Is the Engineering Design Process Really Important?

As a teacher, I am sure you have been overwhelmed! The last week of school, the first week of school, right before report cards go out, parent conference week, during an observation, and so many more occasions are when we all get that feeling that it's just too much.

That is the exact situation I was in a few years ago when I left the regular classroom to take on a STEM Lab position. I spent the entire summer decorating and organizing the lab and then started gathering resources.

Now, let's talk about those resources! I had practically nothing and most of the idea books I had were too difficult for my age group.

There was, however, one thing I began to see in those resources- over and over.

It was the Engineering Design Process and I began to think that this little process might be important for STEM.




I Had Some Questions about the EDP!

Well, I did some more research and started seeing the same circular flow chart about the EDP and after more reading and note-taking I had some questions and problems to solve:
  • What exactly is the Engineering Design Process?
  • Do I need to make sure we use it?
  • How does the EDP work?
  • Is it STEM if I don't use the EDP?
  • Will students benefit from using any kind of process?
And, then, of course, I needed some posters... more about that later!


What exactly is the Engineering Design Process?

The easiest answer to that question is to look at the Scientific Method. The EDP is similar. Both begin with a question. The steps that follow lead students through a procedure to keep them on track- planning, creating, improving, and sharing. 

Do I need to make sure we use it?

This was one of my biggest questions as I started to create challenges. Everything, everything, I read about STEM mentioned this process so I decided it must be a big deal.

Let's see if a visual will help you understand!

Take a look at the photo. It seems like something so small, but to get to the point in making that string run through a hole in the straw took a lot of work. In fact, students had already worked through the asking, imagining, planning, and creating before they reached this point. (And, by the way, that string through the straw was such a fabulous way to solve the problem the group had. More about that later!)

How does the EDP work?

The photo I used above is from a challenge that involves building a working drawbridge. It's such a fun challenge!

How about I talk you through the challenge and stop and explain the EDP steps along the way!

We started by talking about drawbridges as we examined the question being asked in the task. That's the EDP Ask Step.


The Lab Sheet we use begins with the Ask Step and a pre-formed question to set a purpose for the task. In this challenge it is:

How can you use the materials to design and build a working drawbridge that follows all the task constraints?

This immediately started the class talking about what a drawbridge does, how it works, and what kind of materials we will use. This is the Imagine Step and it sometimes begins with very little direction from me. In this challenge, the kids were excited and ready to learn.

This led right to a quick video showing some working drawbridges. We watched a few bridges opening (in different ways) and talked about why a drawbridge would be needed. This discussion satisfies one of the components of the EDP- which is to add a real-life application to the task. Now, to be honest, not every challenge is as easily applicable to the real world, but setting a premise for the challenge is important.

    Next, we started Planning- with some crossover with Imagining. At this point, students wanted to see the materials to help make decisions about the bridges.
    Above is a photo that perfectly captures the beginning of the Planning step. The group is talking about all of their ideas and using the materials to see how they will work together. It is fascinating to watch kids do this and dicker with one another over the ideas and materials.

    The Lab sheet also has space for sketching. We always stop and sketch ideas. Everyone stops and sketches. I have an entire blog post devoted to our Planning Step. (Link at the end!)

    As students finished the planning and made decisions, they started building their device or structure.
    This step is the Creating phase. We gathered materials and assign jobs. How will students create a working drawbridge using cardboard and string? The biggest problem we encountered is the center opening of the bridge. Many groups find that the opening needs extra support.

    And, this led right into Improving! This is a natural part of engineering. When we try to solve a problem and the solution doesn't seem to be working, we quickly add to the design to fix the problem. In the above photo, you can see what the group did to keep the center of their bridge from sagging. Those pencils provide support under the bridge. (Pencils are one of the materials in this challenge.)

    More Problems to Solve:
    Above is the bridge with the hole through the straws. The problem is to raise the bridge roadway. To create the lift of the bridge the team attached string. When the string was just laying on the roadway the bridge would not lift correctly. They added the straw supports, made those little holes, and threaded the string through. It worked perfectly! (By the way, I made those tiny holes for them - using  the pointed end of a compass.)

