Exploring Engineering: Problem Solving

STEM standard Week 3: Engineering!

Typically, when we hear the word “engineer”, we think about building something, specifically a bridge or a building.  It is true that many engineers design structures, but in a broader sense, engineers solve problems – all types of problems! When they solve these problems, the end result might be a physical object like a new Xbox controller, or it might be something less tangible, like a strategy to maximize efficiency at a task.  Below is a lesson to demonstrate this point. Visit our FacebookPinterest, or Twitter for more examples!

Maximizing Efficiency

Grades: 4th -5th


  • Construction paper or copy paper
  • Scissors
  • Crayons / markers
  • Stickers
  • Envelopes
  • Envelope sealer (or sponge and water)
  • Fake postage stamps (a rubber stamper and ink) 
  • Timing device 

Overview:  Generally, we do things in a particular order because it makes sense.  In order to make this point, ask students to describe their morning or bedtime routine and explain why they do certain tasks before others.  One thing that engineers help people do every day is improve their efficiency, especially companies.  Today, we are going to work for a greeting card company and send out some birthday cards as efficiently as possible. 

Procedure:  Give students a list (names and addresses) of 5 people (this number can be flexible based on time limit) to send greeting cards to.  Run through the steps that must be completed for the card to be sent (example: fold a piece of paper in half to represent the greeting card, draw three balloons on the front, write “Happy Birthday XXX” on the inside, place it in the envelope, seal it, write the address and return address, stamp it, and place it in the "mailbox" -- a designated box in the room.)  

Set one timer and have all students start individually completing the task.  When they are done, they can record their time.  Then, put students into groups and challenge them to complete the task more efficiently (i.e. faster).  Give students some time to brainstorm and organize themselves before starting the clock again.  Compare results.  Allow them to modify their approach and test it one final time.  

Adapt:  For younger students, give them fewer steps to complete or make the steps easier (write the name, not the full address on the envelope).  For older students, use a lesson plan like “Considering Trade-offs and Maximizing Efficiency in a Fast Food Restaurant” which has actual efficiency data for students to analyze as they design a solution to improve efficiency at a fast food restaurant.  Lesson plan is available here.

Follow-up:  Have teams share their different strategies to model how creativity impacts solutions.  Ask students what was beneficial and what was challenging about working in groups instead of working alone.  Do engineers work in teams and communicate their ideas to others?  Did they use their planning time wisely and how did that impact the end result?  Ask students to think back and describe what the task was.  This is the time to introduce the concepts of constraints and criteria.  Ask them to describe the steps they took to solve the problem and introduce them to the engineering design process (model is below).