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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?

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.

picture of page 3 of the student EDP journal

Part 2. What do I design to address this problem? [Designing solutions to engineering problems]

Activity A. Students research the problem they chose on a digital library platform, such as Epic, and record the information they gather on page 4 of their EDP journal (Figure 3). Students describe the problem a bit more and relate what other experts in the field have already done to solve this problem. Additionally, they brainstorm preliminary ideas about other solutions to the problem. During this research phase, students should also think about limitations they will encounter, including time constraints and availability of materials, as well as any unintended negative outcomes that might result from their design.

research the problem

Activity B. When most students have had sufficient time to research their problem, display three items related to an airplane: a blueprint, a model, and a picture of an airplane (Figure 4).

three stages of a protype

Left—Blueprint of an airplane. Top view airplane by SVG SILH (
Center—Model of an airplane. Phase 2 by Mike (
Right—Photo of an airplane. A USAID-chartered Ilyushin-76 airplane lands at an airstrip in Nyala, South Darfur by Robert Sullivan (

Ask students, “What do you notice?” Say, “These are all examples of prototypes of an airplane at various stages of the EDP. A prototype is a model that gets refined over and over again.” Emphasize that the students’ prototypes will change during the EDP just like the main character in the book created several prototypes. Prompt students to draw prototypes using paper and pencil to solve their problem on pages 5 and 6 of their EDP journal. As they draw, they should begin to think about the materials they will need, steps to solve the problem, and what could go wrong.

Helping students think through the EDP

Activity C. After students have shown you their drawings of their prototypes, students are ready to build them. If you are teaching this lesson in person, students can use recyclable materials available to them. Such materials can include cardboard boxes of various sizes, plastic bottles, and anything else they find useful (and the teacher has determined is safe). If you don't have enough recyclable materials, or if you are teaching this lesson remotely, students can use 3D modeling tools like Tinkercad (upper grades) or Toy Theater (lower grades). As students begin to build their prototypes based on what they drew, emphasize that they should write down what they tried to build and whether it worked on pages 7 and 8 of their EDP journal. As students build, they can also post pictures of their creations and how they are testing them on page 9 of their EDP journal.

document changes made to original designs

Part 3. How do I improve my design? [Optimizing the design solution]

Optimizing a design is an integral part of the EDP and an NGSS DCI. You might feel like you can shorten this part in the interest of time, but if you do so, you will be short-circuiting students’ opportunities to meaningfully engage in the practices of engineering.

Activity A. After students have had some time to build their prototypes, say “I notice many of you are still building. It might be helpful to get some feedback on your prototype from your peers before you build some more.”

Model peer feedback with two students in a fishbowl arrangement (Figure 7). Partner 1 shares their prototype and problem. Partner 2 gives feedback on Partner 1’s prototype. Everyone else should sit in a circle around these two students to create a fishbowl, observing what the pair do and say.

virtual fishbowl to model peer feedback

Before the pair of students in the middle of the circle begin, ask all students, “What does effective feedback look like?” Responses may include that it can be a specific compliment to encourage the person, a question to deepen their thinking, or a tip to move them forward in a similar or different direction. Emphasize that when the two partnered students are engaged in generating feedback, it can be like a conversation and may be focused on a problem or question about a design they are thinking about how to solve together. Students should watch for the traits of effective feedback when the pair shares. It may be useful to keep a list as a public resource (Figure 8).

effective feedback chart

After the pair begin to model effective feedback in the fishbowl arrangement, ask the students sitting on the periphery what they noticed about the pair. Some responses may include the following:

  • Partner 1 shared how their prototype helps with the problem they are focusing on.
  • Partner 1 shared what other people had already done to address the problem.
  • Partner 2 asked specific questions to elicit more information about what parts of the prototype do.
  • Partner 2 gave a suggestion to improve Partner 1’s prototype.

If the pair gave and received several critiques as typical of a real conversation, emphasize that they are getting valuable feedback and building ideas from each other’s insights.

Activity B. Once the partnered students have publicly modeled how to provide effective peer feedback, arrange all students into pairs and have them give feedback to each other within each pair. If time permits, do multiple rounds with different partners so students get more feedback from their peers. This phase of EDP can be lengthened so students can build more, incorporate feedback from their peers, and continue this cycle of feedback for the next few iterations.


Part 4. How do I tell others about my design? [Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information]

Activity A. After students have created multiple iterations of their prototypes, they reflect on what they are most proud of and what they would do if they had more time. They record their reflections on page 10 of their EDP journal. Then students can share their final prototypes and answer the following questions in small groups:

  • Was your design successful?
  • What are you most proud of during this process?
  • If you had more time, what would you do?

These questions encourage students to continue improving their designs, altering both successful and unsuccessful features of their designs. As an optional extension, students can also write letters to professionals to share what they built, why it is important, and what they would do if they had more time.


Reflecting on the EDP
References Cited

Lee, O., and T. Campbell. 2020. What science and STEM teachers can learn from COVID-19: Harnessing data science and computer science through the convergence of multiple STEM subjects. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 31(8): 932–944.

NSTA Collection of Resources for Today's Daily Do

NSTA has created a What is a problem you want to design solutions for? collection of resources to support teachers and families using this task. If you're an NSTA member, you can add this collection to your library by clicking + Add to Library near the top of the page.

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