as isolating a variable in science experiments.
  • Limit We rarely allow more than three and students are aware of that from the start of the project. This creates more focus during the initial design stages. Too many modifications are collectively a new design and you risk losing some of the value of the overall process.
  • Always require justification in terms of some combination of science, math, and testing data and feedback. And always keep the focus on meeting constraints and criteria. Meeting criteria and constraints drives the need to optimize, which means to work towards the best solution possible given your goals and the resources and limitations that you have. It is a key feature of the EDP and it is highlighted in the NGSS. Optimization brings the design process full circle, by asking students to justify their solution in terms of problem definition. In order to fully document the development process, revisions and modifications in industry are often tracked by modification forms. We use one with a space for a description of the modification, the reason or rationale for it, and the expected and actual results. Students often opt to provide a before and after sketch to further document the change.

Engineers are never done and any part of the EDP can be revisited or repeated in order to develop a product or process that solves the given problem. There is never a 100% perfect answer in Engineering. It is always a matter of developing innovative ways to best meet the criteria and constraints that define a problem. To do that you need to understand the limitations and goals that you have, investigate the possibilities available for solutions, and demonstrate the ability of your proposed solution to solve the problem. In other words, you need to engineer!


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The Creative Path from Problem to Solution: Know Your Options

Einstein imagine

Engineering is a natural process for most of us. We are continually developing solutions to challenges that are framed by constraints and criteria. In our work with teachers, we often break the Engineering Design Process down into three phases

  1. Know Your Problem
  2. Know Your Options
  3. Develop a Solution

The more specific steps of the process fit into these phases and the non-technical nature of our description supports use across all subject areas and grade levels.

Engineering Design is somewhat of a well-choreographed journey in and out of convergent and divergent thinking. It challenges you to first think carefully about a problem or challenge and to map out all of the constraints and criteria that delimit a viable solution. This involves moving in and out of different reference frames, along with some degree of systems thinking. In a way it involves thinking big in order to create a more manageable design space. We explored the idea of truly knowing your problem in the first of this three-part series. Knowing your problem involves moving from a somewhat undefined divergent space into a space defined by the convergence of constraints and criteria. Just right Phase one involves a lot of critical thinking. The second phase, knowing your options, is primarily about divergent thinking, creativity, and lateral thinking. And although it is a lot of fun, it may be a challenge for students used to the highly convergent (one approach, one right answer) world of traditional education. In this blog, we explore some ideas to help make Phase two productive.

This is what often gets called the brainstorming phase, but there is a lot more to it than the random production of ideas. Most teachers tell us that this is the most challenging phase to implement, so we have learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work. Let’s start with what to watch out for.

Top 3 Things to Avoid

  1. Convergent and conditional words and phrases. Jump in there as soon as your hear words and phrases like “but”, “if”, “it won’t work…”, “there is not enough ________ “. They should never be part of the conversation when all ideas should be on the table. Idea generation will shut down before it begins if you focus on the reasons why something won’t work. Words like “and” and “or” are far more divergent and idea-fostering. Listen to the conversation and stop any limiting language.
  2. Groupthink.  It’s a real thing and we have all seen or experienced it. Groupthink is defined as “a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people’s common sense desire to present alternatives” and it limits our ability to fully explore all options. We try to avoid it in both our teacher workshops and in classroom settings by allowing time for quiet, individual idea generation (brainwriting) before group brainstorming discussion. Our own experience as well as expert research indicate that this will help the group come up with more ideas. As a teacher, you need to be on alert for that group that has the problem solved before they begin – it almost always means groupthink is at work.
  1. Silence and order. Be prepared to intervene when the noise level in group sessions starts to go down. Change a constraint, eliminate obstacles, or create a new condition. What if money were no object?  What if you need to create shoes with more than one purpose?chindogu shoes  Here is a great example from Japanese art of chindogu, or the creation of unuseless objects.  Using paradigm shifts to jumpstart stalled brainstorming sessions is a very effective technique. Some of the ideas below can help you get students to take a new approach.


Three Methods that Create Lots of Ideas

  1. Word Merge

This is based on the idea that we often innovate by combining actual objects or their attributes. Think of the smart phone (computer + phone + lots more) or luggage with wheels. There are many ways to do this but the simplest is to have students pick random words from a bag or box and then partner with each other to create new things.

Michael Michalko (author of Thinkertoys and other creativity books) calls a version of this idea One + One = One . His version might be fun to try in your classroom.


ScamperSCAMPER is a well-known acronym that is used to encourage different ways of thinking about a challenge or solution. It stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. The words are meant to prompt questions that make you shift your thinking. SCAMPER can be used in many ways. You can even facilitate a whole-class brainstorm by assigning different letters to different groups. SCAMPER is also a helpful means of providing prompts if idea generation slows down.


  1. Brainwriting

Brainwriting is used to describe several idea generation techniques, but in most cases it refers to having individuals create ideas before any group discussion takes place. It is an effective means of giving everyone a say and it limits the opportunity for groupthink. When we use it, we ask participants to spend a few minutes generating ideas without talking and to record each individual idea on a Post It. The group then gets together and shares their ideas. This process normally leads pretty naturally to the next phase (Developing a Solution). Most groups will begin to look for similarities and patterns as they compare individual ideas and they will begin to form a convergent consensus about what a potential solution might be.

