K-5 Students Become Engaged in the Engineering Design Process

Kimberly Chason is a gifted elementary teacher at Harlandale Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas.

I first started teaching PLTW Launch two years ago as part of Harlandale Independent School District’s Gifted and Talented program curriculum. The program and curriculum were both new to me at the time. After attending a two-day PLTW training, I immediately became excited about what was in store for the school year. I suddenly found a new and fun way of teaching and dove right into the curriculum.

Upon starting our first module, students didn’t seem to take interest in learning the engineering design process. It seemed as if they expected the process to be something for them to memorize and be tested on later. After the first activity in the Energy: Conversion module, my fourth grade students began to have a deeper understanding of the engineering design process and began using it as a tool.

Working though the Energy: Conversion module, we discussed issues facing the community, specifically related to people being homeless and hungry. Students immediately began thinking of ways to try to help solve the problem. One student designed and engineered a backpack/sleeping bag that could be given out to homeless people. Her idea included designing the backpack to be warm and weather resistant. Her plan included putting items in the backpack such as toiletries, hand warmers, and food for rough, cold winters. Another student had an idea to build a robot that would plant, water, harvest, and deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need of food. In amazement, I stood back and witnessed students using every step of the engineering design process without realizing it!

As students worked, I began to overhear group conversations about specific ways they wanted to design and build, and how their final product could actually work in the real world if it wasn’t just a prototype. Through these activities, I was surprised to see students develop an interest in working together on a team just like real engineers do. Working on a team is often a chore for students because they don’t yet understand the importance of collaboration and each person bringing unique talents to the group. PLTW offers great opportunities for students to work on a team and engage in the engineering design process through activities and projects.

Our final design challenge was to create a system to quickly move boxes of donated food from a truck into a building such as a food pantry. Students were given a list of materials as well as criteria and constraints for designing and building their system. We started this activity at the end of the day. Students had so much fun creating their system and were so engaged, it was a challenge for me to get them to stop working so they could get on the bus and go back to their home campus for the day. As they worked with their teams, it was obvious that they truly understood the engineering design process. What they didn’t realize was that they did more than memorize the process: They essentially “took the test” and passed! Students were eager to hear about what module we would be working on next!

PLTW’s blog is intended to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of this guest author.