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:

Khan Academy offers a more advanced video on the Engineering 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.

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Editor’s note: This post is different from our regular fare. Our organization provides technical training for software developers. But we’re also employees with families, grappling with back-to-school uncertainty. We invited an education coach to share some tips with our staff on how to navigate the learn-from-home and hybrid school formats that many of our kids will experience in the coming days and weeks. We thought you might like this information, too.

An employee’s guide to navigating Round 2 of home learning

For many families, last semester was an educational disaster.

Five months ago, when everyone came home to shelter from COVID-19, parents established home offices in spare bedrooms, kitchens and even closets. Schools hastily moved to a virtual format. Full-time employees started moonlighting as homeschool teachers—by necessity, not choice.

Quarantine School during COVID-19 was an emergency stop gap that didn’t work well for students, teachers or parents. A common sentiment: “I wasn’t cut out to be an elementary/middle/high school teacher.”

Trying to maintain a balance between the kids’ educational and emotional needs and the parents’  professional productivity led to conflicted emotions. “Should I be putting my kids or my work first? How do I make sure I teach them while still keeping my job? Are my children going to have the education they need and deserve?”

Last spring, parents, kids and teachers were in crisis mode. They struggled to create workable arrangements. Now that we’ve had a few months to adjust to the realities of COVID-19, we have the opportunity to start the school year with better structure. With some forethought and planning, parents can work productively, while also participating in their children’s home-based education. And everyone can stay sane.

Here are 9 tips for a navigating learn-from-home school during COVID-19:
1) Ease into a school year sleep schedule before school starts.

Kids will be in a better frame of mind for learning if the first day of school isn’t also the first day in three months that they’ve had to go to bed on time and get up early.

2) Take your family’s pulse.

What is each person excited about? What concerns do you and your kids have about school during COVID-19? Take this information into account for #3, #6  and #9 below.

3) Decide and communicate a family routine.

You have two competing goals: To work a full day, contributing meaningfully to your employer…and to ensure you are meeting your child’s social, emotional, physical and educational needs.

In a school setting, students work on a subject for a certain amount of time and then they move or change gears and subjects. That’s particularly true for the youngest students. It is not reasonable to put a first grader in front of a screen for several hours straight.

In a classroom, teachers divide subjects into 20- to 30-minute segments. Between each segment, kids get up to gather books or move to a different part of the classroom. Even high school students move, changing classrooms and subjects every 50 minutes. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends that younger children get up every 20 minutes for a 10-minute physical break. Place these physical breaks into the schedule. Every 90 minutes, send kids outside for 20 to 30 minutes. Or, if that’s not possible, build in an equivalent amount of indoor, unstructured, no-screen play time.

Set up a schedule that allows an age-appropriate number of check-ins and times for movement with your student throughout the school day. Build in specific snack and meal times. A consistent routine will allow parents to schedule important meetings during school “work times” and be available during scheduled breaks. Consistency is key.

Every teacher has a well-thought-out routine and schedule, which helps students know what to expect and what to do. School-at-home should be no different. Post the schedule so that everyone knows it.

4) Set expectations around behavior and interruptions.

Make sure your kids understand the routine and when you will check in with them. The kids agree to no whining and complaining. You agree to adhere to the schedule so your children know what to expect and know they can trust you to deliver. Your arrangement will quickly fall apart if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain.

Have consequences, such as a chore, pre-planned for whining or a lack of diligence. Conversely, reward positive attitude and effort. For example, put a marble in a jar for good behavior, and then provide a special treat after they accumulate a specified number of marbles. For pre-K through 2nd grade, consider a treasure box filled with inexpensive toys. Make sure to find something to reward your child with daily.

If a child becomes stuck, can’t move forward with schoolwork, and knows that it’s not time for your help, you need a Plan B. Establish a list of activities they can do while waiting for you. For example, keep a box of books at their reading level handy. Assemble an activity kit with math facts flashcards, a handwriting practice worksheet and a puzzle.

5) Find creative ways to share responsibilities.

Not everyone has the luxury of a full-time nanny to help with school during COVID-19. One couple with preschool children parented in two-hour shifts. From 8 to 10 am, dad took the kids outdoors for exercise and art projects while mom focused on work. From 10 to noon, mom did read-alouds and team cooking projects while dad had Zoom calls. They traded off like this from sunrise to bedtimeeach working full-time, while collectively meeting their kids’ needs.

Some families are combining forces with neighbors, enabling longer blocks of work time in exchange for engaging a group of children for a set period each week. Invite grandparents to help by having a scheduled daily Zoom call to do reading time or math facts practice. Be creative.

6) Make the first day of school fun.

Even though many children will be learning from home this year, you can still celebrate with special snacks, new school supplies and start-of-school photographs. Make it a day to look forward to.

7) Plan meals to save your sanity.

On the weekend, take the time to plan out a menu and buy the ingredients you need for the full week. Create self-service options, such as yogurt with toppings, pre-made sandwiches and breakfast burritos, and fresh fruit and veggies (washed and cut). List the available options for snacks and easy meals on your posted family routine. Make liberal use of your crockpot, so meals can simmer while you are working. Invite younger children to help you read recipes and measure ingredients. These activities build their literacy and math skills. Assign teens to be responsible for preparing specific meals each week.

8) Leverage supplemental resources, especially for STEM topics.

Today’s curriculum often includes information or methods that differ from what we learned as kids. If you are bamboozled by the “Lattice Method,” for example, help is available. Check out the resources below and bookmark the ones that resonate:

  • Learn for free about math, art, computer programming, economics, physics, chemistry, medicine, finance and more. If you need a quick brush-up on a math concept, Khan Academy has almost every topic at your fingertips.
  • Check out the Crash Course and Crash Course Kids YouTube Channels for fun, engaging videos on everything from science and engineering process to history and literature.
  • Find great math games and activities. The free content has ads, so some users prefer the paid membership. It’s an engaging way to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
  • Explore extra vocabulary, and practice spelling and reading (requires a paid membership).
  • Learn how to code with this free, project-based computer science site.
9) Check in with your family every day.

The evershifting COVID-19 landscape has been challenging for people of all ages. Many children miss seeing their friends regularly. They may feel sad or anxious but not know how to express their emotions in words. Our family has ‘favorite and least favorite moments of the day’ check-in at dinner. These help us know what to adjust in our family routine and can help in gauging each individual’s needs on a day-to-day basis. If your child is regularly struggling in a subject area, reach out for help from a teacher or guidance counselor.


DevelopIntelligence thanks guest author Dawn Hudson for this post. 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.

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