Introduction to Engineering Design

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SWBAT demonstrate their background knowledge about the engineering design process, and their understanding of human impacts on Earth Systems.

Big Idea

What do students already know about the engineering design process? What do they already know about human impacts on Earth Systems? Students take a pre-assessment that will be used to inform instruction.

Unit Explanation

Unit Rationale

This unit builds upon the previous unit where students investigated the flow of matter through ecosystems, and the interdependent relationships that exist within ecosystems.  Students used this information to create models of balanced ecosystems where the needs of living organisms were met in such a way that a stable web of life was created.  Students were also introduced to the idea that damaging the balance of an ecosystem can have consequences that create a ripple effect for every living thing within that system.  These concepts will be further explored in this unit, as students explore human impacts on Earth Systems, and research and develop possible solutions to a design problem that will protect one of Earth's most precious resources - water.  While a basic understanding of the concepts of the flow of matter through ecosystems are helpful for this unit, they are not a prerequisite.  

Big Ideas In This Unit 

#1 Human activities can have both positive and negative consequences for Earth Systems.

#2 Engineers use the research and design process to improve existing technologies, or generate new ones; in order to protect Earth's resources.

Next Generation Science Standards Addressed by this Unit:

Disciplinary Core Ideas:

5-ESS3-1 Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment.

3-5-ETS1-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

3-5-ETS1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

3-5-ETS1-3 Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Crosscutting Concepts:

Connections to Nature and Science

Sciences addresses questions about the natural and material world

Science findings are limited to questions that can be answered with empirical evidence.

Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World

People's wants and needs change over time, as do their demands for new and improved technologies.

Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, decrease known risks, and meet societal demands. 


50 minutes

Introduce the Unit

I tell my students that today we are beginning a new unit:  Plaid Pete Engineers a Solution.  

I explain that Plaid Pete and his friends have yet another exciting adventure for us, and that in this unit, they will have to work and collaborate in their research teams as never before..  

I tell them that just like with our previous unit, I need to have some understanding of what they already know.  They are now accustomed to my pre-assessments and understand that this is not graded.


I hand out the Plaid Pete Designs A Solution Pre-Assessment to my students.  As with previous assessments, I want to ensure that reading is not a barrier to their understanding, so I read the assessment to them and ask them to complete it to the best of their ability.  

Analyze the Pre-Assessment

I collect the written assessments and score them by comparing them to the Learning Progression Rubric for Design Engineering and Earth and Human Activity.  I have simply copied the Disciplinary Core Ideas and Crosscutting Concepts of The Next Generation Science Standards in a format so that I can compare my students' responses to determine where their understandings fall on the continuum between what they should already know, the ideas they need to master this year, and what they will be expected to master in the next few years in Middle School.

In the case of Design Engineering and Technology, it is also helpful to understand the research behind student misconceptions when examining students' answers to the questions.  These are some common misconceptions that have been identified:

  • Elementary students have a limited understanding of the depth of the work of engineers, believing that engineers are predominantly those who are auto mechanics or in the construction field.
  • Elementary students primarily associate technology with something that requires power or electricity.  Few students understand the prevalence of everyday objects as technology.


This excellent article from Science Teacher, "Design Practices and Misconceptions:  Helping Beginners in Engineering Design" takes each of the NGSS Science and Engineering practices, discusses the habits or misconceptions that can prove to be barriers to learning, and provides specific suggestions for teachers to assist students in engaging in design activities.

The Informed Design Rubric

The Informed Design Rubric (available from The National Science Teacher's Association), while targeted for older students, also gives a comparison between beginning designers, vs. informed designers and provides an understanding of the types of student skills and behaviors that upper elementary students are working towards.  In order to make this document more "5th Grade Friendly," I have created The Adapted Informed Design Rubric for use with this unit.  

Setting the Stage

15 minutes

Science Notebooks

We prepare our Science Notebooks for our new unit.  First, we write the unit name and big ideas on the first page of the unit (For this first unit, this will be on the next clean page of our Science Notebooks).  At the end of the unit, students will come back and create an illustration(s) representing what they learned in this unit.  

Since this unit will have 2 big ideas, I have students watch as I model dividing  the page in half and writing the following on the top section:  

Big Idea #1:  Communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment.

Then on the bottom half I write:

Big Idea #2:  Engineers use systematic practices of research and design to find solutions to human problems. 

At the end of the unit, students will illustrate these big ideas with words and visual representations.  It will be another form of assessment that I use to determine student learning.  This type of assessment is particularly effective with students who are learning English as a second language.