We're here to help you navigate STEM learning at home while schools and camps are closed due to COVID-19.

Here are some resources to guide your at home learning:

Key Info

Background research is especially important for engineering design projects, because you can learn from the experience of others rather than blunder around and repeat their mistakes. To make a background research plan— a roadmap of the research questions you need to answer -- follow these steps:

  1. Identify questions to ask about your target user or customer.
  2. Identify questions to ask about the products that already exist to solve the problem you defined or a problem that is very similar.
  3. Plan to research how your product will work and how to make it.
  4. Network with other people with more experience than yourself: your mentors, parents, and teachers. Ask them: "What should I study to better understand my engineering project?" and "What area of science covers my project?" Better yet, ask even more specific questions.
  5. Use this Background Research Plan Worksheet to help you develop your own plan.

The Focus of Your Background Research

For an engineering design project, you should do background research in two major areas:

  • Users or customers
  • Existing solutions

Users or Customers

  • Research your target user or customer. Everything humans design is ultimately for the use of another human. (Think about it— even products designed for animals or plants are first purchased by another human!) Your choice of target user will sometimes have a big impact on your design requirements. For example, if you design something for a toddler, you need to make sure that there are no small parts that could be swallowed. Some customers are more sensitive to the cost than others, and so forth. You might describe your target user in any number of ways. Here are some examples:
    • Age (old, young, infant)
    • Gender
    • Occupation
    • Hobby interests
    • Amateur or professional
    • Whether users have disabilities and require accommodations
    • Size
    • First-time user or experienced user

Existing Solutions

  • Research the products that already exist to solve the problem you defined or a problem that is very similar. No one wants to go to all the trouble of designing something they think is new, only to find that several people have already done it. That would be depressing! So, you want to investigate what's already out there. Only then can you be sure that you're making something that more effectively fills a need. And keep in mind that what is "better" depends on your requirements. You might want to build something that's been around for hundreds of years, but do it with recycled materials from around the house. The device might be old, but the construction materials new (or used!).
  • Research how your product will work and how to make it. When it comes time to build their solution, savvy designers also want to use their research to help them find the best materials and way to do things, rather than starting from scratch. Background research is also important to help you understand the science or theory behind your solution. If you are entering a science fair, judges like to see that you understand why your product works the way it does and what causes it to perform better than other products.

How to Conduct the Research

Engineers are lucky, because there are three ways to do research regarding users and existing solutions:

  • Observe users first-hand, either as they use a similar product or solution or in the environment in which they encounter the problem.
  • Examine and analyze similar products and solutions. Looking at similar products is super important. Other engineers spent a lot of time designing them, so you might as well learn everything you can from their work. And it is fun! You might even want to take similar products apart! (Ask first!)
  • Conduct library and Internet research.

Making a Background Research Plan: How to Know What Information to Look For

When you or your parents are driving a car, there are two ways to find your destination: drive around randomly until you finally stumble upon what you're looking for OR use a GPS or look at a map before you start. Finding information for your background research is similar. Since libraries and the Internet both contain millions of pages of information and facts, you might never find what you're looking for unless you start with a map! To avoid getting lost, you need a background research plan.

Target Users

To help clarify the definition of your target user, you'll want to ask questions like this:

  • Who needs _________?
  • Who wants _________?
  • Who buys _________?
  • What does my target user [a child, an elderly person, etc.] need or want in a _________?
  • How much would my target user be willing to pay for a _________?
  • What size should I make _________ for my target user?

Similar Products

Then, ask questions to help you understand products or programs that fill similar needs to the need you identified:

  • What products fill a similar need?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of products that fill a similar need?
  • What are the key, must-have features of products that fill a similar need?
  • Why did the engineers that built these products design them the way they did?
  • How can I measure my design's improvement over existing designs?

How It Works and How to Make It

These are some example questions that will help you understand the science behind your design.

  • Who invented _________?
  • How does a __________ work?
  • What are the different parts of a __________?
  • What are the important characteristics of a __________?
  • How is performance measured for a _________?
  • Where does _________ get used?
  • What is __________ made of?
  • Why is __________ made from or using __________?
  • What is the best material, component, or algorithm for building ________? (You may even ask this separately for the different parts of your device or program.)

Talk to People with More Experience: Networking

One of the most important things you can do while working on your project is talk to other people with more experience than yourself: your parents, teachers, and advisors. This process is called networking. Some advisors or mentors may have had classes or work experience related to the science involved in your project. Others may have used or even designed products like the one you are researching. Ask them, "What science concepts should I study to better understand my project?" Better yet, be as specific as you can when asking your questions.

And by the way, networking is something many adults don't expect students to be good at, so you can probably surprise them by doing a good job at it! The best networkers, of course, enjoy the spoils of victory. In other words, they get what they want more quickly, efficiently, and smoothly.

The reality is we have all networked at some point in our lives. Remember how you "networked" with your mom to buy you that cool water gun or "networked" with your grandpa to buy you that video game you always wanted? Well, now you are "networking" for knowledge. Train yourself to become a good networker, and you might just end up with a better project (and don't forget that you'll get a little smarter too in the process). So take our advice: work hard, but network harder.

Background Research Plan Worksheet

Here's a Background Research Plan Worksheet for Engineering Design Projects to help you develop your own plan.

Background Research Plan Checklist

Answer the questions in the quick checklist below to evaluate your plan for background research.

What Makes a Good Background Research Plan? For a Good Background Research Plan, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question
Have you identified questions to ask about your target user or customer? Yes / No
Have you identified questions to ask about the products that already exist to solve the problem you defined or a problem that is very similar? Yes / No
Have you planned to research how your product will work and how to make it? Yes / No
Free science fair projects.