As someone who teaches engineering design to college students and K-12 teachers, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a design project an "engineering design" project. This has been on my mind this past year as I have been asked many times to advise schools, museums, and other educational organizations on their curricula for teaching engineering to kids.
"Design" is a word that is thrown around a lot these days in discussions of education, particularly as it concerns engineering. As a professor who teaches at least three classes with the word "design" in the title, and once taught at a college with "Design" in its name, I'm thrilled to hear these conversations. However, I think we have to think long and hard about what our goal is. "Design" is not unique to engineering. Many fields can claim design as a critical part of what they do. Industrial design, interior design, graphic design, interaction design, cooking, fashion design, architecture, etc. all involve design.
The general steps that I've seen listed for engineering design processes (roughly: understand the problem, do research, come up with solutions, compare your solutions, select an approach, build a prototype, refine your prototype) are pretty general. This is the process that is followed by almost anyone who creates anything, from a new type of cake to a new layout for a retail store. To me, it is the use of math and science that transforms this into the engineering design process.
I am always dissapointed when someone shows me an "Engineering Design Process," particularly one that they hand out to kids and teachers, that never used the words "analysis," "math" or "science." (I've seen more then one example of this.) When I point this out, I'm usually told that the important thing is creativity. Yes, engineers need creativity. Without creativity we would not have planes, computers, water purification systems, or EKG machines. That said, creativity alone is not enough. If you are going to build a bridge that my daughter will walk across, or a medical device that will go into my husband's body, you better be able to prove to me that it's safe and will do what you said it will do. That's where the engineering comes in. Using the laws of physics and the language of mathematics, an engineer can predict how a device will work and analyze what went wrong when a machine fails.
Engineering education at the pre-college level has many purposes, among them improving students' technological literacy and exposing them to a field they may want to pursue after high school. If you are teaching "engineering design" partly to better prepare students to study engineering in college, we can't ignore the numerous research studies that show that students who succeed in undergraduate engineering programs are tyically the ones best prepared in math and science. Thus, if you are using design projects to get kids excited about engineering, it is a bit misleading not to at least try to use these projects to see how math and science tie into the design process.I am not anti-creativity! Far from it. I'm the professor who advises her students to take a drawing class. I've taken my engineers to the circus for inspiration, and to a day care center to play with kids and dream up new toys. That said, I worry a bit when students tell me about "engineering" projects they've done that didn't involve at least some discussion of math and science. I had a conversation with a student once who was unhappy with an engineering class and said that s/he would prefer to "just build stuff." When I asked how one would know how to design a bridge without analysis, the reply was that you sort of "know" where the forces should be. (Upon reflection, s/he then admitted that this might be a bad idea.)
Perhaps creativity is the heart of engineering design, but math and science are the blood. We need to teach kids to embrace math and science as tools. Why not use engineering design projects with children to inspire kids to want to learn more about math and science? Once, when I pointed out to an educator that their "Engineering Design Process" never mentioned math or science, I was told that the reason was that s/he worked with little kids. I don't buy this as an excuse. Even toddlers have number sense and can be taught basic (and sometimes not-so-basic) science. You don't need to know calculus to "do math." Even involving counting in a design project establishes that numbers have something to do with building. Kids aren't inherently afraid of math and science. I challenge you to stick the words "math" and "science" onto your Engineering Design posters (if you have one) as a way to inspire students, even little ones, and remind them that using math and science we can learn to build even better things.
I can't end this without also mentioning that design doesn't need to be "engineering design" to be valuable. Many teachers have been teaching creative problem solving to their students. This is an incredibly valuable tool to have, regardless of the field you go into later in life. Letting kids design habitats for their pets or new clothes or new board games is incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. I don't want readers of this post to leave thinking that Engineering Design is the only thing we should teach our students. Rather, it is just one flavor of design. But this flavor has a recipe. Math and Science are to engineering design as chocolate is to Rocky Road ice cream- a necessary part.
I suspect many of you reading this think that I am getting a bit bogged down in semantics. However, it breaks my heart to see kids who get to college excited about engineering, but utterly unprepared for the calculus and physics classes that they will need to take. There's got to be a way to get them not only excited about making, but also about learning the analytical tools that will help them succeed as engineers.