Integrate Engineering: A How To Guide For Science Teachers

So far we’ve discussed WHY you should integrate engineering and how NOT to integrate engineering… so what SHOULD you do?! I’ve compiled a few ideas to get you started!

First, let’s define what engineering IS. According to the National Research Council’s “A Framework for K-12 Science Education” — which the NGSS are based on — engineering means “any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems.” I know I have always thought of engineering in the sense of – let’s build something. While that is certainly a part of engineering, “engineering” encompasses a whole bunch more skills than just “building stuff.” So you can put that hard-hat wearing, steel-toed manufacturing man out of your head right now! Engineering is MORE than that.

Essentially, an engineering activity could be anything where students are working toward solving problems using a “systematic practice” — aka, not just blindly throwing things together but rather, approaching the task in a structured, focused way.

When you think of engineering in this way, it opens up TONS of opportunities for incorporating the engineering end of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). So let’s dive in!

1 – Integrate Engineering as Practices

You don’t have to engage students in the entire engineering design process to integrate engineering. You can incorporate different parts of the process or just the skills that are used in the process through the very same activities that students are doing to explore the science content. How could that work?

Example 1: Defining Problems

The SEPs expect students to define problems. This is not quite as simple as telling you there’s a problem, but that’s a start. Students must take that a step further in middle school and specify criteria and constraints. Criteria are the requirements that would make the solution a success, while constraints are the limits on the solution.

How to integrate engineering into your science curriculum.

In practice, you could see students doing this when discussing earthquake safety measures. The problem people want to solve is earthquake-proof homes.  Criteria might include that it (obviously) can remain standing through an earthquake.  Additional criteria could be that it has several floors, doors, and windows. Why? Because these are all things that people would likely want to have in their homes. Constraints could relate to aesthetics, the technology and materials available, and the cost. Engaging students in discussions like these is one way to integrate engineering practices into your daily classroom. Plus, this type of activity would not take very long at all.

Example 2: Optimize A Solution

Another engineering practice that students can engage in is optimizing solutions. To build this skill, students would examine existing solutions, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. “Existing solutions” can be pieces of technology, systems, or even processes. They would consider how each solution stands up to the criteria and constraints in a structured manner.  They might use an evaluation tool or matrix to do this. To take the activity a step further, students could actually test several different designs against a set of criteria. They may then consider and develop ways to improve the proposed solutions.

For more ways to integrate engineering practices into your classroom, be sure to tune in to the workshop on July 12! Subscribe to the email list here to receive a reminder.

2 – Emphasize the Engineering Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards really set you up to integrate engineering, even if you may never have planned on it. How? They directly incorporate those practices into the content standards. Both the Middle School Physical Science and Life Science standards contain PEs that directly assess engineering practices.

A quick list of middle school NGSS standards that focus on engineering practices.

The best way to address these standards (actually, ANY NGSS standard) is to examine the Evidence Statements. These can help you structure the assessment and guide your instructional sequence.

Example 1: MS-LS2-5
Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.*

In the past, I have met this standard during my ecology unit through an Invasive Species Project. While it is the capstone activity of the ecology curriculum, I interweave the issues and practices through all of the instructional sequences leading up to the project. So before we even dive into ecology, we do some current events work with the issue of invasive species.  We get out into the community and do some service learning (want to pull garlic mustard, anyone?). And we set the stage for discussions of ecosystems by talking about disruptions in ecosystems. Only then do we dive into learning about ecosystem organization, interactions in ecosystems, food chains and food webs, and the cycling of matter. We wrap up the entire learning sequence with this project.

You can learn more about the project in my blog post, Teaching With Invasive Species. The gist is that students research an invasive species and then design a community action plan to address the problem of its presence or spread. Looking at it, you may be surprised this qualifies as an “engineering project” because it does not always involve designing some sort of prototype or tech gadget. Some students design their plans based on education or altering human behavior, while others may design an actual device to remove or prevent the spread of the invader — or otherwise aid native species. If you think about it though, either approach is developing engineering skills. Students identify and define problems. They describe criteria and constraints — economic, social, or technological.  They brainstorm and create solutions. Then, they evaluate the solutions proposed in relation to the criteria and constraints identified. In that sense, even the groups that focused on education and human behavior were working those engineering muscles.

Teaching with invasive species creates a connection to the local environment AND engage students in real world problems!

That said, a more traditional approach to an engineering standard would be something like the Save Peter Penguin! activity.

Example 2: MS-PS3-3
Apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that either minimizes or maximizes thermal energy transfer.

