Engineering Lesson Structure

Elementary Engineering Structure

Last week I wrote about introducing engineering practices to your classroom. This week, let’s take it a step further and go through the structure of a STEM Challenge. What are the components and how much time should you plan for each?

Here’s a quick video describing each step.

The STEM Challenge Cycle


The STEM Challenge Cycle & the Engineering Design Process (EDP)

The STEM Challenge Cycle I use to break down a lesson, at first glance makes it appear as though I jump ahead to step 4 in the EDP. That’s kind of true, but not entirely.

I give my students the problem and a criteria & constraints list to build against. We never research before the first build for several reasons. First, If you dig deeper into the EDP and NGSS, you’ll find the research should be done on the problem.

In the example of a boat challenge, this would mean students should research how to make things float and hold great capacity or sail quickly. The tricky thing is, it’s very hard to research a problem without happening upon quite a few solutions (i.e. existing boat designs). This leads students to replicate found designs rather than create innovative solutions.

I’ve found that research is most productive when I place it after the first build and before the second iteration of the build (research is part of “Extend” in the cycle). Students are bought into wanting to improve their designs, and they’ve had a chance to create their own solutions. That engagement is priceless!

You’ll notice that the STEM Challenge Cycle reflects what we’re actually doing in class to work through the steps of the EDP. For me, it is a clearer process for how teachers can set up their lessons to help students think analytically and problem solve.

Note: if you are working with NGSS, doing multiple iterations is a requirement. I know it often feels hard enough to get a single iteration in! But trust me, if you haven’t tried this yet, you’re missing out! One of the best ways to walk the talk of growth mindset is to give kids an opportunity to actually show their growth and improvements!


Quick Tips

1. Do NOT provide directions, samples, or pictures

This relates to the earlier point about research. When we show students a picture or example of a design, it’s nearly impossible for them to get it out of their minds. You’ll be getting a bunch of designs that look largely the same as what the students were shown.

Innovation > replication!

And while you want to provide students a framework of requirements and limitations using a criteria & constraints list, you should never provide step-by-step directions. STEM Challenges are about problem-solving. You don’t want to turn a beautiful learning opportunity into a craft or Ikea furniture-building activity. (Yes, those things have benefits too, but not nearly as many as a well-run STEM Challenge.)


2. Facilitate!

While the students are building, make sure you are taking the opportunity to circulate and ask questions to help them build their scientific reasoning and analysis. That doesn’t happen by accident or osmosis! You have to model it, push for it and provide intentional time and space for it. The build time is where this begins, and it continues during the share, record & reflect, discuss and extend steps. You can find some examples of questions in the Secrets to Successful STEM Challenges webinar or the Everything You Need to Know About STEM Challenges course.


3. Timing

You can break it up over a few days. It’s helpful to keep the build & share out on the same day whenever possible. You can find some tips on making STEM Challenges work with short class periods in the video below.




4. Assess thoughtfully, if at all

Not everything needs to be assessed. If you choose to assess, emphasize process over product. I recommend using rubrics that align well with your STEM Challenge goals. The set below is what I created and use.


5. Step up your STEM Challenge Game with PD

There is a lot to know and love about STEM Challenges! Far too much for a blog post! You can find much more detail in the Secrets to Successful STEM Challenges webinar. There’s also the Everything You Need to Know About STEM Challenges course, which comes with tons of resources & PD to help you feel confident in how you implement STEM Challenges.

Want to learn more about STEM Challenges? Join us on Saturday, October 26th at 11 AM CDT for a FREE Webinar. 

Click here to register


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2 thoughts on “Engineering Lesson Structure”

    1. OOOH, I like it!!! One of the projects I’ve worked with in the past takes a lesson about tracing your food all the way to the farm, then creating a business model and pitch to talk about which foods are best for you and why. LOVE that! …and agreed — entrepreneurship is needed in schools!

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