    Above- this team thought they could attach the string to a pencil to raise the bridge. By turning the pencil by hand, the string would wind up the bridge. However, I reminded them that in the real world there is not a giant hand in the air that can make that turning motion. They stopped working and had a talk about how they could change their structure. (Improving, problem-solving, and re-designing in action!)

    Above - another team had a similar cranking device, but they took it a little further. They attached the turning pencil to the top of the bridge support and had a cranking system that would turn it. They also explained that a real-life bridge built like this would have a motor to turn the crank!

    The last step of the EDP is Sharing/Reflecting. We always stop and have each group present their final structure and talk a little about it. The lab sheets also have a component that includes reflection questions.

    This is our favorite time of a STEM Project. Showing off what has been created is spectacular. Take look at this quick little video:


    Is it STEM if I don't use the EDP?

    That is a great question and it is one I pondered over. Do I really have to include the EDP? 

    Quick answer- YES! 

    Longer answer- let's try a visual!
    One day, I found some clay in my cabinets and decided to try some sculptures with third graders. Above is a little dog. It's very creative. But is it STEM?

    Let's answer some questions:
    • Does it solve a problem? (No, it's just a use of clay to form an animal- which was the task.)
    • Does the task have constraints? (Only that it had to be an animal and the students made that decision. There were no specific rules about the animals.)
    • Was there any planning? (none, the kids just started manipulating the clay and making their models.)
    • Were the models created to demonstrate the solution to a problem? (No! The models were just examples of animals.)
    • Did this involve testing and improving? (Yes, when the animal didn't stand up or look as expected, the students did add to the model.)

    So, was this a STEM Challenge. I would say it was not. It was a craft.

    Will students benefit from using any kind of process?


    As I struggled to find resources I wondered if this was all going to be worth it to my students. Five years later --- here is what I know for sure about the Engineering Design Process:
    • We are engineers. We gather information by researching and learning. We tackle a problem head-on by knowing what we want to accomplish before we begin.
    • We have a problem to solve and the steps we need to take to solve that problem.
    • We know the requirements of the task and what the materials will be. We plan according to those things.
    • We brainstorm like crazy and think outside the box. We bring imaginative solutions into those planning discussions because we have discovered that the zaniest ideas do sometimes work.
    • We draw and talk within teams because we have also discovered that the brilliance of teamwork is what makes STEM an amazing process.
    • We decide on the materials based on our ideas and we create. As the devices are being made we improve immediately as we see that something is not working. We have learned that this is real life!
    • We collect data as we test structures and make informed decisions as we move forward.
    • We are engineers!


    The Engineering Design Process is the heart of STEM. #BAM

    The Engineering Design Process is the heart of STEM.  It includes: gathering information by researching and learning, tackling a problem knowing what we want to accomplish, problem-solving, knowing the requirements of the task and what the materials will be and planning according to those things, brainstorming to bring imaginative solutions into planning discussions, drawing and talking within teams, and improving immediately as we see that something is not working. STEM is the best!


    Let's Decorate!

    Well, the next part of this for me was to find posters to show the kids in my lab about the steps of the EDP. I could not find sets of posters. The only thing I could find were one-page "posters" or flowcharts showing the EDP cycle. That is not what I wanted!

    So, I made my own posters in colors to match my classroom. Since then I have created many, many more sets of posters. I am including the links below for you and there will be a post coming soon that is only about the essentials of decorating for your STEM classroom!

    Links to Posts and Resources:



    The Engineering Design Process is the heart of STEM.  It includes: gathering information by researching and learning, tackling a problem knowing what we want to accomplish, problem-solving, knowing the requirements of the task and what the materials will be and planning according to those things, brainstorming to bring imaginative solutions into planning discussions, drawing and talking within teams, and improving immediately as we see that something is not working. STEM is the best!




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