Experiment: Engineering Design Process

by STEM Scouts

By Michael Bouvier, Capitol Area Council Intern

Supplies Needed:

Download the Lab Guide


Engineering is becoming an increasingly larger and important career field. Yet, many young students don’t have a solid understanding of what the process or products of engineering are. Engineering Design Method is great way to solve problems, something that arguably should be taught alongside the scientific method. In this exploration, students will build paper helicopters as they learn one of the crucial tools used by engineers. This lesson provides a good structure to gain a better understanding of solution-oriented problem-solving and the reframing of problems not as a failure, but an opportunity for improvement.

Parents and teachers, if space allows, you can make 3 different areas that symbolize the different stages of the design process. Have the students, “think” of what changes to make to their paper helicopter, “do” those changes, then “test” how those changes effected the design. Continue this rotation until your little engineer is satisfied with their design.  You will need to print out paper helicopter templates. Set up your own design challenge before beginning the process. You can set different goals to try and meet (i.e. fall speed, accuracy, etc.). Kids may also have fun decorating/personalizing their paper helicopters beyond the mechanical aspects, so it may be a good idea to have some markers, crayons, or colored pencil to add a unique flair.

Common Preconceptions:

  • Engineering is all math/engineering is uncreative
    • This experiment should give students an opportunity to flex their creative muscles and improve their designs in any way they think might work
  • A problem equals failure
    • Problems are an expected part of the design process. Without problems, engineers wouldn’t be able to improve their designs!
  • You only need to do something once and it’s done
    • Iteration is key to making something the best it can be.

Parent Guide:

  1. What are the two forces that affect the paper helicopter during its flight?
    • The two forces that affect the paper helicopter during its flight are gravity and air resistance. Gravity drags the helicopter down towards the ground. Adding paper clips will add weight to the bottom of the helicopter and can help increase the speed. Air resistance is when the paper helicopter encounters the mass of the air and is slowed down. The paper helicopter’s trademark spin is a result of air resistance working on the rotors.
  2. Does a paper helicopter fall faster or slower if it spins more during flight? Why or why not?
    • The paper helicopter will fall slower with more spins during its flight. Air resistance opposes the downward force of gravity. With more air resistance, you can increase the airtime. A faster spin will cause the rotors to run into more air at a faster pace than if it fell slower, letting the copter catch more resistance and slowing its fall. It may sound backward, but adding some more weight will help this, as the extra paper clip or two will cause the paper helicopter to run into more air quickly.
  3. What do engineers do, and how do they affect everyday life?
    • They apply scientific knowledge and technology to design and build things that solve problems.  Engineers can be found in a variety of different fields, from mechanical, electrical, chemical, computer, biomedical, and many more.
  4. Why is the design process important for engineers?
    • The engineering design process is a tool for engineers to use to solve problems. It involves “thinking” a solution, “doing” or building a solution, “testing” the solution in a controlled environment. After the test, you can improve the original design. Using engineering design process ensures a good end-result. You wouldn’t want to drive across a bridge that had only been tested once!
  5. Explain what you would do at the Think stage after you’ve tested your design.
    • After the first Test stage, it’s time to look at the problems or issues that came up during the test. Use the data you’ve gathered to determine what design change to make. Is the paper helicopter falling fast enough? Too fast? Is it going off in one direction and you want it to fall straight? The think stage gives you a chance to think of new ways to solve the problem or ways to modify your design to make it better.  

 Next-Gen Science Requirements:

K-PS2-2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
K-PS2-1 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
3-PS2-1 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

Scouting Requirements:

Webelos – Engineer (2)
Wolf – Air of Wolf (1c)

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