Skip to main content

Elementary    |    Daily Do

What Is a Problem You Want to Design Solutions For?

What is a problem you see in your community that you want to design solutions for? What would you make?

By Shiela Lee, John Russell, Okhee Lee, and Todd Campbell

What Is a Problem You Want to Design Solutions For?

Disciplinary Core Ideas Engineering Is Lesson Plan NGSS Phenomena Science and Engineering Practices STEM Elementary

Sensemaking Checklist

Welcome to NSTA's Daily Do

Teachers and families across the country are facing a new reality of providing opportunities for students to do science through distance and home learning. The Daily Do is one of the ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families with this endeavor. Each weekday, NSTA will share a sensemaking task teachers and families can use to engage their students in authentic, relevant science learning. We encourage families to make time for family science learning (science is a social process!) and are dedicated to helping students and their families find balance between learning science and the day-to-day responsibilities they have to stay healthy and safe.

Interested in learning about other ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families? Visit the NSTA homepage.


What Is Sensemaking?

Sensemaking is actively trying to figure out how the world works (science) or how to design solutions to problems (engineering). Students do science and engineering through the science and engineering practices. Engaging in these practices necessitates that students be part of a learning community to be able to share ideas, evaluate competing ideas, give and receive critique, and reach consensus. Whether this community of learners is made up of classmates or family members, students and adults build and refine science and engineering knowledge together.



In today's task, students answer the following questions: What is a problem you see in your community that you want to design solutions for? What would you make?

Students use science and engineering practices (SEPs) alongside disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) to engage in the engineering design process (EDP) around a problem they see in their local community. Then they propose design solutions for addressing this problem, present their ideas to peers, and receive feedback from their peers and teacher.

Teaching the principles of engineering situates children to see themselves as capable problem-solvers in their homes and communities. In learning about the EDP and its connection to the engineering DCIs (Figure 1), children can and should be afforded the agency to solve societally relevant problems that are important to them (Lee and Campbell 2020).

Note: Contemporary research on how students learn science, reflected in the Next Generation Science Standards and other state standards based on A Framework for K–12 Science Education, requires that engineering lessons taught as part of the science curriculum provide students opportunities to “acquire and use elements of disciplinary core ideas from physical, life, or Earth and space sciences together with elements of disciplinary core ideas from engineering design to solve design problems.” (NGSS Lesson Screener, While "What is a problem you want to design solutions for?" does provide opportunities for students to build ideas in engineering, the lesson does not meet this requirement.

Elementary EDP

We understand that giving this agency to students may lead them to topics that could initially make you feel uncomfortable, but this lesson can help you overcome such feelings and guide you in effectively carrying out this lesson in your classroom. When this lesson was recently implemented in a second-grade classroom in New York City, a significant number of students chose COVID-19 related problems and designed solutions that they believed could benefit their communities. By affording students the agency to decide, they were able to see the importance of connecting what they were doing in the classroom to their community. If you would like to see solutions that students designed, view their work in this student EDP journal sample.

Before you start, you will need the following materials:

  • The Most Magnificent Thing, a book by Ashley Spires;
  • Items for students to use to create their prototypes (e.g., recyclable materials, such as tissue and toothpaste cardboard boxes; plastic bottles; tape; glue; buttons; and string);
  • Chart paper, markers, and pencils;
  • A copy of the EDP journal for each student (EDP journal Google doc or EDP journal PDF file);
  • A computer with a projector to show video; and
  • Student access to computers that they can use for the research and design phases.


Part 1. What is a meaningful problem for me to work toward solving? [Defining and delimiting engineering problems]

Activity A. Begin with a read-aloud of The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires. Pause after the main character has made several attempts to create her most magnificent thing. Then ask students what they notice about the main character. If you are teaching this lesson asynchronously, you can find read-alouds of The Most Magnificent Thing on YouTube (for example, The Most Magnificent Thing (Read Aloud books for children) | Storytime Ashley Spires). In this lesson, students take notes in their EDP journal.

During the read-aloud, stop at different points and emphasize that the main character is being persistent, even though her creations are not what she wants. Students may also make connections with their own lives about a time when they felt frustrated when something didn’t go according to plan. Explain that this feeling is natural, and that like the main character, we can take a break if we feel frustrated with something not going the way we want. Finish the story.

Activity B. Tell students you want to share a video of the EDP. Ask, “During the engineering design process, when do you think you will need to be persistent like the main character in the book?” Have students think about this question as they watch the BrainPOP Engineering Design Process video.

Discuss as a class the times during the EDP they will need to be persistent. Then display these questions for all students to see:

  • What problems do you notice around you?
  • What problems do you notice in your community?
  • What problems do you notice in our world?

Assign students to small groups of three or four, and give chart paper and markers to each group. Ask the groups to brainstorm problems they notice around them, in their community, or in our world. Each group should write the problems they identify on their chart paper. Display the chart paper from each group around the room. Students will take a silent gallery walk to observe the displayed chart papers and write down a few problems that are meaningful to them on page 3 of their EDP journal (Figure 2). When students finish listing  topics that interest them, have each student circle the one problem they want to focus on in their EDP journal.

Asset 2