Fall 2017

Student Engagement 

Don't Panic: Fostering Student Engagement with Engineering Design

Don't Panic: Fostering Student Engagement with Engineering Design

Hannah* was the shortest girl in class, so to reach the top of her roller coaster she stood on a lab table, even though the roller coaster was on the ground. It was early morning and Hannah was putting finishing touches of paint on her King Kong-themed coaster before it went on public display. Hannah had been in my room before school, after school and during lunch nearly every day of the past few weeks. She had spent so much time in the room, working on her coaster, that I was feeling really, really uncomfortable about a ruse I had used with her class to engage their interest. 

I told them Asterick’s Theme Park* wanted students to help design a new attraction that would be built in the footprint of the formerly popular and now defunct “Vertigo” ride. I gave them a letter from Asterick’s CEO, dimensions and budgets. In groups, they had adopted various hats–engineer, historian, physicist and thrill-seeker, and designed, assembled, tested and reassembled elements to craft a real roller coaster proposal around a theme, complete with a prototype that would be presented to an Asterick’s judge.

Hannah was so ardent, so engaged. She and her group decided on King Kong because of the classic movies theme they saw in other rides in the park. They looked up FAA regulations for small-craft flying heights. They asked many questions about the judge that was coming, even Googling him and tailoring their approach for the bowtie-wearing man: wide loops, low g’s, a pleasant, family-friendly ride.

I was sure it would crush Hannah to know that the whole thing was devised to trick her into experimenting with energy, work, power, friction and efficiency, learning new physics knowledge to justify her design. I also feared that in the chaos and excitement of roller coaster construction, the students would not learn the content well. I dreaded telling Hannah the truth, but she beat me to it saying, “It’s fake. I know.” I was stunned but relieved. “How did you know?” I asked. “I called them, and they have never heard of you.” She smiled. I thought she was engaged because of the lie, but she was engaged even though it was a lie! She was just engaged period. Hannah presented her coaster to the guest judge that day and described her coaster’s physics with pride. My fears were unfounded—her investment in the coaster design drove her investment in the physics.

Engineering design in schools

Engineering design is a creative, iterative process that brings a designer to the best solution to achieve certain criteria within a set of constraints. It involves defining a problem to figure out the most important criteria and constraints, generating lots of potential solutions through tinkering and brainstorming, iteratively testing solutions, debating trade-offs, revising the product and then communicating the optimized solution to a client. The whole process or parts of the process, could repeat ad infinitum.

In K-12 settings, engineering design provides learning opportunities as students investigate a system’s needs, invent multiple ideas and test, and defend potential solutions.


Understanding the scope of the problem and testing solutions can involve science, math, history, government and even ethics. The teacher can guide student learning by selecting a problem that pertains to a certain content area or demanding that in justifying a product solution, they connect to the content.

Selecting and testing an idea might look like a science experiment. Teachers can strategically create a need for students to do an experiment that the teacher already was planning to do! For example, imagine testing filler material for a double-walled mug and measuring temperature retained over time (a traditional calorimetry lab), then determining the optimal density of filler for several price options. Students must actively make decisions based on the data collected to optimize their design instead of just reporting an effect. In a traditional lab report, all the students know what the report should say, usually before they even begin. But in an engineering design challenge, they invent what the report will say and use their research and testing to defend their invention.

Student engagement in engineering design challenges

So what is it about engineering design that fosters a rich student-engagement experience as compared to traditional school instruction? Unlike “regular” school where there is usually one predetermined correct, expected solution, a good engineering design instructional task is one that can be satisfied in many ways. Every student’s design is personal to him or her, and every one may be successful in different ways.

Regular school allows knowledge to exist outside of practical contexts. But engineering design emphasizes understanding the math or science involved in real problems. It is just more exciting for students to work on projects that are related to the world they live in, rather than study abstract concepts that do not connect to their home or interests. Fantasy worlds can be real for children too, as video games have taught us. What matters is that there is context and narrative, connection to information needed, information learned and information applied.

How can we support teachers to try more engineering design integration?

Teachers need to understand that engineering design is engaging, by trying it.

Many teachers do not have a full conception of what engineering design is—the complex, iterative process of design is not captured well in a list of steps. Teachers need to practice design as learners and to work with other teachers and engineers that do design.

In workshops I have seen teachers become so engaged during engineering design challenges that they are convinced it will be engaging for their students. In the Knowles engineering professional development for teachers that I co-developed, we encourage teachers to co-construct their own classroom engineering design process so that they feel ownership and empowerment over engineering design instead of trying to memorize steps to which they have no connection.

It may be difficult for teachers to place decision-making authority in the hands of the students for fear that students will feel badly if they fail. To encourage student-centered productive struggle, teachers must be responsive to quickly changing student ideas and provide scaffolds when students need them. Teachers can take advantage of tools and routines they already use to support students while maintaining student-centered learning, such as problem definition graphic organizers, explanatory technical sheets for testing apparatus, encouraging students through failure with a growth mindset, and leaning on claim, evidence and reasoning (CER) structures to manage the creative but scarily divergent design.

Teachers may also fear that students will not learn the required content knowledge. Planning a design challenge to teach certain content without telegraphing the content ahead of time is difficult and requires a nimble fluency with the material, not a rote compartmentalized understanding. Developing that kind of fluency happens naturally with time in teaching because of the variety of student needs, questions and experiences that occur. Therefore, teaching experience is an asset to integrating engineering and more senior teachers should be taking a lead on these difficult integration situations, not leaving them only to new STEM-certified teachers or rotating specialists.

Last, if we really hope students become critical problem solvers and capable team players, we may need to revisit how we evaluate their teachers, whose ratings usually derive from students’ scores on de-contextualized content memorization tests. We can support teachers in using engaging engineering-design instruction by changing the standard requirements of success, perhaps introducing a performance- or portfolio-based element to learning standards.


As STEM mania continues to evolve we can hope to see engineering design integrated into more K-12 classrooms. However, some teachers may panic at the prospect of classroom chaos or worry that students will not master the content. This could prevent them from allowing students to experience divergent design thinking. We need to help teachers internalize the engineering design process so that they can develop challenges that bring out learning and engagement opportunities. We need to help teachers see that their existing content and skills can be effective in managing engineering design instruction. We need to consider how standardized tests undermine deep learning and rich engagement. Once teachers see how enthusiastically students plug into these challenges, they will understand that their students’ engagement is worth the extra effort and chaos in the classroom.


* Pseudonym

Katey Shirey

Dr. Katey Shirey’s work stems from her combined interests in science, art, and education. She earned bachelor degrees in physics and sculpture and a master’s degree in secondary science education from the University of Virginia. Dr. Shirey taught physics at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia for five years during which she participated as a teacher liaison to the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in science education teaching, learning, policy, and leadership from the University of Maryland. Dr. Shirey is now the Program Manager for the Knowles Teacher Initiative’s Lever Engineering Group and continues to help high school science and math teachers leverage engineering-design instruction for content learning and increased student problem-solving agency.


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