Problem Solving by Design: Using the Engineering Design Process to Build Problem-Solving Skills for Fifth Graders and Methods Students

By Capobianco, Brenda M.; Tyrie, Nancy | Science and Children, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Problem Solving by Design: Using the Engineering Design Process to Build Problem-Solving Skills for Fifth Graders and Methods Students


Capobianco, Brenda M., Tyrie, Nancy, Science and Children


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Whether we are getting the cap off a bottle of pain relievers, popping bubble wrap, or watching biodegradable packing peanuts melt down the drain, packaging is a part of our lives in ways both noticed and ignored. Packaging became the impetus for a problem-solving lesson when a colleague needed to borrow plants for a fifth-grade life-science lesson. The plants needed to be carefully packaged to make the journey safely, so we tasked elementary education methods students with designing and constructing the packages. Both classes were exploring how to solve problems in science by using the engineering design process through various design challenges, so we began to collaborate. When the methods students mailed the plants to the elementary classroom, the recipient students acted as clients and evaluated the packages. Using what they were learning about designing and constructing a quality package, the fifth-grade students were challenged to design, construct, and mail their own packages back to the methods students.

In this article, we describe our interactive unit on problem solving through packaging engineering. Although our collaborative work centered on a unique school-university partnership, equally productive and effective partnerships could occur within and across elementary school science classrooms. Either way, both groups of students will benefit greatly from the interactions associated with this approach. Students were encouraged to identify a situation; generate a plan to meet their goals; design, construct, and test their ideas or possible solutions; and improve on and optimize their designs. We believe these skills complement the scientific inquiry skills that students use every day in the science classroom. By placing the problem in the context of a client having particular needs, the problem took on a real-world appeal that students found intriguing and inviting.

All About Packages

To prepare students for this unit on the engineering design process, teachers in both classrooms introduced students to the notion of packaging and the work that is involved in making a good package. The fifth-grade students used a curriculum module developed by the Boston Museum of Science's Engineering is Elementary (EiE) to investigate the functions, types, and designs of different packages. They discovered the relation between the needs of the product and the functions that must be considered in the package design (see Internet Resources). They identified specific functions (e.g., contain, preserve, display, communicate, dispense, and carry) of different packages (e.g., juice cartons, cereal boxes, and 2-liter bottles); explored science concepts by estimating, measuring, and comparing the mass, area, and volume of different packages; determined how the concepts interrelated with the design of the packages; examined in detail the design of everyday packages (e.g., food containers, school supplies, and health and beauty aids); and observed the relation between mass and force when heavier products were placed in lighter packages. Students learned that the mass is important, because the heavier a product, the greater the chance of damage to the product if the package were dropped.

Using a curriculum module from the Stuff That Works! series (see Internet Resources), the methods students investigated structures designed to hold something up or down, in or out, together or apart; how structures work in our homes (e.g., hinges of a CD case; handles of pots, pitchers, or cups; picture frames); how structures work in nature (e.g., beehives, nests, spiderwebs, beaver dams); and how structures work in our bodies (e.g., movable joints). Often, students think of structures as large things (e.g., bridges, buildings, or towers); however, there are many structures that are smaller and more convenient to study. Students were also given several design challenges, including building a model of a lifeguard chair for a community swimming pool; making a better candy bag; and improving the strength of grocery shopping bags using recycled materials. …

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