Easy Entry, Sky High, and a Mile Wide

What makes a great Engineering Design project? What creates the magic promised by project-based learning? The range and variety of possible projects is overwhelming. At ProjectEngin we focus on three key principles when developing projects for teachers to use.  In our experience working with teachers and students in grades K-12, the best learning happens when there are few barriers to entry, no limits on possibilities, and a chance to make things uniquely your own. It all leads to student-driven learning and increased engagement.

Easy Entry – All of our projects have a decidedly low-tech entry point. Asking teachers and students to learn differently, investigate new ideas, and focus on skills is already a significant challenge. Layering on technology creates too high of a wall and, at times, too much expense. We use simple materials and initial challenges that create easy identification with the end-user. We use basic craft materials to help students tap into their inner engineer. Our projects focus on process and creativity. Expensive “stuff”, complex algorithms, and steep learning curves are decidedly absent from our projects and curriculum. Beginning engineers don’t need 3-D printers to create prosthetic hands; they can learn more about how to design a functioning hand by using simple materials like balsa wood, wire, straws, elastic bands, string, and hooks. Easy entry creates early empowerment!

Sky High – Always leave room for modification and optimization. Engineering is essentially limitless; everything can be engineered better. Initial development and testing should always be followed by time to modify and improve designs. That is a key difference between a science lab activity and an engineering project. There is no one, right answer. The sky is the limit. Students should always have the opportunity to reach as far as possible and to recognize that we can all always do better.  Encourage students to look for both incremental and moonshot improvements. Continuous improvement is contagious. Sky high means no limits!

A Mile Wide – Never discourage customization. One of the ideas we stress is that students should have the ability to pick the end-user for their product or process. Good design is based on empathy and addressing someone’s needs. Student choice leads to student engagement. And it showcases the amazing talent in your classroom. Going wide lets everyone start from the same place and reach very different end products. Give students room to follow their own path and to explore those creative edges. Going a mile wide goes beyond thinking outside the box – it knocks down the walls!


We always encourage teachers to think of the design space as being framed by constraints and criteria. It is just as important to think of the learning space as having low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls. When students are comfortable beginning new projects, willing to reach high goals, and engaged in exploring their own path … magic happens!

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5 Easy Ways to include Engineering in Your Classroom

At ProjectEngin, we focus on some core skills when encouraging teachers to think of Engineering Design as a powerful pedagogical tool. Before jumping into a full blown Engineering Design project, we help teachers to think about changing 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 in order to disrupt practices that have been in place for decades. We are convinced that once you see how your students respond, you will make the leap to engineering a whole new kind of learning experience.

  1. Focus on creativity and innovation. Give pairs of students cards with two very different items on them. Challenge them to design something (s) by combining both. Think telephone plus computer equals smart phone. A combination that seemed impossible and unwieldy less than 40 years ago is commonplace today. Think big, think crazy, innovate, and invent.
  2. Focus on failure as a learning experience. Have groups of 2 or 3 students build towers out of newspaper and a limited amount of Scotch tape. 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?
  3. skillsDevelop empathy. 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.
  4. Find their inner engineer. Give students a selection of appropriate objects (photos or images work well) and ask them to engineer a solution based on limitations (constraints) and criteria (goals). For example make a tasty (criteria) lunch out of the ingredients in a refrigerator (constraints). Or put together an outfit 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?classroom
  5. 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 learning and what makes them comfortable. You may even get some ideas of what you can do now. Explain that everything can be engineered better. What stops us?
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The Top 5 Reasons to Include Engineering in Your School

At ProjectEngin we firmly believe that Engineering is the “secret sauce” in your STEM/STEAM program. And we spend a lot of time working with teachers and schools to convince them that it can plan a role in classes from K-12. Read on to find out what some of our clients find to be the most compelling reasons to include more Engineering in the curriculum.

