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Define the Problem

Key Info

  • Finding an idea for your engineering project requires you to identify the needs of yourself, another person, or a group of people. The act of looking at the world around you to identify these needs is called need finding.
  • To help you find an idea for your engineering project:
    • Create a list of all the things that annoy or bother the people around you. Record this bug list in your Design Notebook.
    • Mind Map possible design problems, ideas, or areas of interest to you.
  • Once you have found an idea for your engineering project, describe the problem by writing a problem statement. Your problem statement must answer three questions:
    • What is the problem or need?
    • Who has the problem or need?
    • Why is it important to solve?
  • The format for writing a problem statement uses your answers to the questions and follows these guidelines:
    • Who need(s) what because why.
    • _____ need(s) _________ because ________.
  • Before moving forward with an idea for your engineering project, be sure to evaluate your problem. We have resources available to help you evaluate your engineering project idea:

Finding an Idea for Your Engineering Project

You know that you want to do an engineering design project, but how do you come up with an idea or find a problem to solve? How do you uncover a new problem that no one has tried to solve yet? Or how do you pick and choose, from all of the products, systems, and environments already out there, one that you might want to improve? This process of uncovering a problem, or identifying the need for change or improvement to an existing solution, is called need finding.

One really great way to start the need-finding process is to make a "bug list." Think about all of the things that bug you or bug other people around you. Write them down. They may seem like small and silly problems, but they can spark ideas for a project or lead to larger problems that you may not have noticed otherwise.

Here are some examples of things you might find on someone's bug list:

  • Uncomfortable airplane seats
  • When one light on a string of Christmas lights goes out
  • How quickly chewing gum loses flavor
  • Moving (packing boxes, cleaning, unpacking, etc.)
  • Public restrooms without toilet paper
  • Long lines at amusement parks
  • When food gets stuck in vending machines
  • Dog or cat hair that gets stuck on clothing
  • Sharing armrests with strangers at the movies
  • Wasting water in the shower
  • Losing one earring
  • Draining tuna fish cans

Challenge yourself to come up with as many bugs as you can. They don't all have to be things that bother you; think about other people and the problems that they face as well. You will be surprised at the number of bugs you can identify in the world around you. Start this list in your design notebook, and spend a few days recording your ideas.

Notice that there are two different types of potential project ideas that you have come up with on your bug list. First, there are the unsolved problems that don't currently have a solution. Second, there are poorly solved problems that have solutions, but the solutions are not entirely successful.

Unsolved Problems

One problem identified in the bug list is the issue of food getting stuck in a vending machine. There is currently no solution for this problem. If you put your money in the machine, select the food that you want, and then, the food gets stuck before it can drop to where you can reach it—you are out of luck. You might try shaking or kicking the machine, but those are not designed solutions to the problem. In cases of unsolved problems, your engineering project would be to attempt to solve the problem. For this example, possible project ideas might be to design a product that can be used to remove stuck foods from vending machines or a new vending machine that makes it impossible for food to get stuck.

Poorly Solved Problems

An example of a poorly solved problem from the bug list is the issue of cat or dog hair getting stuck on clothing. There is currently a solution to this problem—the lint brush. However, many people still complain about annoying pet hair on their clothes. Clearly, the lint brush is not the perfect solution. In cases of poorly solved problems, your engineering project would be to improve the existing solution or to replace the existing solution with something more successful. For the pet hair example, possible project ideas might be to make the lint brush more effective at removing hair from clothing or to design something better than the lint brush for the same purpose.

Whether you want to choose an unsolved problem or a poorly solved problem for your engineering project, there are plenty of problems out there! Keep in mind that the problems already exist; you just need to identify them and their users. Also, doing an engineering design project doesn't always mean inventing something brand new—it often involves bettering the projects of those before you.

Defining the Problem

Engineers solve problems by creating new products, systems, or environments. Before creating something, it is very important to define the problem. Otherwise, you might build something only to find that it does not meet the original goal!

To define your problem, answer each of these questions:

  • What is the problem or need?
  • Who has the problem or need?
  • Why is it important to solve?

