How we ran a 3 week engineering design experience for 7th graders

At Bullis Charter School we developed a full-time 3 week Engineering Design experience which I will detail on this post.

When it comes to making experiences, it’s hard to imagine a deeper and more rigorous one as offered by engineering. Authors and advocates of maker ed will say that it is about creating conditions for the development of personal and/or collective creative power. Engineering takes making a step further and pushes it into the arena of collective creative problem solving with a precise desired outcome. While in the arts it’s possible (some times? most of the time?) to work by yourself, write inefficient code or eyeball measurements for the sake of an aesthetic experience, in engineering design precision is the difference between a successful project and one that is almost there. This said, the educational requirement to focus on an end product that successfully solves an engineering problem is of course pedagogically questionable for open ended challenges with limited time constraints.


Generation of engineering design challenges

Maker educators will often speak about three levels of choice: 1) closed process & closed outcome (drive this bolt, this way only), 2) open process & closed outcome (build a chair just like this one, figure it out) and 3) completely open process and outcome (build whatever you want).

We learned that for a three week engineering design experience for 7th graders, level 2 was most appropriate. We tried level 3 our first year and it didn’t work so well. In an effort to offer some choice, the staff crowdsourced a list of problems on campus. Some problems for students were: deal with our lunch stealing crows, keep our computer cart cables from getting tangled, transport heavy archery targets from the shed across different terrains, or retrieve lost items from the narrow “no-man’s-land” in between our portable classrooms. After our staff suggested many ideas, we picked the most (5-6) interesting ones.


Sorting students into challenges by interest

We let a funny member of our staff write clever descriptions of each problem which she then pitched to the students. Before students had a chance to group with their friends, they picked their first two choices. Teachers with knowledge of student social dynamics then decided which students would into which challenge. Typically, most students got their first choice and a few got their second choice.


Week 1

On day 1 students were introduced to the Creativity and Innovation rubric (Buck Institute). We held a discussion of salient items and answered questions about it.

We then let students in challenges with too many students to self organize into groups of hopefully no more than three. We encouraged them to do this by presenting their skills and weaknesses to each other.

We then held two days of design thinking. They used a DT paper packet to go through the process.

On day 3, I introduced the students to a documentation template. The purpose of this template is to help students break down problems as they come along, plan accordingly, and reflect daily. I developed this template over several iterations and I believe it to be very helpful if not crucial for student success. One important effect of the template is that by assigning roles it helps students keep each other accountable.

For the remaining of the week students created a detailed design schematic and a bill of raw materials (see template). Students had a limited budget of about 70 dollars per project. I gave them as much feedback as possible in that short time because I would take the bill of raw materials and buy or order everything they asked for over the weekend and every penny counts.


Weeks 2 and 3

By Week 2, materials had been purchased and hard to find items trickled in. Students created prototypes to solve their challenges. Along the way, students received and were encouraged to ask for feedback (it’s an item in the rubric!). Prototyping took the longest amount of time, but we constantly encouraged them to ‘measure twice and cut once’ and to always think about how they were going to test their device.

Come week 3 students finished up (or not) their projects, created presentations and tested their devices. On the last day of the three weeks, students presented in front of their peers in a closed format, and to schoolmates and parents in gallery walk style.



An archery equipment cart.


Various iPad stand designs.


Various iPad stand designs.


A wrench holder.


A roller system for bag transport across tan bark.


Steve the scarecrow.