In this project, students are tasked with building a home for a penguin ice cube that minimizes the transfer of thermal energy — and keeps Peter from melting. Before engaging in this project, students would undertake a unit that investigates thermal energy, temperature, the conservation of energy, energy transfer, and conductors and insulators. In order to fully align this project to the NGSS engineering practices, instruction and implementation should emphasize two things.  First, students should have a scientific rationale for design decisions and engaging students in a structured redesign process — not something added on “if there is time.” Evaluating and then redesigning solutions is a KEY part of the engineering process, and it should be a key part of the project as well.

3 – Connect With The Community

Lastly, you can integrate engineering into your curriculum by bringing your students into the community — from local to global. Locally, you can reach out to companies with a presence in your area and see if they offer any educational programs, field trip opportunities, or partnerships. In my hometown, there are a number of companies that love to pair with schools — from Eriez Magnetics to GE Transportation to BASF Corporation. You may even have some parents who work for companies like this that would be interested in making connections for you or even guest-speaking. The value here is that students can see the types of work and career options available to them if they pursue STEM fields.  Plus, these partnerships could lead to significant other opportunities for your classroom or district, in terms of programs and funding in the long run.

Beyond the corporate world, colleges and universities that offer engineering and technology majors may also have opportunities to work with their students or faculty. In Erie, Penn State Behrend offers engineering programming for preK through 12th grade students — both on-campus field trips and off-site school visits. Students get a taste of a college campus and get to work with real scientists and engineers in hands-on activities. You may be surprised what your local universities offer.  And if they don’t, you might be able to create your own opportunity by reaching out to faculty and staff. Don’t be shy! The worst they can say is no!

4 – Compete

On a more global scale, students can participate in national and international STEM competitions. My fifth grade students participated in Toshiba ExploraVision, where students research and design cutting edge technology to solve a real-world problem. A similar competition, eCybermission, asks students to work in teams to investigate and solve pressing international issues — from food security to energy resources to water quality.

Engage your students in engineering by participating in national and international competitions!

So What’s Next?

There are so many ways to integrate engineering into your classroom. You DON’T need to be an engineer yourself to succeed. Start with baby steps.  Incorporating engineering as practices. Then, work your way up to designing instruction to meet the engineering standards. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for advice, support, and learning opportunities. Whatever you do – just do SOMETHING. Give it a try – it’s what engineering is all about!


If you are looking for support in incorporating the NGSS into your classroom, I’d love to have you join the community, NGSS for Middle and High School Science Teachers.

Teaching Engineering: What NOT To Do

Someone once told me that the things you dislike most about other people are actually the things you dislike most in yourself.  I’m not a psychologist or anything (obvi), but I can say that from my own limited experience, I can see some truth in it. Some of my biggest “teacher pet peeves” are things that I have struggled with in the past, and one of those things? Teaching engineering.

If you’re familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards, you’re aware that the “Scientific Method” is a thing of the past and has been replaced by the concept of Science and Engineering Practices.  The key difference is that these practices don’t have to follow a linear progression — they can be incorporated at any stage of learning. While the “scientific method” was typically a one-and-done lab or project, the Science and Engineering Practices (henceforth SEPs) can – and should – be incorporated in some way into ALL of your lessons and activities. (If you aren’t sold on WHY, check out last week’s post!

What are the SEPs?

                         Teaching science and engineering practices should be a part of every class. Teaching engineering practices and science practices should be a part of every class.

Ok, so those are the SEPs, but that’s not what we are chatting about today. Today, we are looking at – basically – how NOT to teach the “engineering” part of the SEPs. By observing other teachers, administrators, curriculum creators, and so on and so forth, I’ve identified a few big “NO NO’s” when it comes to teaching engineering – and trust me, I did ALL of these things.  But just because you did them before doesn’t mean you should keep doing them, right? So stop. Stop them right now.

Three mistakes you might be making when teaching engineering - ok, actually, it's FOUR ways! This guide will tell you what NOT to do when it comes to engineering!

Way # 1 – NOT TEACHING Engineering

Ok, so this is actually like Way # 0 because it’s not actually a way at all… but a lot of teachers do this (again, myself included). I didn’t know how to teach engineering, I didn’t really like teaching engineering, and so I just didn’t. I ignored the engineering standards, I ignored the engineering SEPs, and I just skipped over all that. Oh, I had my excuses. “Engineering takes too much time.” “It’s too messy.” “It requires supplies I don’t have.” “It isn’t really a part of my curriculum.” (LIE!) But basically the gist was, “I don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to figure it out.”