  1. We live in an “engineered” world. Basically, if something doesn’t grow on trees, begin life as an embryo or seed, or evolve over millenia – it is  engineered. The young people in our classrooms are and will be citizens of a highly designed world. As educators, we are all committed to preparing our students to be knowledgeable, involved citizens of the future. Basic literacy about the products and processes of the designed world need to be a part of every young person’s education. The ease of access to information has freed educators from simple transmission of information. Including the process of design lets you introduce the skills that underlie the creation and the evolution of the built environment.gardens.jpg
  2. Engineering is a way to bring that “real world” into your classroom. There are big challenges facing us now and in the future. Many of those challenges will require engineered solutions and the development of technologies that we can barely imagine. Teaching the same material the same way it was taught 50 years ago is a disservice to the young people we have such an opportunity to impact. Teaching facts in isolation is not realistic. Energy solutions impact climate and resources. Technologies designed to provide clean water for all can have high energy costs and create the need for new agricultural technologies. Many of the decisions that need to be in health care technologies have significant ethical impacts. One can’t consider any one of the UN Global Goals as being totally unrelated to any of the others.sdg Nothing in the modern world exists in an isolated, siloed environment. Except for our classrooms. Engineers have to be systems thinkers, weighing all inputs and outcomes. They have to optimize, finding the solutions with more positive impacts than negative consequences. They need to understand the economic, political, and cultural factors surrounding a problem. And they need to know their end-user. That is the real world. Very few of the learning challenges in most classrooms encourage such holistic thinking. All of our Engineering projects are based on  “real world” challenges that require synergetic, systems-based solutions.IMG_2290
  3. We are all natural engineers. Many of the teachers we work with are initially “terrified” of teaching  Engineering. They share a common public misconception that all engineers are socially inept math and science geeks. As a result, teachers do not feel that they are qualified to even discuss Engineering, let alone actively include it in their curriculum. Engineers solve problems by designing helpful products and processes. You actually engineer every day. You engineer your chosen outfit by thinking about what you need to do and how you want to look (criteria). You then look in your closet to see what you have (constraints) and follow a process to create a preliminary “look”. Depending on your age level and social life (think teenage girl), you modify and optimize your outfit. You had a problem, defined your design space, considered the possible solutions, prototyped the best option and solved the problem as best as you could. That is the Engineering Design Process. We are all engineers on a daily basis. So why isn’t that a part of what we teach?
  4. Engineering is the “secret sauce” that you need to really have STEM curriculum. We view Engineering as the linking verb in STEM or STEAM. Engineers use Science and Math to design and build Technolgies to solve problems and to meet human needs. A good Engineering project brings project-based learning into your curriculum with a platform that enables you to clearly connect math and science concepts. Well-designed Engineering curriculum creates a “need to know” for students, leading them to develop a better understanding of concepts in order to apply them to achieve the desired results. In post-interviews, we have actually had a significant number of students express surprise that any of the science knowledge they had been taught “actually made something work”.  More proof that we need to stop teaching concepts in isolation.IMG_0201 (1) (2)
  5. Engineering is fun and creative. Try it! We can almost promise that your students will want more. A well-planned Engineering activity or project has room for all learners, not just the ones who can find the right answer on a test. One of the main reasons that ProjectEngin began was the number of students who reported that their senior year Engineering course was the first time they had fun in science since the primary grades. How can we hope to attract creative and innovative thinkers to STEM fields when we teach science in a rote, fact-focused manner? Learning should be messy, not linear. Constructing a cognitive model is creative and it is a process. It should always be about the questions, challenges, and possibilities,  not just the answers.



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Embracing the E: Why Engineering Should be Part of Your Classroom


The Top 5 E-Reasons


Engineering is the process that brings the built world into existence. And that is very much the world that our students live in. Activities that challenge young people to do things differently and better are far more engaging than traditional verification labs and routine problem sets. In lieu of a traditional lab to study projectile motion, teachers can cover the same topics by challenging students to design a safe model of a water slide. Additional real-world considerations such as aesthetics, cost, safety factors, and capacity can also be incorporated. The grand finale of seeing objects crash into a basin of water is a lot more fun and engaging than collecting sets of data for the range of a marble rolled off a table or launched with a lab device.



If we ever hope to develop mastery, application is needed. “Doing” helps us adjust our mental models and brings forth misconceptions, fostering a much deeper understanding. Students working on mousetrap cars develop a much clearer understanding of the role of friction once they realize the car can’t move on the ground without it. They also begin to understand how it is a resistive, non-conservative force capable of slowing their car down if the moving parts experience too much friction at contact points. All of the words in a textbook or lecture will never make those simple ideas as real to them. Countless problem sets focused on finding the coefficient of friction will never be as effective in developing an understanding of real effects.



In a world that is constantly evolving, the principles of entrepreneurship can give students a strong foundation.  Gen Y and Gen Z-ers are constantly connected and want to be heard. They live in a 24/7 world that is becoming increasing entrepreneurial. The solo and siloed nature of most educational activities is contrary to providing the skills that they will need to succeed. They need to be collaborative and creative thinkers. A well-constructed Engineering challenge supports that model far better than any multiple choice test or repetitive lab. Engineering embraces failure as a learning activity and strives to always move forward to improve the solution. It reinforces resilience, systems thinking, and divergent thinking. Much of that is missing in our one size-fits-all education model that is so focused on the quest for that one right answer.



