Engineering in the Classroom

Do you want to teach engineering in your classroom? Go for it; it’s not as hard as you might think. This is just the subject that Pamela Lottero-Purdue and I presented at the 2015 Smithsonian Science Education Forum. Throughout the day, attendees from all education backgrounds were able to see and participate in activities that bring engineering to life in any educational setting.

Recall the scene from the movie Apollo 13 where a group of engineers need to fit a square CO2 scrubber cartridge into a round hole. The gist of the scene is “we need to make this fit into this using only this.” That is engineering. Teaching engineering in your classroom can be just like that. The biggest key to teaching engineering is getting students to use an engineering design process. While there are thousands of variations of the engineering design process, the general format is defining the problem, identifying criteria and constraints, brainstorm solutions, choosing an approach, building a prototype, and testing the solution. In the movie we see the beginning and the end of the process, with the definition of the problem (CO2 levels are rising on the spacecraft), identifying criteria and constraints (make this fit into this using only this), and then the final solution. Brainstorming, choosing solutions, and building prototypes are missing. In the classroom, it is important to make sure students work through these steps because that is how engineers solve problems.

At the forum we covered how to choose and implement the engineering design process and how to get kids to think like engineers by focusing on the engineering habits of mind. These habits, from the 2009 publication of Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status & Improving the Prospects by the Committee on K-12 Engineering Education, include

  1. systems thinking
  2. creativity
  3. optimism
  4. collaboration
  5. communication
  6. ethical considerations


Utilizing an engineering design process and the habits of mind, students can participate in hands on problem solving activities that not only teach engineering, but by extension they teach important science and other subject content. 

If this sounds overwhelming, remember that just like any other subject you don’t jump in to the deep end right away. Ease into it, especially at the younger grades. Choose an appropriate engineering design process for your classroom. An excellent elementary one is the five step process from the Engineering is Elementary website : Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve. This breaks the process down into age-appropriate bites using terms that the students can easily understand. The important part is getting students used to having a plan when tackling a problem. Also, you don’t need to focus on all six habits. Pick one or two as an emphasis throughout the activity, such as creativity within constraints and collaboration. Again, easing into the shallow end will make swimming the whole pool easier in the long run.

Now, what type of activities do you use to teach engineering? While the basics can be taught with standalone lessons such as paper bridges or spaghetti and marshmallow towers, integrating the engineering design process and the habits into other subjects is the best way to reinforce the lessons. The standalone activities are great ways to teach the basics of the engineering design process, but using the processes and emphasizing the habits of mind in multiple subjects is really how engineering is done. The inclusion of engineering in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) indicates how important integrating it into other subjects really is and engineering is really utilizing all the available knowledge and tools at ones disposal to solve a problem. An example of this might be teaching a lesson on birds. Part of the lesson can include having students design a birdhouse for a specific species of bird and then building a prototype of the design out of paper or cardboard. The wrap up could be having the students present to the class their design and why it will work for their species. The habits that can be emphasized are up to you, but they could easily include creativity, communication, and with a group aspect also include collaboration. Throughout the activity students will demonstrate cross-curricular skills such as researching and measuring, all while utilizing an engineering design process to ensure a useful and feasible design. The final step of communicating the design to the class will help not only reinforce the students’ learning, but it will help them get used to the idea of presenting their findings to a group. Kind of like sneaking healthy foods in with the tasty ones, incorporating an engineering approach to a science lesson helps students think like engineers without even realizing it.

If you are still with me, hopefully that means you are willing to take the plunge (or at least wade in a little bit) and introduce engineering to your classroom. Don’t fret; there are lots of resources available to help you start out. Engineering is Elementary has content for grades K to 8. The Society of Automotive Engineers has a program named A World in Motion with lessons and equipment for all grade levels. Another resource is the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, which is the professional organization for teachers teaching technology and engineering at all levels. Their site has curriculum available and resources for getting involved with other teachers interested in bringing engineering to the classroom. Finally, Science Cubes is a site I am developing along with my colleague Paul Andersen, a biology teacher, to help teachers implement NGSS-related lessons in science and engineering. There are free activities available aligned with NGSS standards to help teachers get started teaching engineering in the classroom. 

This is only a very small number of the subjects and resources presented at the forum. More information is easily available with a quick search, so don’t be afraid to jump into the world of teaching engineering in your classroom!  

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About the Author

Glenn Bradbury
Technology and Engineering Educator

Glenn Bradbury has been a technology and engineering educator at Bozeman High School since 1999.  While there he has moved the drafting program to a design and problem solving focused program. In 2011 Glenn started an engineering program at Bozeman High School.  He has served on the school technology committee and as a technology mentor for the school. Glenn holds a degree in Technology Education from Montana State University, and a Masters of Arts in Career and Technical Education from Ball State University.  He is the past president of the Technology Education Association of Montana (TEAM), and is a board member of the Montana Learning Center at Canyon Ferry. Glenn received the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA) Program Excellence Award in 2007 and 2011. He was selected in 2013 to participate in the Siemens STEM Academy’s Siemens Teachers as Researchers program where he spent two weeks at Oak Ridge National Laboratory working in the Spallation Neutron Source Sample Environment Laboratory.  In 2014 Glenn received the ITEEA Teacher Excellence Award, and was one of the first 12 recipients of the ITEEA Emerging Leaders Recognition.