The engineering design process is an integral part of learning. It is used in all aspects of our learning, whether in Math, Language, Social Studies, or Science. When using the engineering design process, students are required to draw on a multitude of skills, starting with recognizing that there is a problem they can solve for with engineering.
This process differs slightly from the scientific method since it involves designing, building, and testing a solution for a specific problem rather than conducting experiments and making observations. Below are the seven steps of the engineering design process from STEM education experts and Sphero Heroes Todd Doerpinghaus and Eric Mendes.
It’s important to note that engineers don’t always follow these engineering design process steps in order. Often, they may backtrack to a previous step during the process to make a design change. This is called iteration and is quite common in the engineering field.
The 7 Steps of the Engineering Design Process
The engineering design process is a seven-step process that begins with defining the problem.
Step 1: Define
In this step, students formulate what they think about the problem. Eric points to this real-world example of defining a problem: some schools require students to keep lunch with them in classes throughout the day. What problems does this change create? An answer could be that they have to keep their lunches on the floor next to where they sit directly on the ground.
Problem-solving starts with problem-finding. This step helps to develop critical thinking skills and the ability to use a different viewpoint to examine a situation.
Step 2: Ask
The next step in the engineering design process is to ask questions about the problem. Students can ask the following questions:
- What problem is being solved?
- Who is this product being designed for?
- Why is a solution to this problem important?
They have a problem, and now it is time to brainstorm potential solutions. They should list as many possible solutions as they can to maximize their options. Now is not the time to judge any ideas. Just let them flow.
Now is also the time to do research. Look at solutions for similar problems that already exist. By looking at existing solutions, you might come up with new ideas based on them and steer clear of mistakes made in the past. In the student lunch example, students came up with a list of ideas that would keep lunches out of the way and off the ground.
This step develops creativity and research skills. The point is not to come up with the right answer but to create a list of answers.
Step 3: Imagine
Now that there is a list of solutions to the problem, it is time to narrow down the options. Your students cannot turn all of them into reality, but they can imagine how these solutions will work. You can start by simply talking through the possible ideas and explaining how they would work. Many of the ideas will be rejected during this step. If more than one idea still seems viable after talking through the solution, then students can sketch out a few of their designs to make them more realistic and narrow down the list even further.
In the school lunch example, students came up with the idea of a hook that can attach to the bottom of desks to hold their lunch. This step of the engineering design process teaches critical thinking and reins in the creativity involved in the last step.
Step 4: Plan
By step four, your students know the basics of what the solution will be but have yet to work out the details. In this step, it is time to refine and improve the solution and break down the path to solving the problem into smaller steps. When you iterate or improve on a design, you will revisit this step each time you do.
For the school lunch example, a hook that could attach to the bottom of a desk was determined to be the solution. But other questions still had to be answered in this step, like how much weight it will need to hold, how big it will be, and what material it should be made out of.
This step continues to teach critical thinking along with applied engineering because the solution is one step away from reality, and they must consider the real world in the design.
Step 5: Prototype
By this step, you have a design to build, and it’s time to create a functioning version of your solution. It could be made of different materials than the final solution and may not be as polished. The point of this step is to create a solution you can test before you spend time creating the final product.
The students creating the school lunch hooks used sketchpads and CAD software to design them. They found out in the process that the line between steps four and five can be blurred and made changes to the design of the hook they never thought of before, improving its design.
This step shows students that their hard work paid off, they can find success by following the process, and it takes work to develop the best potential solution. They may have to revisit this step to improve the design, but they have turned a design into reality.
Step 6: Test
Once a prototype is ready, it is time to test it. Here, the students can use their creations to see if their designs work. Most likely, students will go through a few tests with a few different prototypes because there will be additional problems to solve that weren’t thought of in the other design steps.
Using the lunch hook experience from Eric’s classroom, many of the students saw flaws in their design right away and knew what parts would work and what features needed iterating. The students attached their hooks to their desks and used their full lunches to test them.
This step allows students to see which ideas work and which need improvement, giving them a clearer perspective on the problem and everything that affects the final solution.
Step 7: Improve
Prototypes are built quickly for a reason. Chances are that you will create a few of them while you perfect the design. Step seven is not so much a step as it is backtracking to the planning phase and determining what should be changed in your design, building a new prototype, and testing again.
The students designing the lunch box hook found issues with the size and dimensions of their hook and were able to reprint and display their designs. This iterative process teaches students grit because there is a difference between being done and doing their best work.
Bonus Step: Communicate
Both of our experts mentioned that each step requires communication. It is not a formal step but the why behind all the steps. Also, as a final step, students get to share their learning and their design.
In the school lunch project, students voted on which design should be used and accommodated the most types of lunches. By communicating, students can learn to demonstrate how their design works and the reasoning behind their choices.
Getting Started with the Engineering Design Process? Follow These Expert Tips.
Todd and Eric tell us a few potential challenges using the engineering design process in a classroom setting. One problem is cleaning up. Designing prototypes can get messy. Their solution is to assign the clean-up task to students before getting started.
You may encounter some difficulty during the “Improve” step of the process. This happens because students may think they’ve completed the project without needing to iterate. It will take time and modeling to get students past this phase. Once they hear the reflections from their classmates and see new ways to improve their design, they’ll get excited to iterate. It can also be challenging to fit the whole design process into one class. The solution is to spread the process over multiple classes if necessary.
The engineering design process allows students to remember where they left off and continue with the task as if they were right there in the middle of it.
The Engineering Design Process: The Takeaway
The engineering design process is something your students can use throughout their life to solve problems, whether they decide to become engineers or not. Sphero’s tech-based coding and design projects are the perfect tools for teaching the engineering design process to kids and giving them a sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing their ideas become a reality.