Inquiry Series: Using the Engineering Design Cycle As A Method Of Inquiry

The Engineering Design Cycle is the Method of Inquiry Used By Engineers.

This method of inquiry is specific to the domain of engineering and is used by engineers to create systems, engines, motors, machines, materials, structures, code and more. It’s also used in aviation. If you are creating something else, and that thing doesn’t require mathematical calculations to ensure integrity and safety, then it’s possible that Design Thinking is a better fit.

Phases in the Engineering Design Cycle:

There are five key phases to the engineering design cycle. They are outlined in the Engineering Design infographic. As one of my friends, who is an engineer, said, “this [the Engineering Design Cycle] can be used to engineer anything - from a nut, or a bolt, to a semi truck.”

Phase 1: Ask

In the first phase, engineers begin by outlining that which is unresolved. In the case of engineers, this would typically be a need for something. They determine what problems occurring around this need and what constraints are they working under. Constraints could include time, materials, budget, existing technology, size, code and more. Remember, constraints aren’t necessarily seen as bad, or negative in the realm of engineering, art, design, etc. Rather, constraints just exist, and clarifying them, helps us produce a framework in which to achieve any given resolution.

Phase 2: Imagine

Now that we have a framework, we can imagine a wide variety of possible ideas to pursue.

Phase 3: Plan

Get started with the best ideas by developing a clear plan. This could include creating sketches, blueprints and possibly procedures. It also includes determining the necessary materials, tools, machines, people and space to engineer a prototype and then a first article.

Phase 4: Create

The emphasis in engineering is to fail fast and fail early. This means, the faster they can get a prototype the better. This is because a prototype can provide better insight into what works, and what doesn’t work, so that it can be fixed, faster. Often there are multiple prototypes, each requiring engineers to step into the fifth phase to determine how to improve and then possibly into to the earlier phases to ask, imagine and plan accordingly. When they arrive at their first working prototype - that’s a first article. And that too can be improved.

Phase 5: Improve

The emphasis in this phase is to analyze both successes and failures to determine how to improve that which is being engineered.

Problem solving is an important facet for developing learners who are empowered with 21st century skills and we can think about technical engineering design challenges as a "problem" to be solved.

So how could I use the engineering design cycle to guide inquiry in my classroom? Here are a few project ideas that could lend themselves to this method of inquiry:

1. Engineering Design Challenges - These can be done at all grade levels and are tons of fun. Here are a few ideas:

Be sure to download the free Engineering Design Notebook that accompanies this article.