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Ask EiE: Can I Omit the Improve Step?

Posted by Cynthia Berger on Thursday, March 3, 2016

Q: When my students work on an engineering design challenge, do they HAVE to do the "Improve" step? It takes extra time, and I feel like they've already learned what they need to know from their first designs.

A: Please don't skip the "Improve" step! That's when crucial learning happens.

EiE's Engineering Design Process diagram
Please don't skip the "Improve" step!

We developed an age-appropriate five-step Engineering Design Process for the Engineering is Elementary curriculum, and the fifth step, "Improve," is a critical one. It helps students to strengthen important engineering habits of mind—notably these:

Envisioning Multiple Solutions

Sometimes a team of students will design a windmill or a bridge that meets the design criteria on the first try. Even so, as they work through the "Improve" step, the practice of thinking about alternate solutions to the design challenge exercises their creativity. Don't shortchange your students of the opportunity to flex and grow this skill.

Making Evidence-Based Decisions

Even if this wall stands up to the first round of testing, ask, "How can we improve the mortar?"

Before students start their design work—for example, insulating a solar oven or making mortar for a stone wall—they systematically test the materials they will use, collecting valuable evidence that informs their design decisions. Then, when they build and test the oven or wall, this second round of testing also provides valuable evidence. Make sure you give them a chance to analyze all their evidence and apply what they've learned through the "Improve" step.

Learning from Failure

One thing we've noticed in thousands of hours of classroom observations is that kids who engineer develop a positive attitude toward failure. When a tower collapses or a hand pollinator doesn't transfer enough pollen to the model flower, they're not discouraged—they're optimistic as they proceed to the "Improve" step! Watch this Video Snippet (Interview: Fostering Persistence) to hear one teacher's observations on how the "Improve" step develops this engineering habit of mind.

Seeing Themselves as Engineers

This video shows how authentic engineering experiences help kids self-identify as engineers.
Full-screen version here.

For working engineers, improving a design is a routine part of the engineering design process. Following an authentic engineering design process—one that includes an "Improve" step—helps students see themselves as engineers. And that's a really important step in the progression from childhood interest and aptitude to a career and lifelong passion.

Do you have a question for EiE? Let us know. If we use your question on the blog, we'll thank you with the EiE Teacher Guide of your choice.

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Engineering is Elementary is a project of the National Center for Technological Literacy® at the Museum of Science, Boston.

Written by Cynthia Berger

Topics: EiE Teaching Tips

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