Science Journals - STEM Engineering Design Cycle Introduction

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SWBAT identify and record each step of the engineering design cycle in their journals.

Big Idea

Students are introduced to the engineering design cycle by solving a classroom problem.


In this lesson, I introduce my version of the engineering design cycle to my students. They may or may not have seen a similar version of this cycle last year. Click here to learn more about my school and the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). 

I created this design cycle based on lots of others that I have used, but this one allows me to be flexible with how I use it in the classroom. It can be used for students to invent something either to solve a problem or to answer their own question, and it focuses more on inquiry because the students have to do the research, talk to other people about their ideas, and record their information. Also, it provides time for the students to record and evaluate their information about their invention and then invent a different model. From an instructional standpoint, I do not always have the time necessary to spend on each step of the design cycle so before teaching a lesson, I determine where the emphasis will fall to best meet the demands of an objective. In order to allow that flexibility, my students need to really understand each part of the cycle first. This lesson is an introduction to the cycle with a somewhat rudimentary problem for the students to solve in order to focus on the process of working through the design cycle. In my school, I am required to post a guiding question for each lesson. For this lesson, students have "What do engineers do? What is the engineering design cycle?" glued into their notebook at the top of the page.


Student science journals

My own science journal

A copy of the design cycle

Supplies to build a marker holder (I used cardboard, scissors, and tape).



Warm Up

5 minutes

At this point, I have taught four lessons introducing students to science journals and we are ready to connect those new skills with the engineering design cycle. First, I review the anchor chart we made during this lesson to guide our science journal entries and I model in my own science notebook putting the date, the topic ("Engineering Design Cycle") and reading the guiding question which is "What do engineers do?" Then, I show this video.

After the video, I ask my students, "What do engineers do? Why?" I want them to understand that there is a purpose behind what engineers invent, which is to solve problems.




30 minutes

In order to teach the design cycle in stages, I introduce it one step at a time. I ask students to copy what I write in their own journals. Click here to see a video about my student's work during this lesson.

First, I draw five circles in my notebook and write "Think" in the first one. I show my students my markers for my white board, and tell them,

"I have a problem I think you can help me with. My markers keep falling off the board. I need some way to stop this from happening and you are going to invent something that will solve my problem".

I refer to the "Think" circle and I explain that we have identified our problem and I write underneath 'Markers fall off the board'.

 Then, I write 'Plan' and draw a '1' and a '2' in the second circle. I say,

"Now we need to think about a plan to solve this problem. There are different ways we can do this. We can sketch ideas, research information to find out ways that other people have solved a similar problem, talk about the ideas with other people to make them better, and think about the materials we have available to use. I am always going to put a 1 and a 2 in this circle to remind me to sketch 2 different ideas."

In my science journal, I turn to the next page and draw 3 horizontal boxes and I ask the students not to start sketching until I ask them to. The first horizontal box is for a list of materials that I will need, the second and third are for sketches of my ideas. I want my students to always have at least two different ideas to solve a problem so that if the first one does not work out they already have an alternative ready to try. It can also help if someone in the group does not have a job because they can begin to work on building  the second sketch. It is important that my students understand that we are not drawing an artist picture but rather quickly sketching a detailed idea so I refer back to the anchor chart with guidelines about our science journals and point out that my sketch needs to be quick but detailed. (Click here for my lesson about adding details to science notebooks.) As I begin to sketch, I engage in self talk where I think out loud so that my students understand what I am thinking as I work, and I complete the first sketch.

Materials and Sketching Page in Journal

Then I say to my students,

"Now, I want you to try it. In your first box, sketch one idea that you have that will stop my markers from falling off the board. You have about 2 minutes, so work quickly but remember to add details so that a neighbor will know exactly what you are thinking".

After 2 minutes, I ask the students to stop working and to listen and say,

"Sometimes your first idea for solving a problem might not always be the best idea, and good ideas often come from doing some research or talking to people who might know more than you do. This is all part of the step 'plan' in the design cycle. Before we draw another sketch, let's do some research to see how other people have solved this problem".

I use my interactive whiteboard to go to Google Images and search for 'marker holders' and let the students look at the ideas for a few seconds. Then I say,

"Now, who has another idea that might solve my problem?! Turn to your neighbor and whisper your idea to them, and then listen to their idea".

After about 20-30 seconds, I ask the students to draw their second idea in the second horizontal box in their journals.

When everyone has 2 sketches, I say,

"Now that we have some good ideas and we have done some research, we can move on to the next step of the engineering design cycle which is 'Invent'. I am going to draw a hand in this circle, because this is where we are going to build something. Because we are working together on this project today, we are going to choose to invent the first solution for the marker holder but you can try your invention later."

I flip back in my journal and add 'Invent' and a drawing of a hand to the third circle. During the 'Invent' step, students will choose the idea they want to try (in this case, I chose it), use and record the materials they need to build the model, and test the model. I look at the sketch of the first model and self-talk about the materials I will need, including scissors, tape, and a piece of cardboard, and I talk my way through making the model as I actually make it. When I am finished inventing it, I say,

"I have built my model but now I need to test it to see if I have solved the problem".

I get a student to help me test the marker holder and I add 'Evaluate' to my design cycle and I say,

"We have completed the 'Invent' step, and now we can move on to 'Evaluate'. When we evaluate the design, we have to look at the results, record the data, consider any changes that we could make to improve the model, and then build the changed model to make it even better. To record the data, we could find out how many markers the model can successfully hold."

We put in as many markers as it can hold and then record the information in our science journal next to the sketch of this design. Then, I say,

"Considering this data, what changes could we make to improve the design? Turn to your neighbor and think together of 2 ways we could improve this."

At this point, we could either revisit the original sketches and make an adjustment which is usually the faster option, or we could draw additional boxes and sketch from scratch again which is a good choice when the design totally does not work. For today's lesson, I just adjust one of the existing sketches, quickly change my actual project, and try it again. We add to our notes that the solution now holds more markers.

I return to the design cycle and add 'Communicate' with two smiley faces in the last circle. The smiley faces are to remind students that they have to share what they learned, discovered, and/or invented in at least 2 ways. I say,

"Now that we have a solution to our problem, it is time to communicate and share what we have learned and invented. I drew two smiley faces - you do that, too. That will help us to remember to share the information in at least two ways. This could mean talking to two different people about the invention and the results, or it could mean publishing what we learned in a different way, like on a website or even on a bulletin board in the school. Today, I want you to practice sharing what we made with two other students. Talk to your neighbor about the design that we tried first, and then listen to them talk about how we improved it. You have 2 minutes to talk and then I will tell you when to switch."

I provide time guidelines for students, especially at the beginning of the year, because I want them to know that they not only get to talk, but that they are expected to talk. If I notice that a student simply stops talking, I move closer and say, "Tell me more" or "Can you explain that with more details?" or "How exactly did that work?"

Wrap Up

10 minutes

After completing the entire design cycle in my notebook, and students have completed it in their own notebooks, I ask my students to read all 5 steps with me. These are think, plan, invent, evaluate, and communicate. Then I ask if they have any questions about the design cycle or how they could use it to solve a problem. Finally, I ask if they have noticed anything in our classroom that they are having trouble with, like I was having with my markers falling off the board, that maybe we could use the design cycle to solve on a different day. I write down the ideas students give me to reference later, as well as who said them. These could be used as a reward if students finish something early and need a project, or maybe I will plan a day later where everyone can work through their own problem using the design cycle.

I have prepared a larger poster with the five steps on it to use in the classroom, and I put it up on the wall so that I can reference it all year.