Utilizing the engineering design process is a major part of any integrated STEM classroom. However, many teachers who are being asked to implement STEM classrooms or STEM activities do not have a background in engineering. Therefore, it is important to take a step back to examine what engineering is and how it can be effectively implemented within a classroom.
Engineering is the application of math and scientific knowledge to solve a problem. Engineers are professional problem solvers; the problem can be simple or complex and it can be in a variety of different fields. Engineers make our lives better by solving everyday problems. They identify a problem, come up with a solution, and often create something completely new in the process.
To quote Albert Einstein, “Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been.” Engineers and scientists both play very important roles in our society. Engineers apply science to create new products and solve new problems. As society evolves, it creates more and more new problems for engineers to solve. Scientists explore the natural world and discover new knowledge about it. Engineers use that knowledge to help solve practical problems. Because of the complexity of many of the problems that engineers face, they must work collaboratively to find solutions.
Collaborative problem-solving is something that many teachers strive for in their classroom. Additionally, teachers are looking to introduce more unstructured problems for students to solve. However, it is important to point out, that even though students are placed in groups, it does not mean they are collaborating. A study by Galton and Patrick (1990) showed that even though students were arranged in groups, there was not a lot of actual collaboration occurring among the students.
One way to foster effective collaboration among students is to utilize the “jigsaw” method (Aronson, 2008). With this method, students are asked to work on different parts of a complex problem in order to solve the problem. Not only does this closely resemble how real-world engineers engage problems, it also fosters collaboration among students.
An example of the jigsaw method can be found in the engineering levels of Robomatter’s robotics curriculum. Students are introduced to problem that needs to be solved via a Request for Proposal (RFP). The requirements for solving the problem are also located in the RFP. Once students have read and understand the RFP, they will begin trying to solve the problem by working through the engineering design process to build and program a robot that solves the problem described in the RFP. Throughout that process, students will apply the jigsaw method.
For example, students will begin working with the engineering design process by creating a sketch of their robot, writing pseudocode for the programming of their robots, and researching around the problem that was described in the RFP. Students will work individually or in pairs on these tasks, and then bring all of their work together, as a group, to share with their teacher. The teacher can then give the students feedback on their work and let the group know if they can move on to the next phase of the engineering design process, or if there is some work still to be done in the current phase.
It is one thing to ask students to collaborate, but it is another to utilize research-based practices to foster effective collaboration. This is a great example of why the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association has endorsed the engineering levels of Robomatter’s curriculum continuum through its Engineering by Design standard, the Engineering Endorsement Matrix.