Here’s the problem — your students are missing out.  YOU might not like teaching engineering. But THEY might like learning it. In fact they probably do.  And even more than that, your most difficult kids? Those are the ones who would probably LOVE an engineering activity, and they are the ones who need those positive experiences most. It has absolutely been my experience that the most “difficult kids” are the ones that excel at engineering challenges – they bring creativity, innovative thinking, determination, and enthusiasm, and their projects generally ROCK.

Way # 1 (The Real #1) – Using Engineering As A Filler

Been there, done that.  Engineering activities are always a filler, right? You need something to do before the classroom Halloween party or on that weird half day before Spring Break.  Engineering is perfect for that! Quick activity, fun and hands-on, and it keeps them busy and entertained on those days where you probably won’t get much work done anyway. Eeeeexcept that’s not showing our students what engineering is, why its valuable, and how it is completely intertwined with the study of science (and basically all other fields, too).

Engineering activities are fun, but they are more than that.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t incorporate engineering as a filler activity ever – I’m on board with you using it on those off-schedule days.  But that should not be the PRIMARY way you teach engineering. Or you’re going to find your students value it just as much as you do… (which is obviously not a lot).

Way # 2 Teaching Engineering As A Unit

I actually haven’t done this one, BUT I have fallen for the “Scientific Method Unit” early on in my career. And um, FAIL. Neither of those things should ever be a stand-alone unit.  When you do, you’re conveying to students that those things happen independent of all other things. That is simply NOT the case. I think this is why we have moved away from talking about the “scientific method” in favor of SEPs.  You’re not going to teach a whole unit on SEPs. You’re going to use them as they are intended, as PRACTICES that students PRACTICE throughout the year.

Engineering works the same way.  Engineering is not a unit in and of itself. The activities you engage your students on should not just stand alone with no context or reason.

I see this happen ALL THE TIME. I’ve gone to so many “engineering workshops” where students “build a parachute to hit a target.” Ok, great. Why?

Why? Why? WHY? WHY? WHY?!?

Why are we building parachutes? Why should I care? What’s the point?

Oh, and designing that parachute… I just use stuff? I just put things together? Is there a rhyme or reason to this activity? (Real Talk: There isn’t.)

And that’s NOT ENGINEERING! Engineers solve PROBLEMS – so if there’s not a problem, it’s just a fun craft.  And engineers use SCIENCE to solve PROBLEMS. So where’s the science?

When you present engineering as a stand-alone unit, you’re not tying it to the science that engineers use or the real-world problems that engineers are trying to solve.  You’re creating fun craft projects that maybe? will help students understand how the world works — but you haven’t set a real learning target there so who knows if you’ll hit it.

Way # 3 – Tack It On At The End

This is probably the most advanced way to fail at teaching engineering.  Teachers (again, like me!) who simply “tack it on at the end” have at least incorporated engineering, woven it into their curriculum, and connected it to actual content.  So for all that, I do say YAY! Kudos! You’re totally on the right track, and you’re probably way more advanced than most! You are engaging your students in engineering projects and giving them real-world problems to solve related to the content.  This is PROGRESS.

But how can you take it further? Well, right now, you’re squishing all of those SEPs into a culminating project without (theoretically) exposing students to the SEPs – and giving them time to practice them – throughout your unit.  You’re assessing the SEPs through the project without teaching them during the instruction. Uh oh!

Just like our science content, the SEPs must be directly taught if we are to expect students to learn them.  Obviously, they aren’t going to be the focus of EVERY activity. But we should be embedding activities into our curriculum that put the SEPs in the foreground, while allowing them a place in the background of other activities.


A Better Way: Teaching Engineering Throughout Your Unit

I just finished a unit for my middle school life science curriculum about biomes.  The core content of the unit is biomes, biotic and abiotic factors, and how organisms depend on abiotic factors for survival, growth, and reproduction.  The unit addresses the crosscutting concepts of cause and effect relationships and systems/system models.  It also incorporates the SEPs of analyzing and interpreting data and designing models.  Some of the activities in this unit focused on the content — learning about the biomes and figuring out what abiotic and biotic factors are.  These activities included some data — graphs that shows temperature and precipitation, maps of the biomes, etc.  But the focus of these activities was the content.

On the other hand, I also included activities where students analyzed data to understand the relationships between abiotic and biotic factors.  The focus here was on analyzing data, because – to be honest – I don’t care that students know that mosquitos grow faster when the temperature of their pond increases.  My goal was for students to be able to interpret the data and draw conclusions from it. Yes, I wanted them to come to that conclusion, because that showed that they appropriately demonstrated the practice… buuuuut the conclusion itself was not something I really cared that they remembered.  When it came time to assess their learning, the mosquito development and water temperature case study was just one of SEVERAL examples they could have used in their discussion of the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors.

