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Understanding the Engineering Design Process: Teachers Embracing Engineering Design

Teachers tasked with adapting science lesson plans to meet new standards that place increased emphasis on engineering design as a critical scientific practice need real-world resources to help them integrate engineering design in the classroom. Teaching and celebrating the engineering method is a positive change in K-12 science education, and Science Buddies can help teachers sort out the differences between scientific and engineering methods—and how the methods may play out in student projects and at the science fair.

Last week, we offered an overview of the importance of the engineering design process in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As NGSS are rolled out and integrated in classrooms, teachers will need to rapidly embrace the engineering design process and its role in science education—whether they teach "engineering" or not.

The following question is representative of the kinds of questions and concerns a science teacher might have when grappling with what it means to add the engineering design process into the mix of hands-on science education.

I am a little confused with the engineering design project. Are the students who do that actually typing a report also? I know what a finished science project looks like. What should a finished engineering project look like? What do they turn in?

Have you asked this question? Have you overheard a conversation like this one in the teacher's lounge? Have you limited the range of acceptable projects for your classroom assignments or for the school science fair to ones that fit the scientific method because you were not sure how to fit the other ones in?

For teachers who have always taught the scientific method, there may be some uncertainty about suddenly opening things up to accommodate engineering, and the emphasis on creativity, problem solving, prototyping, and design testing that comes with it. The good news is that a teacher's familiarity with the scientific method process makes it easy to conceptualize the engineering design method as a similar-but-different series of steps. This is not something only for physics, electronics, and robotics teachers! With a bit of change in perspective and an understanding of the ways in which the "labels" of certain steps change to reflect the difference in process, approach, and goal, teachers may find engineering design projects easier to incorporate than they anticipate.

But adopting the engineering design process does require a willingness to accept that not every project will fit the same mold, and not every project will have a conclusive answer.

A Side by Side Comparison

Both the scientific method and the engineering method (or engineering design process) are typically represented as a set of steps that help guide a project, investigation, innovation, or experiment. The terminology and phrasing of these steps may vary on different sites and resources, but the general progression of steps can be identified. Students and professionals will also engage in these steps at different levels. Our goal at Science Buddies is to help explain the umbrella of each method as it may play out in a typical student science or engineering project.

Presenting and comparing the basic idealized steps of each method, side by side, is one way to help students, teachers, and parents visualize the similarities and differences

Scientific and Engineering method chart steps
Above: Basic idealized steps of the scientific method (left) and engineering design process (right). View full-sized diagrams in the Steps of the Scientific Method and The Engineering Design Process resources.

As you can see, there are some immediate differences between the methods. One involves a question. One involves a problem. It may sound like semantics, but projects following each method start at a different point and with different assumptions. Starting with a question suggests that a project will be constructed as a way to find an answer by performing a test or experiment. Starting with a problem, on the other hand, sets an engineering design project up to find a solution—the development of something that can address the needs of the problem.

The differences, beginning with the project's point of origin, trickle down through the steps of each method. Even so, when you look more closely, a student turning in results, a paper, or a presentation of an engineering design project would turn in something very similar to what a student conducting an experiment following the scientific method might submit. Part of the shift is in the labeling of the information to be included. The table below shows what a student might turn in for both a standard science project and an engineering design project.

Scientific MethodEngineering Method
Title page.Title page.
Table of contents.Table of contents.
Question, variables, and hypothesis. Statement (instead of a question) about the need to design something that fulfills xyz need.
Summary of what will be built to address the need and the specific design specifications the solution will fulfill (instead of a hypothesis).
Specifications against which the solution will be judged successful or not (instead of variables).
Background research. (Research paper written before experiment.)Background research. (Research paper written before starting to identify the problem. This research documents what solutions exist, what has been tried, and what science might be applied to a new approach.)
Materials list.Materials list.
Experimental procedure.Documentation of how the student built and tested the prototype(s) or finished solution.
Data analysis and discussion.Results of field testing of prototype(s) or finished solution. What was observed and/or measured? How did the prototype(s) or finished product measure up against the original design specifications? Did it achieve the goal? Show the data either way.
Conclusions. How successful was the prototype(s) or finished solution? Did it perform as intended? Why or why not? What were the design and implementation challenges?
Ideas for future research. What could have gone better in the design process? How could the design be improved with further prototyping/testing?
Project display board.Project display board.

For another helpful resource and tool for visualizing the difference between engineering design and scientific method projects, see "Comparing the Engineering Design Process and the Scientific Method."

See also: New Science Standards Emphasize the Engineering Design Process


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