Makerspace: Engineering Design Challenges

Engineering Design Challenges

Within the School District of Hillsborough County, the elementary Science Department has got it going in with ideas for how to incorporate STEM into your classroom instruction. Monday’s are early release days for students, therefore the curriculum is a bit condensed and seem like the perfect opportunity to do some making! It is a part of our curriculum guide to implement Long Term Investigations such as gardening, class pets, or other standard aligned tasks, such Inquiry- based instruction. Engineering design challenges, for me, are open-ended, real world inquiries that can be either student or teacher created. For example, recently a student of mine asked some great questions about the materials and size proportions of tools used to measure weather and if it can effect its accuracy. Boom! He just created the next engineering design challenge. Ask a question, choose variables to change for data collection, and provide a plethora of materials to choose from and you, my friend have an Engineering Design Challenge.

Of course there’s more to it than that, but the idea of Engineering Design Challenges for our Makerspace is to align our student’s “wonderings” to standard-based topics we are studying in class and reflect on the Engineering Design Process while completing the building permit. There are many Engineering Design Process models featured online that you can adopt, however this is our district’s example and one that is featured on every design challenge students will see beginning in Kindergarten!

The building permit is my own rendition of the district’s planning sheets. Our students are constantly constructing and creating, therefore they must abide by the laws and regulations of the Makerspace and its inspector (the teacher). If the students do not have evidence of the approved building permits… construction must be halted until they are recovered, or new permits are resubmitted. 🙂 Reenacting this real-world situation has been fun, but also fostered a sense of urgency for students to not only take pride in their planning and blueprinting, but it also sets the expectation that they must follow procedures before they can simply jump into constructing whatever they may have dreamt up.

building permit pic

Engineering Zone Challenge

The Engineering Zone Challenge is where the problem is introduced to students. The way you engage this piece is completely up to you. Perhaps you Skype in a subject matter expert to inform the students about the topic and challenge the students to design their own thing-a-mobob. Maybe you read aloud a news article which fascinated you and you challenge the students to think of their own innovative solutions to its problem. The possibilities are endless… however on the building permit, students need to restate the problem and any specifications to keep them focused on the task at hand.


I do not know about you, but when you begin posing a challenge to me my brain starts to go wild with creative solutions. I urgently have to sketch out the pictures in my brain before they dissolve into the abyss of forgotten ideas. When thinking creatively, all ideas should be a consideration. Allowing students the time to brainstorm and investigate through research or engage in questioning by their teacher or peers about their design is a critical part of the Engineering Design Process. Often times I have students who need extra paper to draw all of their crazy, wild, or out of this world ideas in order to process and choose the best parts from each sketch to include in their final blueprint.


When students think they’ve got their plan, I allow the students time to explore the Makerspace and all of the resources available to them. Because our Makerspace is open to the entire school (Pre-K through grade 5) our teachers must be cautious about the amount of materials being used- this is no different than the real world, most resources are limited! Therefore, students are typically allowed to choose up to five items. Items in the Makerspace are coded with a colored dot. Green dot items are highly consumable and easy to replace (cotton balls, Q-Tips, plastic bags), yellow dot items are consumable but perhaps not so easy to replace (buttons, duct tape, fabric), and red dot items are non-consumable and must be left in the makerspace when they’re done (LEGOS, tiles, robots). Students must consult with the Inspector and present the listed items and the prices to ensure they are staying within budget before gathering the materials.


When students have gathered their materials, they may begin drawing their detailed blueprint. Now, I know this order is a preference, but I allow students to gather materials and draw blueprints at the same time because I am a tactile person and need to feel and see the actual length of my materials to ensure that they are going to work properly before I begin measuring and translating them into a detailed blueprint. For our Engineering purposes, it works. Think of it as if the students were Engineers walking into a workshop or warehouse to gathering a few things to compare first before making a final decision, opposed to blueprinting and ordering materials sight unseen. Now, what if they change their mind… because that never happens, right? That’s ok! I am happy to let them restock the material, adjust their materials list, and get re-approved by the inspector. HOWEVER, they do not get a refund for the price to put back in their budget. If the student’s original plan called for two greens and one yellow out of five possible items, but the engineers decide to return one green dot item, fine! They still only have two items left in budget to “spend”- let’s call this consequence their restocking fee.

*Observation note: After a few times of this process their material decision making becomes surprisingly precise!

Collect Data

The data collected, as with any other investigation or experiment, varies depending on the challenge presented. I have conducted engineering design challenges where the students were asked to measure the temperature of their product after a specified amount of time. In contrast, I have also done many challenges that collect purely qualitative data- did it work, or not? Both are examples of how engineers in the real-world justify their solutions.

Reflect and Improve

Reflection is one of the most important steps of the Engineering Design Process, that is commonly left out. Our intentions may be good, but honestly, sometimes we just “run out of time”. When completing engineering design challenges, please allow the time for student’s to complete a self-assessment. Often times, my students and I may be working on an Engineering design challenge for months. Why? What does that prove? Well I believe in teaching our kiddos about the power of perseverance; do not just stop when your solution works, instead, reflecting and innovate to can make it even better!

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