Plaid Pete Gets Briefed!

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SWBAT define and delimit the problem and constraints of a simple engineering design project.

Big Idea

How do engineers "delimit" an engineering design problem? What is a design constraint? Students get briefed with their VIP Design Portfolios, and begin the Build a Better Water Filter Design Engineering Project.

Setting Up the Investigation

Connection to The Next Generation Science Standards

In this investigation, students begin the work that will lead them to explore the Disciplinary Core Idea of Engineering Design - that possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints).  The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for a solution can be compared on the basis of how each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.  (3-5 ETS1-1); Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution.  Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions.  (3-5 ETS1-2).  At whatever stage, communicating with peers about proposed solutions is an important part of the design process, and shared ideas can lead to improved designs. (3-5 ETS1-2); Tests are often designed to identify failure points or difficulties, which suggest the elements of the design that need to be improved.  (3-5 ETS1-3); Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and constraints.  (3-5 ETS1-3); and the Crosscutting Concept of Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World  - People's needs and wants change over time, as do their demands for new and improved technologies (3-5-ETS1-1), and Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, decrease known risks, and meet societal demands (3-5-ETS1-2).

The Preparation Time for This Investigation is approximately 30 minutes. (It will be substantially less if you choose not to laminate covers and comb bind the Design Portfolios).

Materials Needed:

Marvelous Mattie:  How Margaret E. Knight Became An Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully available at

One copy of Plaid Pete Engineers A Solution Word Wall Cards - Lesson 6

One paper copy for each student of Plaid Pete Engineers A Solution Word Wall Cards - Lesson 5

One copy for each student of Plaid Pete Engineers A Solution - Design Portfolio - (I copy the covers on card stock, laminate them, and then comb bind each document - I use this strategy of "Make It Important" because if I take the time and effort to make it important for my students, then they will be more likely to put more effort and pride into their learning).


Focus & Motivation

20 minutes

Introduce Read A Loud

Marvelous Mattie:  How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor, (McCully, E. (2006).  Marvelous Mattie:  How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor.  New York, NY:  Farrar, Strous, and Giroux.) is the inspiring true story of the woman known as "the lady Edison."  Mattie was born in 1838, and invented the machine that made flat bottomed paper bags and is still in use today.

I tell my students that one of the basic functions of engineering design, is to invent solutions to everyday problems.  I tell them that I have a book to share with them today about someone who did just that - saw everyday problems that needed to be solved, and then invented solutions for those problems.  I tell them to listen carefully as I read because when I am finished, I want them to be able to answer the questions I have posted on the 3 column chart I have created.  In the first column I have written:  What problems did Mattie have to solve?  In the second column I have written:  What did Mattie create to solve the problem?   In the final column I have written, What were the constraints? (things that limited her, or made it more difficult to create solutions).  I tell my students that we can use the text to make inferences about the constraints.

List Problems and Constraints - Money

After reading the story aloud, I turn back to the first page, and ask students to turn and talk with their partners, to use the text to answer the first question on our chart.  I call on a student who volunteers that the first problem is that her mother's feet were cold.  I write it in our chart.  Next, I ask, "What did Mattie create to solve that problem?"  A student correctly answers that she created a foot warmer.  Then I ask, "Using the text, what can we infer might have been some constraints or limitations that Mattie had in solving that problem?"  It takes a bit of tugging, but I am able to get students to refer back to the text where it states "they were poor," and correctly determine that one constraint was Money.

List Problems and Constraints - Materials & Time

I turn to the second page and ask, what is the problem here?  I call on a student who answers, "Her brothers wanted a kite."  I call on another student to answer the question in the second column and the student states, "She brainstormed different designs, picked the best one, and created a kite."  My students have a harder time thinking about the constraints for this one.  They immediately want to go back to the idea that she is poor, and I list Materials as a constraint.  I tell them, "Materials is one constraint that she has, however I think there is another one here.  Think about what the text says about the time of year.  When is this happening?"  One of my students correctly responds that it is in the spring.  I then ask, "Can Mattie just keep working on brainstorming ideas and designs forever until she gets the perfect one?"  I call on a student who states that no, she can't.  When I ask why, they are able to identify that when spring is over, kite flying weather will likely be over too.  I have to ask this student to elaborate a bit, because I know some of my students don't have experiences with kite flying.  In the constraint column, I list the word - Time.

I tell my students, "You have just discovered three of the most common constraints, or limitations, that engineers face when designing a solution to a problem - Time, Money, and Materials.  The design problem you will be working with for the rest of this unit has constraints in all three of these areas.  

This is the way the chart looked when we were finished:

I share today's learning objectives and success criteria. 

Learning Objective & Success Criteria

Note:  Consistent with the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, I am now including a language objective with each lesson.  These objectives were derived from the Washington State ELP Standards Frameworks that are correlated with the CCSS and the NGSS.

I share the learning objective and success criteria:  

Learning Objective:  I can define and delimit the problem and constraints of a simple engineering design project.

Language Objective:  I can engage effectively in collaborative discussions, building on other's ideas and expressing my own clearly.  [ELP.4-5.2]

Success Criteria:  I can achieve a "meets standard" score as measured by my peers.

