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16 Engineering Challenges for Middle School

Inspire students to think like engineers with hands-on building and design challenges! Spark interest and build engineering design skills with one of these free engineering challenges for middle school students.

Images of 16 student Engineering Design Challenges for middle school students, including paper roller coaster, recycling sorting machine, helicopter for Mars, mirror maze, paddle boat, egg drop, solar car, and more (described and linked below)

16 Engineering Challenges to Inspire Middle 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 16 engineering design challenges below help middle school students get hands-on practice using the engineering design process. They'll build confidence as they use creative troubleshooting, problem solving, and invention skills. 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. Aluminum Foil Boat Design: Surviving the Stormy Seas: experiment with the design of aluminum foil boats to see how stable they are in turbulent water. The challenge is to improve a boat's design to improve stability and reduce the risk of capsizing.
  2. Balloon Car Lesson Plans: build and race balloon cars while learning about kinetic and potential energy and the law of conservation of energy. The challenge is to make design choices that result in the fastest balloon-powered car. (Note: See also the 13 Activities and Lessons to Teach Potential and Kinetic Energy and 26 Experiments To Teach About Types of Energy resources.)
  3. Build an Earthquake-Resistant House: learn about structural engineering and build and test model earthquake-resistant buildings in a simulated earthquake. The challenge is to use common materials to improve the design of a house to make it more stable during an earthquake.
  4. Build a Machine to Lift Water: build a device that could be used to manually pump water during a real-world emergency. (This lesson connects with Season 1 of Global Problem Solvers: The Series.)
  5. Build a Recycling-Sorting Machine: use magnetism as one approach to separating the various types of material that get combined in single-stream recycling programs. The challenge is to brainstorm a solution for this real-world problem and design a machine that can successfully separate different kinds of materials.
  6. 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.
  7. Design a Seeding Machine to Counteract Deforestation: learn about deforestation and then design a machine that can help with large-scale reseeding. The challenge is to design a model seeding machine that can quickly and accurately place seeds on a grid.
  8. Engineer Helicopters for Mars: investigate the differences in flying a helicopter on Earth compared to Mars and then design and build paper helicopters that might be able to fly on Mars. The challenge is to use the engineering design process to design helicopters that take into account differences in atmosphere and gravity.
  9. Make the Fastest Rubber Band Paddle Boat: experiment with different designs and materials to see which can be used to make the fastest rubber band paddle boat. The challenge is to find the best combination of materials and design for the fastest boat.
  10. Paper Roller Coasters: Kinetic and Potential Energy: 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 the 13 Activities and Lessons to Teach Potential and Kinetic Energy resource.)
  11. Plant Seed Design Challenge: explore plant biology and how plants reproduce. The challenge is to design a seed structure that could be dispersed by an animal.
  12. Solve a Mirror Maze Challenge with the Law of Reflection: use mirrors and flashlights to explore how light is reflected from a surface and to investigate the relationship between the angle of incidence and the angle of reflection. The challenge is to use the law of reflection to guide a flashlight beam through a mirror maze to hit a specific target.
  13. Solar-Powered Cars for Junior Solar Sprints: build and test solar-powered cars to explore electronics, alternative energy, and the engineering design process. The challenge is to make the fastest or best-designed car possible.
  14. Study Kinetic Energy with a Rube Goldberg Machine: learn about the relationship between a moving object's mass, speed, and kinetic energy, and use this information 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.
  15. Tallest Paper Tower Challenge for Grades 6-8: build a tower as tall as possible using only paper and tape. The challenge is to use only the allowed materials and make the tower sturdy enough to support an unopened can of food for at least sixty seconds. (This was the 2021 Fluor Challenge! Learn about other Fluor Challenge projects.)
  16. Teaching Engineering Design with an Egg Drop: learn about Newton's laws of motion and potential and kinetic energy while designing and testing a device to protect an egg from breaking when dropped. The challenge is to keep the egg from breaking when dropped from a certain height.

See the Engineering Design Process in Action

For additional resources to help teach students about engineering design, see Free Lessons and Videos to Teach the Engineering Design Process.

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:

Balloon car lesson plan
Build a Solar-Powered Car for the Junior Solar Sprint
Tallest Tower: 2021 Fluor Engineering Challenge
DIY Rubber Band Paddle Boat
Build a Machine to Lift Water - STEM Lesson Plan
Video: Crazy Engineering: Mars Helicopter
Solve A Mirror Maze Reflection Challenge!
How To Build a Rube Goldberg Machine
Design a Seeding Machine
Paper Roller Coasters - Fun STEM Activity!
Aluminum Foil Boat Design - STEM Lesson Plan
Delayed Release Pill Challenge

Engineering Challenges for Other Grade Levels

For engineering activities with other grade levels, see:



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