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!

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.