Teaching the Engineering Process to kids

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image of a young Asian girl with a hard hat standing in front of a doodle of to express teaching the engineering process to kids

Editor’s note: We don’t typically write about teaching the Engineering Process to kids. Our organization provides technical training for (adult) software developers. But a few weeks ago, we invited an education coach to share some tips with our staff on how to help children with the back-to-school transition amidst COVID-19. We got such great feedback that we asked her to share some more ideas with us. Enjoy.


If you’re an engineer (or work with one), have you considered the benefits of teaching the Engineering Process to kids?

For many families, school is now in full swing, along with the occasional exclamations…

“I can’t do this.”

“Ugh. I will never understand.”

“I can’t believe I missed that problem.”

Both students and parents want school to go smoothly, but what does that mean? Getting homework right the first time so you can move on to the next activity? Unfortunately, that’s not the way learning (or life) works.

Redefining success

Whenever a student says “I can’t do it” at a Robotics Team meeting, one of our mentors replies, “YET! I can’t do it YET.” And when something fails spectacularly, she cheers loudly. Then she says, “What did you learn and what can you do differently next time?” Her point? Creating a robot is a process, not a one-and-done activity.

Teaching the Engineering Process to kids can help students embrace failure as a necessary part of learning and growth. Here are the basic steps:

  • ASK – Define the problem
  • PLAN – Identify constraints on your solution and criteria for success
  • IMAGINE – Brainstorm multiple ways of solving the problem
  • Select the most promising solution
  • CREATE – Prototype your solution
  • Test and evaluate
  • IMPROVE – Iterate to make your solution better
  • Communicate your solution

For the youngest kids, just focus on the concepts in capitals.

How this works at your kitchen table

You can apply these steps as you help students with online learning. Here are two examples:


ASK – “Oh, you missed the spelling word? That’s okay. What’s the problem?”

Student – “I missed 5 words.”

PLAN – “How would you define success?”

Student – “Getting them right.”

IMAGINE – “How would you make sure you got them right the next time?”

Student – “I could write each one of them five times. Maybe I could practice writing them on the driveway with chalk?”

CREATE – “I think you should try that and let’s see if that works.”

IMPROVE – Check back with the student to find out how the chalk idea worked. If the spelling improved, celebrate. If the spelling didn’t improve, also celebrate. In this case, you’d be acknowledging the effort and what the student learned from the experience. Then, you’d loop back to ASK, “In your opinion, what else can you do to make this work better for you?”


ASK – “I see you’re struggling with word problems. What part of the problem are you struggling with?”

Student – “I just don’t understand what they are asking.”

PLAN – “What are the steps involved in solving a word problem?”

Student – “I don’t know.”

IMAGINE – “Is there a resource you could use to help you tackle the steps involved in word problems?”

Student – “Maybe Khan Academy? Or I could ask a teacher? My teacher did say that drawing a picture of the problem might help.”

CREATE – “Great, I think you should try one of those. Which one will you try first?”

Student – “I am going to try drawing the picture.”

IMPROVE – “Did drawing the picture help?”

Student – “It did on one but not the others.”

Parent – “Good job! That’s farther along than you were. What are you going to try next?”

Student – “I am going to watch a Khan Academy video.”

Parent – “That’s a good idea. I really appreciate your perseverance in this. No one gets everything right the first time, and I really like how you are continuing to solve the problem.”

Great resources for teaching the Engineering Process to kids

Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers is a spectacular way to start your youngest kids. Invite your student to memorize the fun poem on the Engineering Process. It includes pearls of wisdom such as, “Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.” (Andrea Beaty, Rosie Revere, Engineer).

Crash Course Kids has engaging, informative videos on the entire Engineering Process:  https://www.youtube.com/user/crashcoursekids

Khan Academy offers a more advanced video on the Engineering Process: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/49ers-steam/49ers-gridiron-eng/49ers-innovations-equipment/v/engineering-design-process

To reinforce these ideas, you can do engineering projects at home. Rosie Revere and other books have project ideas. Or, your family might enjoy David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Game.

Also, consider posting the Engineering Process on your refrigerator. The more kids see it, the more they internalize it.

Share how you use the Engineering Process in your job

Imagine working at a company that makes robots for snow removal and lawn mowing. When building a new product, it generally doesn’t work perfectly the first time. The company tests, then improves the trouble spots, then tests again, and so forth, until the robot works as intended.

And even after it goes to customers, a bug may become evident. We have to go back and fix it until we get it right.

Education is the same type of process. We can’t just teach the concept of verbs once and expect students to get it perfectly the first time. Very few children will get their first long division problem correct the first time. The Engineering Process gives kids the freedom to learn and grow…and fail. Reframing failure as an essential part of learning will expand your kids’ willingness to take intellectual risks and will also help them develop resilience and grit.


DevelopIntelligence thanks guest author Dawn Hudson for this piece.

Dawn is a homeschool coach and robotics trainer. She taught her kids from K through 12. Her oldest is now a Software Engineer for Zoom. Her twins are sophomores at University of Colorado—Boulder. One is studying Aerospace Engineering, and the other is majoring in Creative Technology and Design Engineering. Dawn is a customer support specialist and trainer for Left Hand Robotics. She serves on the Board of the Gear Alliance, a nonprofit committed to inspiring young people to pursue STEM careers through competitive robotics. She mentors a FIRST Robotics Competition team and numerous FIRST Lego League teams.

Photo credit: istock.com/graphicnoi