Nature of Science & Engineering
The Practice of Engineering

Engineers create, develop and manufacture machines, structures, processes and systems that impact society and may make humans more productive.

Benchmark: Impact of Engineered Systems

Identify a common engineered system and evaluate its impact on the daily life of humans.

For example: Refrigeration, cell phone or automobile.

Benchmark: Risks in Technologies

Recognize that there is no perfect design and that new technologies have consequences that may increase some risks and decrease others.

For example: Seat belts and airbags.

Benchmark: Trade-offs in Technologies

Describe the trade-offs in using manufactured products in terms of features, performance, durability and cost.

Benchmark: Learning from Failures

Explain the importance of learning from past failures, in order to inform future designs of similar products or systems.

For example: Space shuttle or bridge design.


Standard in Lay Terms 

MN Standard in Lay Terms

Engineers design technologies with the idea of making life easier, more productive, or more enjoyable.  It is important to recognize that these technologies are not without trade-offs.  They may meet their desired goals, but cost more, create pollution or safety risks.  Engineers try to learn from those short comings to design more "perfect" technologies.

Big Ideas and Essential Understandings 

Big Idea

Manufacturing -- is the use of machines, tools and labor to produce goods for use or sale. The term is most commonly applied to industrial production, in which raw materials are transformed into finished goods on a large scale.

Materials -- Parts that are used to make something else.

Design -- a plan for making an object or system.

Systems -- A set of interacting or interdependent system components forming an integrated whole.

Benchmark Cluster 

MN Standard Benchmarks  Identify a common engineered system and evaluate its impact on the daily life of humans.  Recognize that there is no perfect design and that new technologies have consequences  that may increase some risks and decrease others.  Describe the trade-offs in using manufactured products in terms of features, performance, durability, and cost.  Explain the importance of learning from past failures, in order to inform future designs of similar products or systems.

The Essentials

Space Shuttle Spinoffs:

In this document, NASA explains how scientific research on the space shuttle has led to technological advancements that impact our daily life.  The images and descriptions might be used as a precursor to the unit, introducing students to the impact that science has on technology and engineering.

Space Shuttle Spinoffs

  • NSES Standards:

Science and Technology, Content Standard E

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop


  • IDENTIFY APPROPRIATE PROBLEMS FOR TECHNOLOGICAL DESIGN.Students should develop their abilities by identifying a specified need, considering its various aspects, and talking to different potential users or beneficiaries. They should appreciate that for some needs, the cultural backgrounds and beliefs of different groups can affect the criteria for a suitable product.
  • DESIGN A SOLUTION OR PRODUCT. Students should make and compare different proposals in the light of the criteria they have selected. They must consider constraints-such as cost, time, trade-offs, and materials needed-and communicate ideas with drawings and simple models.
  • IMPLEMENT A PROPOSED DESIGN. Students should organize materials and other resources, plan their work, make good use of group collaboration where appropriate, choose suitable tools and techniques, and work with appropriate measurement methods to ensure adequate accuracy.
  • EVALUATE COMPLETED TECHNOLOGICAL DESIGNS OR PRODUCTS.Students should use criteria relevant to the original purpose or need, consider a variety of factors that might affect acceptability and suitability for intended users or beneficiaries, and develop measures of quality with respect to such criteria and factors; they should also suggest
  • COMMUNICATE THE PROCESS OF TECHNOLOGICAL DESIGN. Students should review and describe any completed piece of work and identify the stages of problem identification, solution design, implementation, and evaluation.


