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Engineering Design on a Dime

Teacher Kathy Biernat shares inexpensive and creative tips to teach engineering design.

NOVA EducationNOVA Education
Engineering Design on a Dime

In a Wisconsin classroom, Kathy Biernat’s fifth graders have a problem. They have to send a potato chip to another classroom, keeping the chip intact. The problem? Her students can’t use any traditional packing materials like bubble wrap or packing peanuts. It’s more than a class project: as students discuss materials and test designs, they’re starting to think like engineers.

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Biernat teaches fifth through eighth grade science at St. Mary’s Visitation School in Elm Grove, WI. She uses innovative challenges like “ship-a-chip” to teach science and engineering concepts. As a member of the NOVA Education Advisory Board, Biernat provides feedback on new educational resources.

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Students test creative methods to turn off a light switch. Credit: Kathy Biernat

Last month, Biernat tested NOVA’s new “Think Like a Crow” classroom activity with her fifth grade students. The activity challenges students to solve engineering problems using design thinking. Each challenge uses common classroom items, such as highlighters or rulers, which means the teacher doesn’t need to buy additional materials. This activity accompanies a video clip from the NOVA episode “Inside Animal Minds: Bird Genius.”

NOVA Education spoke to Kathy about testing the activity, incorporating design thinking, and teaching engineering design without breaking the bank.

What are some examples of engineering design activities that you use?

Biernat: My 5 th graders went from doing the crow activity to building a container to ship a Pringles chip to another classroom. There are 50 teachers and 150 classrooms across the country participating in this “ship the chip” project. There are also a few classrooms in Australia and Canada participating as well.

My 7 th graders right now are working on the skeletal system. How do you use engineering design in the skeletal system? They are designing prosthetic limbs. My students need to create prosthetics that can move, bend, hold weight, and still be comfortable.

NOVA Connection: Who better to introduce students to engineering design than engineers? Explore the work of real engineers with NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers Collection . Students can learn about mechanical engineering , product design , electrical engineering, robotics , computer science , structural engineering , and aeronautical engineering . The collection also highlights other interests of engineers, from sailing and rock climbing to music and dance. “Secret Life” shows that you can enjoy engineering and other pursuits, too!

How do you teach engineering design without using expensive or hard-to-find supplies?

Biernat: It is not difficult to come up with inexpensive engineering design activities. Teachers are good at doing things “on the cheap.” Sometimes students want to do something with materials we do not have in the classroom. For example, my students wanted to use a diaper for padding for the “ship a chip” challenge. In those cases, students may bring materials from home, but usually we can use what we have in the classroom.

I emphasize that my students will always face limitations when solving problems in real life. Even if they ultimately work for an engineering company, students do not have unlimited budgets and materials. There will always be constraints when coming up with solutions—that is life.

Often teachers post activity ideas online, which is a great way to find inexpensive resources. I did not come up with the “ship the chip” idea; the idea has been on the Internet for a while. I’m approaching it in a slightly different way than the way others have done it. Other teachers can talk about it online and share their experiences.

NOVA Connection: You can teach engineering design on a dime too! Visit NOVA’s Making Stuff Collection for engineering videos and design activities. The activities include building structurally sound towers , designing effective cooling units , and building a mechanical arm . You can find more activity ideas in the Making Stuff Activity Guide .

Do you teach engineering design as a separate topic, or is it incorporated into other science topics?

Biernat: My unit for engineering design is a separate unit, although I am trying to incorporate more engineering design into everything so it is not so much “stand-alone.” With my 5 th graders, I have to be very clear that this is engineering design. Hopefully by the time they get to 8 th grade, I will not have to say, “This is engineering design.” It will just be incorporated into everything else.

I am trying not to make engineering design something that I do from September 1 st to September 15 th , but something that I do every day. Even if students do not go into engineering, learning how to solve problems is useful for any career.

NOVA Connection: Engineering design can be integrated into your existing lesson plan. Teaching environmental science? Learn how one architect is designing a solution to flooding using oysters and blue mussels. Working through physics? Find out how NASA engineers designed the LCROSS lunar mission to reduce costs and recycle materials. Focusing on biology? Learn how researchers developed a targeted medication delivery method that is guided by magnets.

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A student uses classroom items to test methods for turning off a light switch. Credit: Kathy Biernat

How did the “Think Like a Crow” activity fit into your lesson plan? How did you introduce the activity?

Biernat: I had my students watch the “ As the Crow Thinks ” video clip once to understand the concept. Then, the students divided into small groups to work on the challenges. Before testing out a solution, groups had to create a plan and explain it to me. Some plans did not work as well as the students expected. When that happened, I asked the students to reflect and think about what might work better.

NOVA Connection: Interested in testing new classroom activities? Join the NOVA Education Advisory Board! Your input will improve educational resources for teachers nationwide. In addition, your name will be listed on the NOVA Education website if you provide feedback.

What are some takeaways for STEM teachers about teaching engineering design?

Biernat: Some teachers are hesitant about engineering design because they are unfamiliar with it. With engineering design, you are not directly teaching the students; you are facilitating their learning. Watching somebody else teach engineering design can be very helpful.

It is also helpful to give students opportunities to reflect on their work. At the end of the day, we often think about what’s next. We do not reflect on what we have learned and future applications. We often think of a lesson as checking things off a list. “I did the lab, check! Finished the lesson, check!” That means moving to the next thing without processing. I am trying to build reflection into every lesson, so students can think about the purpose and what we can learn.

I try to emphasize that sometimes you learn more when you make mistakes. One student had a science fair project about Planaria and they all died. He got another set of Planaria and they all died too! We turned it around; I encouraged him to figure out what happened and why the Planaria did not survive. Next year he will have to create an environment where the Planaria can live, and that will be engineering design!

NOVA Connection: Want to see the design thinking process before testing it in your classroom? NOVA’s Design Process Collection includes four videos highlighting strategies for effective engineering design. The collection also includes lesson planning resources to help you implement these strategies.

How do you teach engineering design on a dime? Let us know in the comments or email us at !

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