Good Engineering Design puts the needs of the end user in the forefront. Products and processes are engineered to solve human problems and to make our lives easier. Students are capable of amazing amounts of empathy, particularly when solving a problem for someone close to them or for other children. We have all read stories about classes and students who have used 3-D printers to make prosthetics and other assistive devices. They are driven by empathy and the idea that they can help someone. Many of the projects we work on ask students to take a global view and focus on the needs of children living in other, less affluent parts of the world. They truly move out of their classrooms as they take what they have learned about electrical circuits and design small pico-PV devices to help children have light to in order to read and play in the evenings. The idea that children their own age have been uprooted and live in refugee camps gives enormous importance to the challenge of using what they have learned about structures and energy to design simple toys. Applications with meaning, clear impact, and a focus on others help reinforce the empathy present in most young people.



The world is a challenging place and statistics are often discouraging. All of our work focuses on developing activities and curriculum meant to empower young people to believe in the promises and possibilities of technology and engineering. There is no doubt that much of the current world condition is due to the technologies and rapid changes we have created in the past. But we are learning and most experts agree that we have the creativity and knowledge to develop solutions to the challenges we face now and in the future. That future is in your classrooms today and change can only happen if we work to develop our students’ confidence that they can make a difference. Young people can engineer a better world for all and they deserve an education that makes that goal real and attainable.

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A STEAM Experience

Take a minute to read about an amazing teacher that we worked with this year. During the 2015-16 school year, Abby Paon piloted a biomimicry based STEAM enrichment course that we designed. Her reflection on the experience follows.

“This school year, I have had the opportunity to implement a STEAM enrichment course for our 8th grade students that emphasizes the Engineering Design Process while focusing on life science disciplinary core ideas as well as the practices and crosscutting concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).   This course also has a strong emphasis on the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  The 30 day course curriculum was developed by Ann Kaiser of ProjectEngin and was designed to encourage innovative thinking in developing solutions to problems, and highlight the connections, creativity, and collaboration young people need to move forward in the 21st century.

During the introductory unit, students engage in several engineering design challenges as they begin to think and work like engineers.  The first challenge that they are given is to design a newspaper tower that is free standing, at least 18 inches tall, able to support the weight of a tennis ball, and stand up to the force of wind (from a hair dryer).  The students must work together in groups to complete the challenge; however, they are given very limited materials (5 sheets of newspaper, 12 inches of scotch tape, scissors and a ruler) and have only 15 minutes to build their towers.  Most groups struggle to find success with this challenge and some students even ask if they are going to fail the assignment because their tower did not meet the requirements.  After testing their tower, students must complete a failure analysis and identify what went wrong with their design and then plan for possible modifications that they could make to create a more successful tower.  This is where the most important learning occurs for students – when they are asked to analyze their mistakes and design innovative solutions based on their new knowledge.  Throughout the course, students work through a variety of engineering design challenges and they quickly realize that failure is an essential part of the Engineering Design Process.  As students become more comfortable with failure, they begin to take risks within the classroom and approach design challenges with excitement and creativity.  This creates an energy in the classroom that is contagious and ignites learning.  I believe that Curt Richardson said it best, “Failure is a part of innovation – perhaps the most important part.”


The Engineering Design Process

After completing the unit on Engineering Design, we begin to look at nature as an engineer.  Through the lens of biomimicry, students investigate camouflage as nature’s way of engineering survivability.  As students learn about natural selection, adaptation as a design process and the various types of camouflage found in the natural world, they are working towards the completion of their final design challenge for the course – to develop a camouflage outfit for a wildlife photographer working in a specific environment.  Students work collaboratively as scientists and engineers to research their environment, identify the constraints and criteria that will frame their work, and generate multiple design solutions that could meet the needs of the photographer.  As they work together, students are required to document their findings and use this information to inform their final design.


Camo 4Camo 3 Camo 2 camo 1

                                Student Designs

This school year has been an incredible learning experience for me as an educator.  As I have observed my students embrace failure and work collaboratively to tackle each design challenge, I have been amazed at their level of engagement, creativity and ownership over their “engineered” solutions. It is clear that they have not only learned about the Engineering Design Process and biomimicry throughout this course; they have also learned to take risks, ask questions, work creatively together, investigate ideas, design innovative solutions to real world problems, and communicate results with one another.  If we hope to produce the future leaders and innovators of the world, then we must provide our students with opportunities to develop the 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity that will provide them with the foundation they need to be successful in college and the workplace.  As adults, they will be expected to think creatively, communicate clearly, work collaboratively with others, and make judgements and decisions to solve problems.  It is our responsibility, as educators, to provide these types of learning opportunities for all students in an effort to help them become successful members of a global community in the 21st century.  I truly believe that we, as educators, have the most important job – we help shape the future!”

