Students’ capabilities as problem solvers builds on their experiences in K–2, where they learned that situations people wish to change can be defined as problems than can be solved or goals that can be achieved through engineering design. With increased maturity students in third through fifth grade are able to engage in engineering in ways that are both more systematic and creative. As in earlier and later grades, engineering design can be thought of as three phases. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the lively process of design does not necessarily follow in that order, as students might think of a new solution during the testing phase, or even re-define the problem to better meet the original need. Nonetheless, they should develop their capabilities in all three phases of the engineering design process.
Defining the problem in this grade range involves the additional step of specifying criteria and constraints. Criteria are requirements for a successful solution and usually specify the function that a design is expected to perform and qualities that would make it possible to choose one design over another. Constraints are the limitations that must be taken into account when creating the designed solution. In the classroom constraints are often the materials that are available and the amount of time students have to work.
Developing possible solutions at this level involves the discipline of generating several alternative solutions and comparing them systematically to see which best meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (This is a combination of phases two and three from the K–2 level.)
Improving designs involves building and testing models or prototypes using controlled experiments or "fair tests" in which only one variable is changed from trial to trial while all other variables are kept the same. This is the same practice as in science inquiry, except the goal is to achieve the best possible design rather than to answer a question about the natural world. Another means for improving designs is to build a structure and subject it to tests until it fails; noting where the failure occurs and then redesigning the structure so that it is stronger. The broader message is that "failure" is an essential and even desirable part of the design process, as it points the way to better solutions.
Connections with the other science disciplines help students develop these capabilities in various contexts. For example, in third grade students integrate their understanding of science into design challenges, including magnetic forces (3-PS2-4), the needs of organisms (3-LS4-3), and the impacts of severe weather (3-ESS3-1). In fourth grade students generate and compare multiple solutions to problems related to conversion of energy from one form to another (4-PS3-4), communication (4-PS4-3), reducing the effects of weathering and erosion (4-ESS2-1), and geologic hazards (4-ESS3-2). In fifth grade students design solutions to environmental problems (5-ESS2-1).
By the end of fifth grade students should be able to achieve all three performance expectations (3-5-ETS1-1, 3-5-ETS1-2, and 3-5-ETS1-3) related to a single problem in order to understand the interrelated processes of engineering design. These include defining a problem by specifying criteria and constraints, developing and comparing multiple solutions, and conducting controlled experiments to test alternative solutions.
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