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Inspiring Young Minds

An individual engineering fair capitalizes on technology.

At a time when changes in standards and curriculum compound the pressures of fifth-grade state testing, we wanted to find an engaging way to involve students in authentic science and engineering. Rather than put our efforts into a traditional science fair that would inevitably lead to inequitable input by parents and students alike, we took aim at facilitating an individual engineering fair. Our initial goals were to (1) have students work independently (rather than in groups) to identify and engineer a solution to a problem that sparked their interest, (2) complete all stages of the engineering fair during school hours to avoid the inequitable input of parents and other care-givers, and (3) capitalize on the technology access the district provides.

To that end, we identified a two-week period near the end of the academic year (after state testing) and devoted approximately one hour a day to our engineering fair project. Much like a traditional science fair, student projects were based on their individual interests and science conceptual understanding rather than connected directly to science curriculum. All three classes of fifth graders at the school utilized the last hour of the school day to ask their engineering question, imagine and research possible solutions, plan their solution design, and finally share and improve their designed prototypes. Students were not expected to complete any work at home, but of course many continued background research and solution design on their own as they became invested in their products. Our final day included a day-long fair where students digitally shared their designed solutions along with their experiences along the way. Each step of the engineering fair project relied heavily on online tools, providing an opportunity for this to be easily adapted for settings where students are learning in a virtual or completely online setting.

Laying the Foundation

Prior to this year, both students and teachers had very little exposure to engineering practices and the process of engineering design. To begin to help students conceptualize the nature of engineering and the distinctions between science and engineering practices, we spent a week laying the foundation. We started by establishing an understanding of technology by gathering all three classes together and asking students to “popcorn” answers to the question, “What comes to mind when you hear the word technology?” Each response gets recorded for the class. Student ideas included those such as cars, internet, CGI, holograms, internet, phone, wires, circuit board. Unsurprisingly, the student responses did not include examples of technology with a little less flair such as a white board or pencil. Back in individual classrooms, students participated in Tech in a Bag, where they were surprised to find everyday items identified as technology. For this activity, student groups were given a paper bag with an everyday item in it (e.g., spatula, stapler, hand lens). To support virtual learning environments, this could be adapted to include mystery pictures on a slide show that students reveal to show “everyday technology.” They also were given a notecard with questions to answer such as, What is your technology? What does it do? What problem does it solve? How else would/could you use it? What materials is it made of? What else could it be made of? Through conversation and class discussion, students decided whether their technology was a system, object, or process and constructed a definition of technology as a class. The class definition stated that technology also included an object, system, or process, that it is created by humans, all technology has a purpose, it may be in response to a problem or solution, and technology is designed to make life easier or more enjoyable.

Each teacher led their fifth-grade students through a series of traditional engineering challenge tasks. One example included a challenge where students had to design a pedestal to hold up a statue with the given number of index cards, masking tape, and a ruler. Using only the provided materials, students approached the challenge with the mindset that each failure only meant “back to the drawing board.” They sought feedback from other groups and were continuously testing and revising their design. This served to introduce students to the cyclical nature of engineering. After reflecting on their experiences in small groups, the grade level came back together to brainstorm verbs used to describe their process. They had time to argue and defend what words should stay and which should be crossed out. As a large group, the students identified what words were the most important and then created an order to describe their engineering process (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Defining the Engineering Process.

Defining the Engineering Process.

In addition, the teachers used trade books to engage students in ideas related to engineering and invention (see Resources). The books included in read-aloud time and made available to the students featured main characters the students could relate to and follow along the (sometimes frustrating) journey to invention and engineering.

Relying on existing resources (including the discontinued Google Science Fair, see Internet Resources for others), we created a packet we shared with students using Google classroom. This digital packet was used as the students' engineering notebook throughout the process to help guide them at their own pace and provide a space for them to record their work. We designed the packet to take students through the complete engineering design process from problem identification to solution (Figure 2). However, due primarily to time constraints, our engineering fair ended with prototype design. Although this first seemed like a limitation to us, upon reflection we found that the intentional focus on problem identification, background research, and prototype design was engaging and authentically connected the students to the engineering practices of defining problems; designing solutions and developing models; and finally obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

Figure 2
Engineering Design timeline.

Engineering Design timeline.


Clarify the problem

To help students identify their engineering problem, we began with tools to help narrow down their interests and questions. First, students identified which science topics interest them. Then, they answered a series of yes or no questions about what they wonder about. Finally, students described what they like to do outside of school and their favorite thing they have done with science. Combining the open-response questions with the survey questions, students then brainstormed a few problems they could identify from their interests. (We have shared these resources online; see NSTA Connection.)

Students listed three real-world problems they identified from their interests and prior science learning that they could create a solution for with either a prototype or a process. They were encouraged to discuss each problem with their friends, teacher, parents, and others to gather some input about their ideas and record those in their engineering digital notebook. Finally, students identified one problem they planned to design a solution for and their initial ideas for how they might solve the problem. (We have shared these resources online; see NSTA Connection.) For example, one student who identified the problem of injuries to football players decided the solution he would focus on was smart safety equipment that communicated impact to coaches or trainers on the sideline.



To identify what solutions existed and further investigate the background information for their identified problem, students conducted research using primarily online sources. We focused students’ attention on whether a solution existed for their problem, issues related to existing solutions and ways they could be improved, background information they would need to design or improve a solution, and the basic science principles related to the design and identified problem.

