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engineering encounters

Engaging With Engineering

The nature of engineering (NOE) can be a difficult concept for students to understand, and many misconceptions about technology and engineering exist (Kruse et al. 2017). Furthermore, researchers note that NOE has not been given priority within K–12 engineering education (e.g., Pleasants and Olson 2019). While Pleasants and Olson (2019) provide a thorough discussion of key aspects of engineering, their discussion of how to engage students in such ideas was likely necessarily limited by the focus of that work. Additionally, the initiating questions they provide are not appropriate for very young learners, as the question length, structure, and vocabulary used is likely too advanced. Drawing from their work and other work that targets teaching NOE to young children (e.g., Holub, Kruse, and Menke 2019; Kruse and Wilcox 2017), this article illustrates how to weave NOE ideas (see Table 1) into science content while addressing Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) 1-LS1-1, which states, “Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.” The activities depicted in this article took place in a first-grade classroom during 30 minutes of science time with 25 students, one quarter of which were emerging bilingual students.

Day 1: Engaging Students

To tap into students’ existing knowledge, we ask the class, “What are some plants or animals that use their parts to protect themselves?” and generate a list on the front board. Students will offer up many ideas so we write all of their ideas down to promote engagement and enthusiasm for the lesson.

Next, we try to provide common concrete experiences based on students’ ideas. Usually, students will have already named the plants and animals we plan to show so we say, “I noticed you said porcupines use their parts to protect themselves” and then show a picture or video of a porcupine we find through a simple web search. We then ask, “How might the porcupine’s parts help protect it?” Students note the quills can be used to poke and defend the animal from other animals. We continue with additional concrete examples and direct students to reflect on other protective structures, such as an armadillo’s shell, a rose’s thorns, and a corn plant’s roots, so all students can reflect on similar concrete representations going forward. We use the examples of a porcupine, an armadillo, a rose, and a corn plant to provide a wide array of examples that might connect to students’ diverse experiences. 

Day 2: Planning Designs

To start Day 2, we ask students “What are some things you would want to protect so others cannot take it?” Students usually reply with a prized possession, such as a toy. We immediately follow this up by showing students a disposable plastic bowl with beads at the bottom. We take students’ responses regarding what they would want to protect and incorporate them into an analogy to convey the significance of the beads. We say something like, “Imagine these beads are your toy. You want to protect these beads just like you would want to protect your toy.” We then tell students, “Today you will be acting like engineers. As engineers work to design solutions to problems, they are often inspired by nature.” Then, we offer a few examples to students and ask them how the design mimics a plant or animal. For example, we show students a picture of Velcro sticking to clothing and ask students what type of plant this mimics. Students usually connect the sticking of the Velcro to the way plant burrs stick to clothing. If students do not bring up burrs, we have some ready to show. We next show students a picture of the blades of a turbine and ask students what type of animal the blades mimic. Students usually point out how the blades resemble a whale’s fins. After this quick activity, we tell students that in engineering, using nature to inspire design is known as biomimicry. We then explain, “Using what you learned from the pictures and videos of plants and animals yesterday, your task is to design a bowl that stops other groups from taking your beads” and assign students into groups of two or three. Group composition is determined as a way to hold all students accountable and to keep all students on task.

Next, we instruct students to draw their design on a piece of paper first so we can tie in NOE ideas and ensure they use the bowl as the “base” for their design. We also give them a list of materials they can use. Typically, groups are given 50 toothpicks, 10 craft sticks, 10 pipe cleaners, one long strand of string, and one piece of colored paper. These materials were specifically chosen to help students mimic the animal parts they learned about the previous day.

Before setting students free to plan and draw their design, we ask, “Why might it be important to include the names of the materials in your drawing?” Students may state that it will make building their design together easier. If students struggle with this question, we ask, “How might including what materials you are using in your drawing help you or someone else make sense of it?” At this point, students note that labeling the materials in their design will make it easier for other people to understand and build, so we introduce the term collaboration to students by explaining, “Your task today will require you to work together with your partner. We call that being collaborative. How might being collaborative with your partner help you while designing?” Students tend to point out that working with a partner makes it easier to think of a good idea. To tie student experiences and thinking with NOE, we ask, “Why might engineers be collaborative?” Students equate their reasons for being collaborative to why engineers are collaborative and reply that engineers want to work together to make their job easier or their design better. As we discuss each aspect of the NOE with students, we write the word or phrase on the board.

