Introduction to Engineering Practices

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Students are introduced to the engineering process.

Big Idea

Using Legos, students define a problem and create a solution to the problem using the engineering process.

It's a Totally New Concept...but Not Really

15 minutes

Introducing engineering practices for the first time, through literature, helped pave the way to understanding how we are engineers every time we solve a problem through creating some device that fixes the problem. I opened today's lesson using my Engineering Design Process. The first page shows famous men scientist/engineers. We discussed each one as I explained the contributions with which I was most familiar. I turned to the next page and I asked what they thought it meant to be an engineer? ? Many students said that their fathers were engineers, naming mechanical, electrical and carpentry jobs. 

Professional Degree: I explained that I think of engineering as a profession with a formal degree in engineering. We began to list the formal professions of engineering, like civil engineering, chemical engineering, etc. and discussed each one. I explained that post-secondary education was essential in being successful or hirable in the field of engineering.

Backing up: I went back to the first page and I explained that most of the men on the page had degrees. I focused on Edison and explained that he struggled in school as a young boy. He had no formal education. He was brilliant and had a gift for being able to solve problems through his inventions. He created the first industrial testing lab. I suddenly realized that all the photos I had chosen were men! 

Responding to a teachable moment: I asked them if they thought women could be engineers?  I had them open up their iPad and log onto this link and bookmark it as a resource to explore during any "wait time" or during a time or non-fiction choice-read time. It is a webpage devoted to women in engineering. I explained that I didn't want them to think that this field was only for men since the book we read also had a man as an engineer. I let them look at the site for a few minutes and then told them that they should go and visit the site again for their reading assignment at home. I assigned that they read about one woman engineer and be prepared to share during reading time during the upcoming week.

We discussed how we often solve problems at home and that we are engineers any time we solve a problem using a device or technology. We talked a little bit about the things we have seen our parents do to fix things. I told a story about how my husband redesigned the bird feeder to keep the big fat squirrel out of the sunflower seeds. I told them I have yet to see a completely squirrel proof feeder. We had resorted to greasing the bird feeder pole! 

The 5 Step Process: The last page is a guide to instruction of the engineering processes. I wanted my students to understand that there is a systematic process to engineering and this is the most developmentally appropriate concept for fourth grade. I simply touched upon this at first and discussed each concept. We gave examples from different experiences. 

I asked how many people just like things to work right away! Up hands shot! I continued by explaining that the engineering process demand patience. 

Again, I shared how Edison was looking for a good material to use to make tires for cars because rubber from the rubber trees in South America was costly. I explained that he had started to develop a type of rubber from the milky sap of goldenrod. It didn't work right away and he tested it hundreds of time, adjusting it and making it work more closely to what he expected. But, just as he was testing it, someone developed synthetic rubber from petroleum. And, Edison's idea went by the wayside.

I explained that we were going to experience the engineering process as we begin to develop something that solves a winter problem I have.

Let's Be Engineers Today

20 minutes

Materials: You'll need a Lego set that include wheels as well as bricks. I use old "Technics" sets and one large set that contains everything they need to create a prototype.

I told students that after the last snowfall I was really frustrated with our new sidewalks that are 5 feet wide due to codes that say that they have to be that wide. Snow shoveling now takes three swipes because my snow shovel blade isn't wide enough. I wanted a snow shovel that would plow the whole walk in one swipe, but knew that the weight of the snow on a large shovel would be a major problem with the design. 

So, I said: "Could we develop a shovel that would shovel the wide sidewalk in one swipe and still have it not be too heavy?" I explained that snow shoveling with a regular shovel could be dangerous if the snow gets too heavy to shovel. 

One student said, "Just get a snow blower!" I replied, "Yes, I could, but my limitations are the cost of the snow blower. A shovel is much cheaper. Could we design a new kind of shovel to do the job?"

I passed out the Engineering Steps Guide Sheet to each student and told them that they needed to cut out the top part and glue it in their notebook. I read each step aloud as they were cutting and reminded them that the steps could be combined, as long as they were going through this five-step process. I explained that the creative process for solving problems does not work the same for everyone and that sometimes, for instance, we might be drawing and then another thought pops into our mind, helping us make adjustments, or change our ideas completely. I encouraged them not to be afraid to overlap the steps, and that this was just a guide to keep them on track in our limited time and resources.

After they were done cutting and pasting their instructions into their notebooks on the right side, I continued to by going through each step on the rest of the worksheet. I explained that this sheet would be the proof along with their notebooks that they followed the organized process that is so helpful to engineering design and solving the problem.

Set Up: I told them that they were engineers working for "Kanthack Engineering." Their assignment was that they must design a prototype using only Legos and that they must follow the process using the sheet I provided. I told them that they could not take a Lego set until I approved their design. They could work alone, in pairs or in groups. They could collaborate with their table teams if they got stuck or something wasn't working well. I explained that engineers work collaboratively and not completely alone. I gave them freedom to decide how they would work.

I told them they could begin! And the task was on!

As they began their design process, I roved the classroom making sure they were adhering to their limits. Each student began drawing their own designs in their notebook. So many of them wanted to add motors, heat, chemicals and robots to make the snow shovel and I had to continually define the limits. Pretty soon, wonderful designs started to appear. I had to keep coaching some of them and question how they would build what they had drawn? More and more were approved and they gathered their materials and began to build. Many chose to work in pairs or groups. One student was just struggling so much that I suggested that she just join a group and begin helping them with their ideas. This worked really well for her! It didn't matter that she didn't have her own design and it was important for me to be flexible. This task was far more rigorous than I even imagined!

The Creation Process

20 minutes

As I watched them apply their ideas to building, I saw them change up their designs. They came to me worried if that was alright. I commended them for realizing that what was on paper wasn't in stone and they could be changing things to work. I told them that often products were completely different than the original design.

I went outside and got some snow in a cup and brought it in, placing it on a cookie sheet and flattening it out. I didn't pay attention to scale, but spread the snow out so that it would model the wide sidewalk covered with snow. Students began testing their product. I had to hold back from coaching as creations appeared, but sometimes coaching their thinking was necessary so that they remembered important things about how a shovel needed to work. They discovered quickly when designs needed fixing or how they manipulated the shovel needed thinking about .  

Sometimes, improvements work backwards and then things needed to be thought through again. It was a pivotal moment when they finally solved it! They were so proud when the design was successful. Snow began to really melt and we needed to close up the lesson. I encouraged them that if they weren't finished, they could stay in at some recesses and play around with their designs again. There was plenty of snow!

Sharing Our Solutions

15 minutes

After our testing ( and total fun) was done, I asked students if they thought it was a lot harder than they imagined? The whole class said yes! They really reacted to this question and I admitted that it was much harder than I imagined. I told them that I thought they would just whip together Legos as I often see kids do. 

I asked what the hardest part was. One student raised his hand and shared that he was so surprised that his shovel didn't work. The handle was too wiggly. He was surprised because it looked really "cool." 

We all agreed that adhering to limits was tough. I reviewed the five steps once more. I asked: " Did you follow each step?" Yes, we defined a problem, we imagined, planned, drew, created, tested and tweaked our creations until it was right.