To facilitate this, we asked students to write down as many questions as they could think of in three minutes focusing on our question, “What do you need to know about your problem?” From their brainstorm list, students identified at least three questions as most important and used provided resources to investigate an answer. Using previous lessons directed by the school librarian, students activated their knowledge of quality research practices. The richness of resources identified varied greatly by student, but each student was reminded to go beyond the Google results and critically analyze the source of their found information. We reminded students that quality sources are recent (not too old), free of errors, they are unbiased and fair, readily available, and reference the original source of information, while problematic sources may be strongly opinion based or biased, not recent, and include errors or false information. If a piece of information seemed surprising, we encouraged students to see if they can find the same information from another reliable source. Safety note: Ensure that students have safe access to reliable sites and are using internet safety and etiquette rules.

Brainstorm solutions

Relying on what students found in their research and feedback from peers and teachers, they then began to dig into the ideas that could solve their problem. To further define their solution, we asked students to consider the purpose of their project. They considered and recorded why the problem is important to solve, who will benefit from the design, how the design solves the problem, and how their solution is better than others. Additionally, students considered how they could make their solution a reality by describing limitations to their problem and/or solution, materials they may need for their design, and whether there are multiple solutions to the problem.


Develop the solution

Our final piece focused on students’ design goal. Focusing their attention on stating the goal of their solution, we asked students to consider how they would know if their design solved the problem. This allowed students to think about what data they would need to collect upon building and testing their solution. We also had them list the size of their design, the materials, resources, and tools needed, and the amount of time and level of assistance they would require when building their design (see NSTA Connection). At this point, students could identify how cost, size, and availability of resources may inhibit the building of their design. Students also were asked to consider how they would test their design to see if it solved their problem. This step required students to identify what evidence would let them know if their design was successful. Because our students were not building their prototypes, this hypothetical investigation was fairly open-ended. One example included measuring impact tolerance of the materials to be used for protective equipment designed for sports.

The product our students produced was a detailed design sketch of their solution. We asked them to get feedback from at least two people and then adjust their designs as needed. Most students were able to repeat the feedback process two or more times. To help scaffold students as they provided and interpreted feedback, we introduced them to the SCAMPER mnemonic. SCAMPER stands for Substitute (Can any part be replaced?), Combine (Can this idea merge with another?), Adapt (What else is “like” this but used for a different purpose?), Modify (Could you add something or take something away?), Purpose (Why does it exist?), Eliminate (How could it be simplified?), and Rearrange (Will it work in a different order?). As students’ shared their designs, we directed them to a series of questions in their planning packet for them to consider regarding their own design as well as the designs of their peers. Asking them to consider the SCAMPER questions on their own and in dialogue with others helped them move forward with their designs. We could also see advantages of having students write down answers to the SCAMPER questions if they get stuck improving their designs.

Create and improve

Although our students did not physically build and test their prototypes, we asked them to prepare their design sketches as a final product for this experience (Figure 3). Students created and shared a presentation using Google Slides where they described their experience throughout the engineering fair to their peers, teachers, parents, and district administration. After introducing the problem and background research, student presentations focused on how their prototype design addressed the problem, what students learned throughout their process, what they would have done differently or changed, how the design could be applied to real life, and finally ways the design could be improved and important next steps.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Student work samples

Student work samples

Students were asked to highlight the process of identifying and researching their problem, imagining their prototype solution and how they altered their plans through peer and teacher review processes, and how they could collect evidence that their proposed solution would solve the identified problem. As expected, these presentations varied dramatically between students. What remained a constant among our students was their commitment to the idea that they were successful in imagining a solution to a real-world problem and that they felt capable and engaged as beginning engineers. During the presentations, we looked for students to answer a series of questions related to their project (see NSTA Connection). Ronald (a pseudonym) shared his design of a dolphin-safe crabbing cage. He wanted to solve a problem related to unintended consequences of over-fishing such as accidental capture of dolphins. What stood out in Ronald’s presentation was his own realization that this was a project that he became invested in and it was one of few class projects over the school year that he wanted to work hard on and be sure to finish.

Closing Thoughts

Although we recognize that the luxury of two weeks of at least one hour a day devoted to science is a privilege in the case of our students, we believe that this engineering fair is not outside the reach of every classroom—virtual or in-person. We foresee ways in which we could focus our students’ attention on identifying problems that interest them but are related to specific content covered in classroom teaching and learning. For example, at the close of a unit on Human Interactions on Ecosystems and Earth (5-LS2-2 and 5-ESS3-1), students could identify problems that they personally can connect and relate to. For example, students may identify the problems of localized flooding due to development or water quality issues in a nearby lake and drive the process of engineering a prototype or process to solve the problem using scientific content understandings. Another possible example related to Earth’s Place in the Universe (5-ESS1-2) would ask students to apply knowledge of pattern data of daily changes in length and direction of shadows to engineer a sun dial.

The value of allowing students to personally connect with their learning is well-documented. Our students were no exception. At their presentations, most students indicated they thought differently about science and engineering as their conceptions moved away from science in a traditional classroom view—recalling vocabulary and simple processes. Our students exclaimed that they felt that they could do something like this as adults; they too could be engineers solving interesting and complex problems.

Internet Resources

Kelly Feille ( is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. Annie Wildes ( is an independent scholar from Choctaw, Oklahoma. Janet Pyle and Jessica Marshall are classroom teachers for Norman Public Schools.


Polivka, J., and R. Polivka. 2019. A dream of flight: Alberto Santos-Dumont’s race around the Eiffel Tower. United States: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR).

Tomsic, K. 2019. Guitar genius: How Les Paul engineered the solid-body electric guitar and rocked the world. United States: Chronicle Books LLC.

Romberg, S., and L. Dershewitz. 2019. The house that cleaned itself: The true story of Frances Gabe’s (mostly) marvelous invention. United States: Innovation Press.

Jones, P. 2017. Izzy Gizmo. United Kingdom: Simon & Schuster UK.

STEM Technology Elementary

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