Abby Paon, 2016 Coventry Teacher of the Year

STEAM Teacher & Science Curriculum Coordinator

Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School

14 years of experience in education





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A Journey in SpaceTime

Every science class should be about the amazing amount of imagination we need to un-ravel it all!


I have spent the past four days at a Physics Conference that consisted primarily of 3 days of workshops. I came home fully intending to go for a walk (or trek as they like to call it here) along the Southern Ridges, a series of inter-connected parks along the ridge behind my neighborhood. It seemed like a good idea after being inside for so many 9 hour days. But some ominous dark clouds are gathering and it looks a lot like yesterday afternoon when nighttime arrived at 3 pm and there was almost three solid hours of incredible thunder and torrential rain. I don’t think trekking along canopy walks is such a good idea at the moment. Plus my head is full of some really good thoughts, so I decided to write.

The workshops I just attended were conducted by the Perimeter Institute, a Canadian theoretical physics research and outreach…

View original post 1,029 more words

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Engineering the 5Es

With the introduction and adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the BCSC 5E Instructional model has returned to the forefront of science teaching and curricular design. Key foundational works such as How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999) and A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC 2012) support the practices embodied in the 5Es – engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. But another new idea embodied in the NGSS is the need to include the designed or engineered world in the education of our young people. This makes it possible to engineer a whole new set of E s – engage, empathize, envision, empower, experience. The different models of the 5Es say it all – science is about inquiry and developing explanations; engineering is about application and developing solutions.

Engagement. Meaningful endeavors always begin with engagement. We engage in the questioning of science because out curiosity is piqued and we engage in problem-solving because we need a solution. Engagement in learning is always driven by a “need to know”. In a world of information powered by Google, engagement is what will lead to lifelong learning. We no longer seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake but because we need to answer a question or solve a problem. You can Google anything at any time, but you don’t. You Google what you need to know at any given moment. Engagement is not about entertainment value, it is about creating a real “need to know”.

Jobs quote

Empathy. Engineers design technologies to solve human problems. Good design always considers the end-user. So in Engineering, empathy is very much in play. This is not the case in science. Science is, and should be, a highly objective pursuit. Empathy has no real place in scientific discovery because it challenges one’s objectivity and brings human nature into the forefront.  The empathy that is not a player in pure science, powers well-designed engineering. We cannot prepare students for the highly connected, and crowded, world they will inherit if we do not teach them to be empathetic. From a purely “clinical” aspect, systems thinking, the ability to see all of the consequences of a solution, demands an understanding of the human factor. From a more humanistic view, understanding the world you live in demands the ability to immerse yourself in different cultures, viewpoints, and circumstances. Engineering, with its focus on the end-user, brings empathy into the science classroom in a meaningful and realistic way.

Envisioning. Theodore von Karman, a true rocket scientist, said “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.” Discovery requires questioning and the imagination to connect the dots. Engineering takes vision and Theodore_von_Karman_-_GPN-2000-001500creativity. Science is, in a sense, about convergence as it seeks agreement on one model. Engineering is all about thinking divergently, seeing things differently. It doesn’t matter if it is a brand new invention or an innovation on an existing product, the end result didn’t exist before. The end result often exists in the engineer’s mind before it becomes a reality. The design process starts with understanding the problem and the end-user and moves through the steps of envisioning and creating a solution. The engineer weaves a solution from a complex web of constraints, criteria, scientific principles, mathematical models, and aesthetics. She needs to be able to envision what a solution might look like to orchestrate a suitable solution. That takes vison, creativity, and perseverance.

Empowerment. Engineering empowers young people to see the solutions not just the problems. It differs from scientific inquiry in terms of its ability to affect change. Engineering is not about discovering; it is about doing. It is highly disingenuous of us to cite all of the myriad problems in the world without focusing on our ability to apply science to engineer solutions. We need to convince young people that they can change the world. And it is true that with great power comes great responsibility. Science tells what we can do; engineers often have to decide what we should do.

Experience. We end with a word that both science and engineering have in common. Students need to “do” or experience science much as they need to experience the challenges of engineering solutions to problems. Telling someone about science or engineering without an opportunity to experience it is the same as showing students seated in desks a swimming stroke and then declaring they know how to swim before they even get wet. Why do we persist in doing this in classrooms?  Scientists do not discover how nature works without active pursuit of connections and conducting experiments. Solutions to problems aren’t engineered because we decide they should happen; we need to actively create them.

swimming without water

In the end, science and engineering begin and end at the same E. The first step should always be engagement – creating that self-motivating “need to know”. And no matter what E s come in between, in the end, it is all about the experience – doing science and engineering solutions.

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