The Engineering Design Process: A Middle School Approach

To support the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Middle School Engineering Design, we have three goals for our students: to define problems accurately, design the best solution using a rigorous process, and evaluate and improve their designs based on evidence. When guiding our students to meet these goals, we first use various video clips, articles, and flow charts to introduce them to the steps of the engineering design process (EDP). 

Engineering Design ProcessWe then use a template we developed and have the students complete it as they work through the EDP during a project. The template divides the EDP into seven steps: identify the problem, gather information (including scientific principles, criteria, and constraints), brainstorm possible solutions, select the best solution, make a model, test and evaluate, and refine and release (see diagram). We use the same student template for all of our middle school design projects to provide consistency for our students. 

Our goal is to give our students opportunities to practice engineering skills like engineers do in the real world. Real engineers collaborate with other engineers, scientists, and architects to develop, test, and refine their designs. Since the EDP depends on successful collaboration and communication, our students always work in groups to develop their design solutions.

Rally CoachWe use many different types of data to form student groups based on students’ needs. In our seventh- and eighth-grade science classes, we used reading and math MAP data, pre-test data, behavior data, and formative assessment data to group students for the engineering design projects. This process sets the groups up for success. Sometimes we create homogenous groups, and sometimes heterogenous groups, depending on student needs. In one of the eighth-grade design units, we used heterogenous grouping, which allowed each group to have a high-achieving, high-medium, medium-low, and low-achieving student participant. During the unit, students were engaged, communicating, and making progress on the student template while coaching one another through the different steps of the EDP (see picture above).

During a unit on forces and interactions, seventh-grade students applied Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects. Students had to solve the problem of increased traffic injuries due to vehicle collisions. The challenge was to protect a passenger (a raw egg) that rolled down a steep ramp and collided into a wall.

We gave the students wheels and axles; some basic materials like cardboard, rubber bands, and cotton balls; and tools to use, like hot glue guns and utility knives. We also enforced some regulations to ensure a real-life engineering experience and realistic design solutions. For example, the students could not use kits, and all materials had to be modified. The egg had to be able to “see” where it’s going and easily enter and exit the vehicle like a real driver would. The students were very excited about building their vehicles, which is why the student template was necessary to ensure they completed each step of the EDP thoroughly.

During the project, the students determined the importance of the problem, applied the science of Newton’s Third Law to their solution, identified criteria and constraints, and evaluated possible solutions. While the students were building their prototypes, they used the ramp and wall to test their solutions and refined their designs as they worked. Once their prototype was finished, the teacher conducted an official crash test, and the students evaluated their solution based on the results.

During a unit on human impacts , eighth-grade students worked together to apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment. Each group chose one of the six major human impacts as their focus: climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species, overpopulation, pollution, and overexploitation of resources. As a group, they identified the problem and those affected by it, and the reason it is important to solve or minimize.

The groups communicated about the effects on the environment and the needs of society. They researched how humans have contributed to the problem and its effect on resource availability. They also identified the criteria and constraints relevant to their problem. While the students were brainstorming possible solutions, they showed real creativity and ingenuity. In this particular unit, the students didn’t actually build a prototype, but instead developed a blueprint diagram that allowed them to be as creative as possible without limitations.

The students enjoyed the flexibility and freedom that this project offered, and it was a wonderful experience for us because we were able to see our students successfully draw, explain, and act out their solutions. After completing their blueprint, they identified the strengths and weaknesses of their solution and designed ways to improve and refine it. When teaching the NGSS, teachers have many opportunities that allow for student choice and ownership of their learning. The students’ finished designs are a true testament to the success of the NGSS in the classroom (see pictures below).


Sean Gormley has been teaching science for 15 years in the Chicago area. Cathy Boland is a fifth-year middle school science teacher in Skokie, Illinois. Together they have presented their expertise with NGSS at both the Skokie district and Niles Township inservices and at the Illinois Science Teacher Association, Northern Illinois Science Educators, and Illinois Science Educators conferences. Both serve on their district NGSS Leadership Team, which was showcased in the district newsletter for NGSS implementation. Gormley serves as Science Department Chair for his district, and Boland is very active on Twitter, sharing resources and moderating NGSS science teacher accounts (@MsBoland_SD735).

This article was featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to access other articles from the September issue on assessing three-dimensional learning. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.


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7 Responses to The Engineering Design Process: A Middle School Approach

  1. Therese Valente says:

    This project is something I would like to try. We are currently building Project-based learning units to coincide with the Massachusetts SciTech standards. Do you have a rubric you would be willing to share with us?
    Thank for for your hard work and for sharing this idea.

  2. ANNETTE m LEE says:

    Awesome! We built egg cars last year while exploring Newton’s Laws too. There is even a cute app game about egg carts. Kids loved the hands on building as apposed to tech all the time!

  3. Kevin Anderson says:

    Like use of the “scientific method,” I worry that this diagram/template for an engineering design cycle perpetuates misconceptions about engineering. I don’t see it as a sequential process of steps but instead contains a multitude of sub-iterations that naturally come up. While I understand the use of it as an organizational tool, is there a way it might be used or discussed to be more authentic to actual engineering processes?

  4. Diane Pflug says:

    Could you share the template you created that students fill out as they work through their EDP Prokect?

  5. Debby Nelson says:

    Your article made me think about how I might switch things around in one of my current units to make it more problem based. Thank you!
    I am interested in knowing more about your human impact unit if you are willing to share anything you used. If you haven’t taught the unit yet this year, maybe we could facilitate collaboration between our classes?

  6. Connekt LLC says:

    Found your blog. Its really nice on engineering design company. I appreciate your article. Its important to get quality information on engineering designing. So thanks for sharing all that important information.

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