After I have shared the learning objectives and success criteria I tell my students, "Get your Science Notebooks out and get ready to learn some new vocabulary.  After that, it will be time to get briefed on our engineering design project!"

Vocabulary Instruction

10 minutes

Consistent with the 5E Model for Science Instruction, I usually provide a hands-on opportunity before introducing vocabulary.  However in this particular case, students will need these words in order to understand the Design Portfolio. 

Introduce Vocabulary

I present the words from the Plaid Pete Engineers A Solution Word Wall Cards - Lesson 6 using the following instructional routine:

  1. Say the word to students.
  2. Ask students to repeat the word at least 5 times.  For example, I will say, "Say it to the window.  Say it to my hand.  Say it to the door.  Say it to the ceiling."
  3. I say the word in context.  For example, I will say, " The position the plants were placed in was one of the controlled variables in the video."  
  4. I will then randomly call on a student to use the word in a sentence, giving successive prompts to assist them, if needed.

Science Notebooks

I use the following routine to have students write these words into their Science Notebooks:

After introducing the words, I demonstrate for students how to make a three column table with rows for each of the eight vocabulary words.  I model for them in my own Science Notebook how to write the word in the first box, a non-linguistic (e.g. picture) representation of the word in the second box, and work with the class to generate an example sentence for the first word in the third box. Students cut out their copies of the cards and place in the envelope, which they glue on the page behind their table.  They will finish sentences for the remaining seven words either for homework, or for seat-work later.  A completed notebook will look like this Example.


25 minutes

Introduce the Design Portfolio

I pass out each student's copy of the Plaid Pete Engineers A Solution - Design Portfolio.  I am glad I have taken the time to copy the covers on card stock, laminate them, and then comb bind the document.  I make a big deal out of them when I pass them out.  I want my students to take this project seriously and I know the time and care that I have taken will assist them in doing so.

Define and Delimit the Problem

My students have little to no experience with engineering design, so I know this is a step we will need to do together.  I ask them to turn to page 2 of the document and I read the letter from Mrs. Glaze.  I point out to them that the first paragraph contains the general information about what this project will be about.  We read it together.  I then ask my students to turn to page 5 of the Design Portfolio.  We will be working to answer the questions on this page.  I tell my students, "Design Engineers don't just jump in and start throwing things together in a haphazard way.  They go through a very specific and well planned process.  We are going to work through this process so that you understand exactly what it is you will be designing, and the constraints, or limits that you will have to work with."

I point out the first question on my copy of the Design Portfolio that I have under my document camera.  I ask my students to look at the first paragraph on page 2 to find the answer to that question:  What is the problem you need to solve?  I ask my students to turn and talk in their teams.  I am especially mindful of my English Language Learners and the language objective I have set for them today.  As I move between teams, I stop and prompt them to build on other's ideas and express their own clearly.  I point to the class academic conversation charts that contain the sentence stems we have been using.  

When I begin to call on students for the answer, I am not surprised that they have a difficult time narrowing this to a simple answer.  They want to jump right to the part about designing a water filter.  I have to redirect them until they come up with the correct answer:  The local water utility's filter is not working.

I read the second question:  What do you need to design to solve the problem?  Again, my students want to jump in and add the rest of the information in the paragraph.  I redirect them until I get the correct answer:  I need to build a prototype water filter that will clean a dirty water sample so that it looks clear.

I read the third question.  What are the constraints, or limits you need to consider?  I provide some time for teams to turn and talk for this question.  They are now getting the idea that they have to pull the information apart, and list it in a concise way.  I call on one team and a student responds:  "It says something about the cost.  We learned that one constraint was money, so I guess that means the materials we make the filter out of will have a cost."  We write Cost on the lines beneath the question.  Another student says, "There is a time constraint.  It says something about the sample will have to go through the filter in no more than three minutes."  I add the word Time next to the word, Cost.  Finally another student notes that there is a list of approved materials.  I ask, "What does that mean?"  A student answers that there only certain materials can be used.  I write the word Materials next to the word, Time.

Finally, I read the final question:  How will your design be evaluated?  I call on a student who responds correctly:  The design will be evaluated after the third trial.

While this might appear to be a tedious process, it is an important one.  Beginning designers often have a difficult time identifying the problem in text and in understanding constraints.  Discussing these, and requiring students to write them in "kid friendly" language ensures that they enter the design process with an understanding of the task ahead.

Reflection & Closure

15 minutes

Review Rubric

I tell my students, "It's important that you understand there are two evaluations with this project.  The first evaluation is the one we will do of the prototype water filter.  We just discussed how that will be evaluated.  This will be done as a team.  I will also be evaluating you individually as you work in your teams.  This will be your Science Grade for this project. I would like to share with you the things I will be looking for."

I ask my students to turn to page 3 of the rubric, and briefly go through each of the 9 items on the rubric.  I use "kid friendly" language to translate concepts such as "idea fluency" so that my students can understand the expectations.  I do this by contrasting what Beginners do versus what Informed Designers do, as listed in the rubric.

I tell my students to get ready for the next step in the process - tomorrow we research!