While groups are working, we walk around the room to promote on-task behavior and to gain insight into what groups are thinking. When we see an opportunity to address NOE with students, we ask all groups to put their designs in the middle of the table to have their full attention and ask a reflective question. For instance, when we see several groups have begun using protective features that mimic the plants and animals we have previously discussed, we ask, “When designing, engineers tend to make use of what they already know about nature. How are you using your knowledge of nature to plan your designs?” Students typically note they are using what they learned from the plant and animal examples. We then push student thinking by asking, “How do you think new learning about nature might affect engineers’ work?” Students sometimes struggle with this question, so we ask more specific questions such as, “If scientists learn more about how plants grow, how might engineers use that knowledge for farming?” After a brief discussion, students return to working on their designs.

Before stopping for the day, we facilitate a discussion regarding the difference between science and engineering. We ask, “How were the activities you did yesterday and today different?” Students recall how they looked at animals and learned about them by talking about protective parts in the first activity, while they planned and drew a protective design as part of their goal in the second activity. As students respond, we record their answers into two separate lists on the board. Once we have created a descriptive list under each activity, we tell students that the first activity is like what scientists do while the second activity is like what engineers do. We add that scientists learn about nature and engineers use that knowledge to solve problems and achieve goals.

Day 3: Creating Designs

To begin Day 3, we ask students to discuss any safety concerns they believe might be an issue with the materials provided. Students will usually point out that toothpicks or pipe cleaners can poke or that craft sticks can be used to hit. We follow up by asking, “How should we act while using these materials?” We ensure students can answer this question before allowing access to the materials. 

Because we already have students’ attention, we also address some additional NOE concepts by asking, “Before building your design, you drew pictures. How will that help you?” When students explain it will help save time or materials or decrease the amount of work they have to do when building their design, we introduce the term model and ask, “Why might engineers use models?” Students usually make the connection that the benefits they gained from drawing pictures are similar to the benefits engineers gain from making models. We also pose, “Engineers often have to deal with limitations or constraints. For example, when engineers design a building, they have to think about how much it will cost or where it will be built. What are some things that are limiting or constraining your work?” Students typically tell us they do not have all the materials they want.  

We then give students about 10 minutes to construct their designs. During this time, we walk around monitoring student progress. By walking around and constantly scanning the room, we are able to quickly react to any off-task or unsafe behaviors.

Day 4: Testing Designs

Before we allow groups to test their designs on Day 4, we explain the rules. We tell students they cannot break other designs, but that they can move around individual pieces of the design without removing those pieces. They have 30 seconds to take as many beads as they can from another group’s bowl. As one group attempts to take the beads, the other group can observe what weaknesses their design has, and vice-versa.

Day 5: Modifying Designs

On Day 5, we tie in more aspects of NOE before allowing students to modify their designs. We ask, “Engineers tend to make several versions or iterations of their designs. For example, cell phones have changed from being large and bulky to the smart phones we have now. Today you are going to get to improve your designs. Why do you think engineers make new versions or iterations of their designs?” Students typically explain that each new design or version makes things better or that people learn from mistakes. We then let students make changes to their designs for about five minutes.

After work time, we return to the idea of iterative design by asking, “Why did you choose to change your design?” Students respond that they wanted to make their design better. At this point we introduce the term optimize and tell students, “Iteration leads to optimization. For example, engineers who create medicine to help people who are sick will often change their design several times as they try to create a medicine that works best.” We then ask, “How did you try to optimize your designs?” Students talk about making sure all “holes” are filled or trying to get things just right to protect their beads. 

Day 6: Presenting Designs

Assessing student understanding of structure and function, the disciplinary core idea and crosscutting concept behind the standard being addressed, encompasses Day 6. We have groups present their design and explain how the external parts of it mimicked plants or animals to protect the beads. Often, students will display a design covered with toothpicks and explain how they acted as quills, spines, or thorns to protect the beads, but usually there is a variety of designs (see Figures 1a and b).

