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11 Engineering Challenges for High School

Challenge high school students to think like engineers and design, build, and test their own solutions to one of these free engineering challenges.

Images of 11 student Engineering Design Challenges for high school students, including paper roller coaster, mushroom product design, wind-powered car, protein models, Rube Goldbergy machine, time-release pill design, and more (described and linked below)

11 Engineering Challenges for High School Students!

Engineering design challenges are a great way to ignite student interest in STEM. When students tackle an engineering design challenge, they are encouraged to brainstorm, design, build, test, problem solve, troubleshoot, tinker, innovate, and iterate.

The 11 engineering design challenges below offer high school students a blend of complexity, real-world science, and problem solving. As they create solutions, they will use the engineering design process to innovate, build, troubleshoot, and iterate. Many of these challenges use simple materials (like paper and recycled cardboard), which makes them easy to do in the classroom, great for makerspaces of all sizes, and fun for families at home or for independent student exploration.

  1. Bio-Engineering: Making and Testing Model Proteins: after learning about protein types, the impact of mutation, and the relationship between a protein's structure and function, students create models of different types of proteins and are challenged to use craft and common materials to make design changes that improve how the proteins perform their specific tasks.
  2. Build an 'Impossible' Wind-Powered Car: explore the physics behind this "impossible" concept and then experiment with building a wind-powered car that can travel downwind faster than the wind.
  3. Build a Paper Roller Coaster: explore potential and kinetic energy while designing and building a paper roller coaster. The challenge is to add a loop and have a marble be able to successfully go from the start of the track to the end. (Note: See also 13 Activities and Lessons to Teach Potential and Kinetic Energy.)
  4. Design a Delayed-Release Tablet: use various materials to create a tablet that releases three different colors, each at a predetermined time, after the tablet is submerged in water. The challenge is to find a way to ensure the proper timing of the release of each color.
  5. Make Cardboard Automata: build a cardboard automaton, a machine with parts that appear and disappear, move up and down, or spin in circles based on built-in patterns and driving mechanisms. The sample shows a caterpillar with multiple legs that move independently, but students can be challenged to make their own custom automata with driving mechanisms that create different movements.
  6. Make Mushroom Packaging to Explore Long-Term Ecological Impact: learn about the importance of a product's life cycle assessment and explore the use of mycelium composite to make environmentally-friendly objects and packaging. The challenge is to design everyday objects from a mushroom base that are more eco-friendly to produce than counterparts made from plastics or other materials.
  7. Marble Machine: build a gravity-powered machine that can automatically sort two different sizes of beads (or similar spheres). (This was a Science Buddies Engineering Challenge! Learn about other Science Buddies Engineering Challenge projects.)
  8. Protecting Nature with Technology: explore the use of sensor technology to measure and reduce human impact on the environment in areas like air quality, water quality, electrical conductivity, and water levels. The challenge is to identify areas of human impact and design and build a sensor-based circuit that can be used to monitor impact and thus provide information that can be used to implement strategies for reducing impact.
  9. Study Kinetic Energy with a Rube Goldberg Machine: use knowledge of the relationship between a moving object's mass, speed, and kinetic energy to design and build a Rube Goldberg machine to complete a simple task. The challenge is to design a machine with multiple stages that, once activated, can successfully complete the intended task. (Note: This lesson is NGSS-aligned for grades 6-8, but the core concepts and challenge easily scale for high school engineering and makerspace fun.)
  10. Tallest Paper Tower Challenge for Grades 9-12: building a tower from paper and tape may sound easy, but finding the right balance between height and stability requires testing and innovation. The challenge is to build the tallest paper tower that is sturdy enough to support an unopened can of food for at least sixty seconds. (This was the 2021 Science Buddies Engineering Challenge! Learn about other Science Buddies Engineering Challenge projects.)
  11. Zero-Energy Housing: explore passive solar heating and how variables like insulation, window placement, thermal mass, and surface colors contribute to the effectiveness of passive solar heating as an alternative to using non-renewable energy sources for heating. The challenge is to build model houses that use passive solar heating and result in measurable thermal gains in testing.

See the Engineering Design Process in Action

For additional resources to help teach students about engineering design, see 4 Ways to Teach Engineering Design.

The Engineering Design Process: An Eggstronaut Mission

Engineering Challenge Videos

Watch these STEM videos to learn more about some of the engineering design challenges listed above:

Make Cardboard Automata
Tallest Tower: 2021 Engineering Challenge
How To Build a Rube Goldberg Machine
Paper Roller Coasters - Fun STEM Activity!
Delayed Release Pill Challenge
Make Cardboard Automata
Design and Make Automata
Bio-Engineering: Making and Testing Model Proteins
Zero-Energy Housing

Engineering Challenges for Other Grade Levels

For engineering activities with other grade levels, see:

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