The answers to these three questions are the what, who, and why of your problem. Your problem statement should incorporate the answers as follows:

[Who] need(s) [what] because [why].

In design terms, who, what, and why can be defined as:

Who = user
What = need
Why = insight

The problem statement for any good engineering design project should be able to follow the format shown. Your problem statement should always look like this:

           need(s)            because                   .

If you are improving an existing solution for your project, keep in mind that the improvements will be part of your problem statement. Making something better, faster, or cheaper should be part of your statement—either in the "what" portion and/or the "why" portion. For example, if you are improving a car radio, your problem statement might be:

People need cheaper and better-performing car radios, because current radios are expensive and poor at picking up weak radio signals.

Problem Statement Examples

Here are some additional examples of engineering design problem statements:

Students need an easier way to lock their lockers at school, because combination locks are hard to unlock and often get jammed.

Dogs need a way to go to the bathroom inside homes, because dogs don't like to go outside in bad weather, and there are times when people can't take their dogs outdoors.

Teachers need a better way to erase chalkboards, because erasers are messy and don't remove all of the chalk.

Parents need a way to store lunchboxes in the refrigerator, because they often make their children's lunches the night before school.


Evaluating Your Problem Statement

The problem that you select for your engineering design project is the cornerstone of your work. Your research and design work will all revolve around finding a solution to the problem you describe. Here are some characteristics of a good problem statement:

  • The problem should be interesting enough to read about and work on for the next couple months.
  • There should be at least three sources of written information on the subject, as well as similar products to analyze. You want to be able to build on the experience of others!
  • The problem is specific enough to allow you to design a solution.

For an engineering project, it is important to think ahead to avoid difficulties and save you lots of unhappiness later. Imagine what you might design and make to solve your engineering problem. How does your possible solution stack up against these issues?

  • Can you think of a way to measure whether your solution is better than what already exists? It is always best if you can measure your improvement numerically: cheaper in dollars, faster in time, etc.
  • Can you design a solution that is safe to build, use, store, and dispose of?
  • Do you have all the materials and equipment you need for your solution, or will you be able to obtain them quickly and at a very low cost?
  • Do you have enough time to complete your design and make it before the due date? Allow time for doing additional research and fixing problems. It is very rare for everything to work correctly the first time.
  • Does your project meet all the rules and requirements for your science fair, if you are entering one? Have you checked to see if your science fair project will require approval from the fair before you begin construction?

If you don't have good answers for the stated issues, then you probably should look for a better engineering design problem to solve.

Some projects that involve controlled or hazardous substances need SRC (Scientific Review Committee) approval from your science fair BEFORE you start making things. Now is the time to start thinking about getting approval if necessary for your engineering project. (See Scientific Review Committee (SRC)).

Engineering Project Proposal Form

Fill out this Engineering Project Proposal Form so that you can get feedback on your science fair project from your teacher, parents, or other people you know who might give you valuable suggestions.

Engineering Project Checklist

Answer the questions in the quick checklist to find out if your project is on the right track.

What Makes a Good Engineering Project? For a Good Engineering Project, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question
Your teacher may put some restrictions on projects. Have you met your teacher's requirements? Yes / No
Is the topic interesting enough to read about and work on for the next couple months? Yes / No
Can you find at least three sources of written information on the subject? Yes / No
Can you think of a way to measure whether your solution is better than what already exists? It is always best if you can measure your improvement numerically: cheaper in dollars, faster in time, etc. Yes / No
Can you design a solution that is safe to build, use, store, and dispose of? Yes / No
Do you have all the materials and equipment you need for your solution, or will you be able to obtain them quickly and at a very low cost? Yes / No
Do you have enough time to complete your design and make it before the due date? Allow time for doing additional research and fixing problems. It is very rare for everything to work correctly the first time. Yes / No
If you are planning to enter a science fair outside of your school:
  • Does your project meet all the rules and requirements for the science fair? Have you checked to see if your science fair project will require approval from the fair before you begin construction?
Yes / No