Table 1. NOE ideas discussed in this activity.

NOE Idea


Questions From This Activity That Highlight the NOE Idea


Engineers often work in groups with other engineers as they design. Engineers work closely with their clients as well.

How might being collaborative with your partner help you while designing?

Why might engineers be collaborative?

Prior Knowledge

Engineers and their work are influenced by their past experiences and individual perspectives. Prior knowledge can help or hinder engineers as they attempt to design solutions to problems.

How are you using your knowledge of nature to plan your designs?

How do you think new learning about nature might affect engineers’ work?


Engineers use models as a way to evaluate how their design will perform or to communicate their design to a client. A model may be as simple as a drawing or as complex as a computer simulation.

Before building your design, you drew pictures. How will that help you?

Why might engineers use models?


Engineers are limited by what is available to them. For example, some things that can constrain engineers are the time given to them to meet a deadline, the amount of money and materials they have access to, the physical and social environments surrounding their designs, and the laws of nature.

What are some things that are limiting or constraining your work?


An engineer’s design is continually tested to analyze its effectiveness and modified based on that analysis.

Why do you think engineers make new versions or iterations of their designs?


As an engineer’s design goes through analysis and iteration, the effectiveness of that design will improve.

Why did you choose to change your design?

How did you try to optimize your designs?

Figure 1
Examples of student work.

Examples of student work.

During presentations, we use a rubric to evaluate students’ ability to meet the standard (see Table 2). For example, if a student presents a design akin to Figure 1a and explains how the toothpicks act like cactus spines because they poke others who try to take the beads, the student will have achieved 3s on the rubric. If a student presents a design similar to Figure 1b and describes how the pipe cleaners prevented other groups from taking the beads, the student will have achieved 2s on the rubric.

As needed, we can assess students who struggle with motor or speech skills separately because of the range of data we have collected. This data includes informal discussions with students, students identifying how certain designs mimic plants or animals, drawing a picture of their design, building their design, and/or presenting and explaining their design to the class.

Finally, to wrap up this activity we ask, “What were some different ways groups protected their beads?” After students point out that the toothpicks poked or the pipe cleaners covered the beads, we ask, “Many plants and animals look different, but they can all protect themselves. How do your designs reflect that?” Students will now note that just like plants and animals, their designs all looked different, but each design had parts to protect their beads.


This article shows how NOE can be seamlessly inserted into science education that aligns with the NGSS. Students first think about and discuss how plants and animals protect themselves before designing a solution to protect their beads. Of course, we do not expect a single lesson to address all aspects of engineering and by returning to NOE as well as the nature of science throughout the year, students gain a more accurate understanding of how engineers and scientists work.

Table 2. Rubric.





Design clearly mimics plant and/or animal protective features

Design shows some resemblance to plant and/or animal protective features

Design does not mimic plant and/or animal protective features

Explanation of Design

Student identifies and connects the external parts of their design to plant and/or animal protective features.

Student identifies but does not connect the external parts of their design to plant and/or animal protective features.

Student does not identify or connect the external parts of their design to plant and/or animal protective features.

Evan Jorgenson ( is an eighth- and ninth-grade science teacher for Adel-DeSoto-Minburn Community School District in Adel, Iowa. Jerrid Kruse is the Baker Endowed Professor of Education at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.


Holub, J. J. Kruse and L. Menke. 2019. Just roll with it: Incorporating engineering into third-grade science. Science and Children 56 (7): 58–62.

Kruse, J., H. Edgerly, J. Easter, and J. Wilcox. 2017. Myths about the nature of technology and engineering. The Science Teacher 84 (5): 39.

Kruse, J.W., and J. Wilcox. 2017. Building Technological Literacy with Philosophy of Technology. Science and Children 54 (7): 66–73.

Pleasants, J., and J.K. Olson. 2019. What is engineering? Elaborating the nature of engineering for K–12 education. Science Education 103: 145–166.

Engineering Teaching Strategies Elementary

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