Designing Engineering Projects That Teach Science Concepts by Cory Culbertson

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the engineering projects in my courses. On the surface, they don’t seem like something I need to worry about. My students love these projects and talk about them all year. My administration likes the student-centered activities and the final products that students can showcase. I look forward to these projects as well. So why am I trying to fix what is already working?

My motivation is that when I consider what seems to be “working” in an engineering project, I often see a lot of student engagement and some good engineering practices, but the science content is hard to find. I know many other teachers have also noticed this shortcoming in engineering projects: There are some science connections to introduce the project, and there might be time to review some concepts at the end, but in the middle of most engineering projects, there is embarrassingly little student contact with science DCIs. Or as a colleague recently said with a sigh, “Now we have three days of messing around with cardboard and hot glue.”

So over the past few years, I’ve been on a mission to ensure that my students will strengthen their understanding of science concepts through their engineering projects, not just before and after them. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned, along with an example of how revising one particular project improved science learning for my students.

Lessons Learned

  1. Start with the science ideas, then find a project that fits. It’s tempting to start by finding an appealing engineering activity, then making a place for it in the curriculum. But that leads to tenuous connections between the science and the engineering. Focus on the science first, then choose a project that creates a need for students to develop and apply the science to meet the project criteria.
  2. Provide structure for the design process. Students who are given a lot of unstructured project time tend to use trial-and-error methods to make progress. (Or they find other ways to occupy their time!) One technique that has been very effective is to review a written design proposal prepared by students before they do any hands-on building. In the design proposal, students document how they plan to build their design and justify their proposed solution with research data, science reasoning, and/or calculations. The design proposal is a natural way to guide students through applying science DCIs and SEPs, and it makes for an excellent assessment point early in the project.
  3. Limit the scope of the engineering challenge. Even a modest-sized engineering project has so many choices students can make. I want them to focus on the design decisions that connect directly with the science ideas. By providing procedures and materials for some of the more peripheral design problems, I free my students to focus on the engineering problems that are more instructionally productive.

Designing My Engineering Project for the NGSS

A few years ago, I sadly realized that the engineering project that had been part of my electricity unit for years simply wasn’t doing much for the overall goals of the course. This project involved students designing and building a model electrical system with series and parallel circuits. While the project was polished and popular with students, they spent most of their time running wires and fixing loose connections. I wanted them to be learning some science.

Instead of trying to patch up this project, I went back to square one, considering what science ideas I really wanted my students to learn. This unit included electricity and circuits, but the core science ideas from the NGSS are really elements of PS3.A, B, and D (see table below). It was time for brainstorming: Was there an engineering application that relied on understanding how energy is conserved as it is converted to and from different forms?

Among other possibilities, what came to mind was the rooftop solar system that some colleagues had recently installed. They had made careful calculations to match energy flows into and out of the system, and even installed a nifty display that tracked watts moving through the system in real time. A solar energy project also has connections to the ideas from ETS1.A about addressing global and local resource needs. There was some good engineering and science in this, and my students could do it, too.

Disciplinary Core Idea HS-PS3 Energy and HS-ETS1 Engineering Design

Component Ideas Element
PS3.A: Definitions of Energy
  • Energy is a quantitative property of a system that depends on the motion and interactions of matter and radiation within that system. That there is a single quantity called energy is due to the fact that a system’s total energy is conserved, even as, within the system, energy is continually transferred from one object to another and between its various possible forms.
PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
  • Conservation of energy means that the total change of energy in any system is always equal to the total energy transferred into or out of the system.
  • Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be transported from one place to another and transferred between systems.
  • Mathematical expressions, which quantify how the stored energy in a system depends on its configuration (e.g. relative positions of charged particles, compression of a spring) and how kinetic energy depends on mass and speed, allow the concept of conservation of energy to be used to predict and describe system behavior.
  • The availability of energy limits what can occur in any system.
PS3.D Energy in Chemical Processes
  • Although energy cannot be destroyed, it can be converted to less useful forms—for example, to thermal energy in the surrounding environment.
ETS1.A
  • Humanity faces major global challenges today, such as the need for supplies of clean water and food or for energy sources that minimize pollution, which can be addressed through engineering. These global challenges also may have manifestations in local communities.

As a concept for the project began to solidify in my mind, I thought about how to structure the engineering design process for my students. The engineering challenge would be to design and build a system that converts sunlight to electricity, stores the energy in a rechargeable battery, and powers electrical loads. Students would be modeling the energy transfers within the system and predicting the level of charge in the battery, which is an element of the SEP Developing and Using Models—Develop and use a model based on evidence to illustrate and predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system. The science and engineering core ideas working in tandem would allow students to design a system that was guaranteed to supply enough energy for the required uses, not unlike the tasks of a professional solar engineer.  

The design proposal that students would submit to me could also mimic a real-life proposal for a rooftop solar system, complete with the calculations needed to show the system would function as intended. After I approved their proposals, students would build the system and measure energy flows to see if they matched their predictions.

The first time I tried out this new project, I learned a big lesson about giving students too many design choices. Students had almost complete freedom in their choice of batteries, voltages, loads, and wiring layout. They spent so much time choosing and connecting components that we ran out of time to do the data collection that was so critical to the project. Oops!

When we do this project now, each student group receives the same basic components to work with. I also give students instructions for connecting some components together so they can focus on designing the core parts of the system. This change alone has restored several class days and time to collect the data needed for the mathematical analysis of energy flows.

Revising this project has been time well spent. Students are developing understanding of engineering and science ideas in the same amount of class time as I devoted to the old circuit project. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s working. I’m already thinking about what I want to do differently this year…

I love sharing project ideas with other teachers. Do you have an engineering project that does a great job connecting to the science “big” ideas? Do you have one that you wish did so?

Cory Culbertson teaches engineering technology at University High School, part of the Laboratory Schools of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. He co-authored the book Engineering in the Life Sciences from NSTA Press. His work has also included curriculum writing, editing, and presenting professional development for Project Infuse, the National Center for Engineering and Technology Education, and Project ProBase. Culbertson was an Educator-at-Sea aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus in 2011 and 2012. Before becoming an educator, he worked as a test engineer for a large manufacturing company. Culbertson earned a bachelor’s of science in engineering degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and a master of science in technology education from Illinois State University.

Note: This article is featured in the August 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 sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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