Engaging in the practices of engineering helps kids understand the work of engineers, as well as the links between engineering and science. 

As problems are identified and solutions are needed, often times the solution is developed through the engineering design process. Engineers, like scientists, utilize a series of practices as they design solutions to solve meaningful problems. Here's how we present this idea to kids:

  • Define the problem
  • Brainstorm, research, and develop models as a solution
  • Design and build a prototype
  • Test, collect data, and redesign as necessary
  • Engage in argument about the solution based on meeting criteria and constraints
  • Share the solution

When students are exposed to real issues, and tasked to design solutions, it gives them an opportunity to learn with increasing depth and sophistication the strategies they will use to solve their own problems. In conjunction with our exploration of natural hazards, we delved into the devastation New Orleans experienced after 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Additionally, we inspected maps and diagrams that helped us better understand the complexity New Orleans faces related to ground elevations. 

The children were then presented with this problem:

  • The Army Corps of Engineers wants to design a structure that would protect New Orleans from future storms that may cause flooding. They are seeking contractors to design and test prototypes to see which will most effectively protect the city from rising water.

The challenge: Design and construct a way to protect New Orleans from rising water.

The criteria and constraints

  1. The prototype must be built in a paint tray.
  2. When the paint tray is leveled, 400-500 mL of water must be contained for one minute in its original location (cannot pass the barrier prototype).
  3. All materials must come from our three bins of recycled materials.

We worked in teams, and all 3 developed a prototype that met the criteria and constraints! Better yet, we all had fun and relished the chance to learn by making and testing, discussing and iterating.