Elementary Design Challengesby: Jonathan W. Gerlach

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How many of our students come to the classroom with little background knowledge about the world around them and how things work? To help students develop conceptual understanding and explore the design process, the author brought the NASA “Engineering Design Challenges” program to his school district, redeveloped for elementary students. In this article, he describes how his fifth-grade students emulated NASA aerospace engineers as they designed and built Styrofoam and paper clip planes.

  • Elementary
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Reviews (7)
  • on Mon Dec 10, 2018 12:01 PM

This is such a good resource. There are so many activities to do with children. I love all the STEM ideas and the design challenges that are available. Great content and standards to back up the activities as well.


  • on Sun Dec 10, 2017 11:49 AM

I think this is an awesome article and will definitely share it with my preservice teacher friends


  • on Wed Nov 30, 2016 11:02 PM

This article paints a clear picture, on how teachers can help students develop conceptual understanding and explore the design process. By implementing more real world hands-on activities that students can have more than one chance to be successful at a task. Affording students the opportunity to build interest and gain knowledge through engineering design challenges. I found this article very helpful and informative. Offering additional resources to give students more chances to be successful. Like the author, when my students struggle on a task, I try to help them think of a solution to their problem. Through critical thinking skills and discussing what worked and what did not work. Teachers could even use the design process chart as an anchor cheat or a part of their interactive notebooks. Affording students an opportunity to refer back to when needed.


  • on Fri Sep 16, 2011 12:00 PM

Students in elementary grades often learn while they model something. In this activity students embrace some challenges that NASA scientists might have experienced by designing and testing Styrofoam and paper airplanes. For teachers who are not familiar with the design process they learn that the steps include building, testing and making modifications to retest and rebuild the product. These are the elemental components of true engineering design. This is a good fun activity for both students and teachers.

Adah  (San Antonio, TX)
Adah (San Antonio, TX)

  • on Thu Sep 01, 2011 3:25 PM

In this article students engage in a hands-on challenge to design a paper airplane. The article details the introduction of the design process including planning, building, testing, and modifying their design. The lesson also includes content information about principles of lift, drag, thrust, and weight. Students will be truly engaged as they work through the design process.

Maureen Stover  (Seaside, CA)
Maureen Stover (Seaside, CA)

  • on Mon Nov 17, 2014 9:50 AM

This article makes a great point. Often students only get a chance to experience some activity once. They may go away thinking "I could change this....", etc. With engineering design challenges they get to try things over and over as they rethink their designs. The article describes an airplane design challenge. At the time of this review I found that the web links in the article no longer work.

Betty Paulsell  (Kansas City, MO)
Betty Paulsell (Kansas City, MO)

  • on Mon May 16, 2011 9:40 AM

This article shows how to use the design process with students to gain a better understanding of a concept. I like how the teacher included background information as part of the lesson so students could have more success with the challenge.

Kate  (Louisville, CO)
Kate (Louisville, CO)

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