Phase 2, which involves exploring all options, is often the part of the Engineering Design Process that teachers and students will skip or minimize. Many will go directly from problem to solution. But innovation is rarely found on such a straight path. If you really want to encourage creativity in your classroom, you need to give students time to generate and evaluate multiple options for solutions. In most real challenges, there is never one right answer. Generate lots of options and then encourage your students to settle on one to test and modify as they search for the optimal solution to meet the constraints and criteria. In Part 3 of this series, we will explore this third phase of the Engineering Design Process, Developing a Solution. This is a phase where students will need to move back to more convergent thinking, which can be a challenge once they have those creative juices flowing!

modes of thinking

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1, 2, 3 Engineer!

(This is Part 1 of a three part series focused on using the Engineering Design Process to support a culture of creative problem-solving in your classroom)

At ProjectEngin, we have long held the belief that sustainable professional development starts with a focus on culture in both the classroom and school. Our initial contact with educators often involves whole school or district groups covering diverse grade levels, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. We always begin by stressing and illustrating through hands-on activities that Engineering Design highlights creative problem-solving in all disciplines. Our message in all of these workshops is that by highlighting key parts of the Engineering Design Process educators can focus on curricular concepts while following a skills-based framework.

In this three part series, we will share some of our workshop approaches by highlighting what we consider to be the three main stages of the Engineering Design Process. One of our mantras is that the word “process” really is the key to connected and impactful learning. Following the Engineering Design Process enables educators to highlight specific skills, to make clear connections to curricular content, and to focus on the journey and not just the destination or final product. We are committed to the idea that Engineering Design is a natural process that should be easy for teachers to implement.  In this article and the two blog entries that will follow, we offer a model to help you create a culture of creative problem-solving in your classroom.

Our goal is always to make things manageable and to enable teachers to build on the practices that they already employ. We can all relate to what we consider the three main phases of Engineering Design:

  1. Know your problem or challenge.
  2. Know your options
  3. Develop a solution


Let’s begin at the beginning by considering Phase 1 – Know your problem or challenge.Design Space We think of this as mapping out your design space. It is what makes solving a problem or meeting a solution different from simply “making” something.

This first step is simple but often neglected or minimized. We all know that you cannot solve a problem or meet a challenge if you don’t really know what it is.  (Please note – we often use the word “challenge” instead of “problem” when working with students. It seems to lessen the tendency to go straight to solution.)

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) focuses on three ideas when discussing the need to clearly define a problem. We think they are all key steps in getting your projects off to a solid start.

  1. State the challenge (problem) clearly. For example, the challenge of getting to work on time can stem from a failure to get up early enough, traffic issues, or underestimating time needed for other tasks. It helps to know what the issue really is before developing a solution. If you hit “Snooze” an infinite amount of times no matter what, you would already be behind schedule even if you were driving the sole vehicle on the road. Addressing the wrong issue by developing a different way to commute may not be the best answer. Make sure that you and your students have a clear understanding of what the core problem or challenge is. Ask questions, look for cause and effect relationships, and identify impacts.

Quotefancy Einstein problem

  1. Determine what the constraints are. The next step in knowing your problem is to understand what constraints or limitations impact the current situation and the possible solutions. Think of constraints as positive motivation. If we didn’t have to deal with limitations such as time, money, and resources, innovation would rarely occur. Constraints will generally be common issues that all groups will face as they design. Some constraints derive from the science that relates to a project, so this stage is a natural point for making connections to curricular concepts. Do not give students an unconstrained challenge but be careful of having too many constraints since that can limit creativity. Brandon Rodriguez has a great TEDEd lesson about The Power of Creative Constraints that can help you and your students see the value in having some constraints.
  1. Determine the criteria for a successful solution. While constraints may be the same across all groups developing a solution to a challenge, criteria are most likely different. Criteria are the goals that a group defines as being the hallmarks of a successful solution. Criteria form each group’s identity and should also reflect an understanding of the needs of the targeted end-user. Think of the many different car models available. In order to function, be safe, and appeal economically to the average consumer, they all are designed within many of the same constraints. The differences in body styles, special packages, and interior details are all designed to address the criteria that matter to specific users while reflecting the brand image of each particular company.

Keep in mind that when student groups create criteria they are developing a      “rubric” for a successful design. They should be able to indicate how a solution meets their most important criteria and how it was impacted by the given constraints.

Think of this initial process of knowing your problem as defining the space for launching the challenge. By identifying constraints and criteria, you create a situation that moves beyond making or simply “doing a project”. A critical key to successfully managing students’ Engineering Design projects is to continually bring their focus back to these early definitions. Criteria and constraints should provide a litmus test for design decisions, helping to foster critical thinking and analysis. And they should be present in all phases of the process, not just in the initial planning.problem

A well thought-out start will go a long way toward developing a solution and it will aid in keeping the focus on process.  Don’t skip this step. In its absence, student work will quickly become making for the sake of making and you will lose a valuable opportunity to foster mastery of concepts through application.

Coming in Part 2 – Navigating the design space to consider multiple options.

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