See what I mean? I incorporated SEPs (analyzing data) into both activities, but it was clearly in the background of the first and in the foreground of the second.  In the same way, you can incorporate the engineering SEPs into your daily lessons so that students are building the skills well before they are asked to complete an entire engineering project.

So now what?

So now that we’ve figured out what NOT to do — what DO you do!? I’m going to dive deeper into this subject over the next few weeks to give you some practical tips, tricks, and resources to integrate engineering into your curriculum this year.

If you’d like to be notified of future blog posts, be sure to subscribe to the blog.  You can also follow me on Instagram to stay in touch!

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Engineering In Science: Why You Should Be Teaching It

Why you should be incorporating engineering standards and practices into your science classroom. For the science teachers amongst us (me!), engineering can be pretty intimidating.  There’s a very real possibility that your education did NOT prepare you to teach it. Yet if you’re following the Next Generation Science Standards, it’s your JOB to.  Engineering is woven into the NGSS across the board:

  • standing alone as Disciplinary Core Ideas,
  • represented in the Science and Engineering Practices,
  • popping up in a number of Performance Expectations,
  • and integrated into some of the Crosscutting Concepts.

You can’t align to the NGSS without addressing engineering.

But if that’s not enough to convince you to jump on the engineering bandwagon, here are THREE more reasons to get your butt in GEAR. (Does that count as an engineering joke?!)

1. engineering Engages students with Real-World Problems

Engineering activities are a great way to lend authenticity and urgency to your science content, because you can engage students in solving real-world problems. Even simply DEFINING the problems is an engineering practice that students can get into!

I firmly believe middle school students want to do things that matter. Both my own memories of middle school and my observations of my middle school students have proven this to me time and again.  Engagement skyrockets when middle school students have a real-world rationale to understand and apply, and engineering can be the vehicle through which you accomplish that.

Sure, learning about thermal transfer is great — but wouldn’t it be even more awesome if they had to use their understanding of thermal transfer to design a house for some over-heated penguins?

Science concepts are so much more engaging when students can apply them to solve real world problems — like learning about thermal transfer to design homes for over-heated penguins!


2. Engineering develops 21st Century Skills

I know we are all working really hard to move away from “drill and kill” methods of teaching, trying to pour content into empty receptacles (aka student brains) and hoping they can spit it back out when test day comes.  That’s what the NGSS is all about, right? Less content, bigger concepts, more depth, and more practices.  But even so, many of our classrooms still probably look pretty traditional.  We have students working at desks with pen and paper, reading and writing, some computer work, with the occasional presentation or project.  I get it. Not only is this how we were taught, but it’s also how most of our curriculums have been designed.  And on top of that, reading and writing is absolutely a critical skill our students must master.  No argument here.

But there are some other skills, too — like creativity, problem-solving, determination, and teamwork — that need to have a place in our classroom.  These skills are really just as vital, but they often don’t receive the focus they deserve.

Engineering develops ALL of those skills.  When you give students engineering challenges, they must think creatively to solve the problem.  They must work as a team.  They are bound to fail the first time around (especially if you throw in design changes, my favorite!), so they have to develop that grit and determination to keep on going and keep on trying.  In fact, engineering normalizes failure and can help develop the growth mindsets we all want our students to have! (For a free growth mindset poster set, be sure to access the Free Resource Library!)

The great thing about teaching these skills through engineering is you’re never sacrificing content for character. Students are learning and developing both simultaneously.

3. engineering is a lucrative career option

… that we aren’t preparing our students for.  Let’s be honest – engineers can make a lot of money.  They can make a lot of money with just FOUR years of post-secondary education.  I have a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and some post-Master’s credits… and I made a third of what some engineers with a four year degree are making coming out of college. When I worked at a private, school, some engineers made EIGHT TIMES what my annual salary was! WHAT!?!

I’m not saying that all of your students are going to – or should – be engineers. But by failing to expose our students to the field, we are failing to prepare them for a career they may be perfect for.  On top of that, engineering might just be the perfect field for that student who can’t get into the novel you’re teaching or the documentary you showed, the student who can’t follow the step-by-step instructions you printed for that lab today.  By exposing them to a different kind of “science,” you could be opening a door to their future.

Great! I’m on board… now what?

I’m going to dive deeper into this subject over the next few weeks. My goal is to give you some practical tips, tricks, and resources to integrate engineering into your curriculum this year.

If you’d like to be notified of future blog posts, be sure to subscribe to the blog.  You can also follow me on Instagram to stay in touch.

And if you’re interested in continuing this conversation – and participating in exclusive NGSS workshops – be sure to join our Facebook Community!

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