  • Scientific inquiry and technological design have similarities and differences. Scientists propose explanations for questions about the natural world, and engineers propose solutions relating to human problems, needs, and aspirations. Technological solutions are temporary; technologies exist within nature and so they cannot contravene physical or biological principles; technological solutions have side effects; and technologies cost, carry risks, and provide benefits.
  • Many different people in different cultures have made and continue to make contributions to science and technology.
  • Science and technology are reciprocal. Science helps drive technology, as it addresses questions that demand more sophisticated instruments and provides principles for better instrumentation and technique. Technology is essential to science, because it provides instruments and techniques that enable observations of objects and phenomena that are otherwise unobservable due to factors such as quantity, distance, location, size, and speed. Technology also provides tools for investigations, inquiry, and analysis.
  • Perfectly designed solutions do not exist. All technological solutions have trade-offs, such as safety, cost, efficiency, and appearance. Engineers often build in back-up systems to provide safety. Risk is part of living in a highly technological world. Reducing risk often results in new technology.
  • Technological designs have constraints. Some constraints are unavoidable, for example, properties of materials, or effects of weather and friction; other constraints limit choices in the design, for example, environmental protection, human safety, and aesthetics.
  • Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.
  • AAAS Atlas:

NSDL Strand Maps

Volume 2, p. 56-57

  • Benchmarks of Science Literacy:

The Designed World

By the end of the 8th grade, students should know that

The choice of materials for a job depends on their properties. 8B/M1*

Manufacturing usually involves a series of steps, such as designing a product, obtaining and preparing raw materials, processing the materials mechanically or chemically, and assembling the product. All steps may occur at a single location or may occur at different locations. 8B/M2*

Advances in manufacturing processes can reduce costs and improve products. 8B/M3*

Automation, including the use of robots, has changed the nature of work in most fields, including manufacturing. As a result, the demand for workers with some knowledge and skills has decreased while the demand for workers with other knowledge and skills has increased. Furthermore, as the pace of innovation has increased, workers have needed to learn new skills throughout their careers. 8B/M4*

Efforts to find replacements for existing materials are driven by an interest in finding materials that are cheaper to obtain or produce or that have more desirable properties. 8B/M5** (SFAA)

Some materials, such as plastics, are synthesized in chemical reactions that link atoms together in long chains. Plastics can be designed to have a variety of different properties for a variety of uses. 8B/M6** (SFAA)

Machines can be used to manufacture parts that are nearly identical. The use of these interchangeable parts allows for more efficient assembly as time is not needed to customize the fit of different parts. 8B/M7** (BSL)

Side effects of technologies may turn out to be unacceptable to some of the population and therefore lead to conflict between groups. 3B/M2b

Common Core Standards

  • 6.SP.4. Display numerical data in plots on a number line, including dot plots, histograms, and box plots.  
  • 6.SP.5. Summarize numerical data sets in relation to their context, such as by:
  • Reporting the number of observations.
  • Describing the nature of the attribute under investigation, including how it was measured and its units of measurement.
  • Giving quantitative measures of center (median and/or mean) and variability (interquartile range and/or mean absolute deviation), as well as describing any overall pattern and any striking deviations from the overall pattern with reference to the context in which the data were gathered.
  • Relating the choice of measures of center and variability to the shape of the data distribution and the context in which the data were gathered.

SL.6.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.


Student Misconceptions 

Students, and consumers in general, often assess a product's effectiveness by price and effectiveness alone, without examining hidden trade-offs in terms of the environment, human rights, and economy.  AAAS Benchmarks


At the close of their engineering unit, Ms. Y's class brainstorms a list of what they think are recent technologies students in their school find valuable and important to their lives.  The class list is about a dozen items and includes technologies such as video games, personal computers, cell phones, etc. 

The class turns the list into a survey.  The purpose is to find out which technologies the students use the most and which they think are the most important.  The class then compiles their results and determines 5 technologies that seem to be having the most impact on the students' lives in their school.  They then divide into 5 teams.  Each team takes one of the the technologies to research its usefulness and its negative impacts on society. (Benchmark and

When their research is done, they present their findings to the class.  Ms. Y poses one more question to the teams.  She asks them to imagine into the future and think of design changes that should be made to their technology to eliminate or reduce one or more of the negative impacts of that technology.  

The student groups then take all of their research and ideas and put them into videos that are posted on the school's website.


Instructional Notes 

Selected Labs and Activities and  Tell students to make a list of technologies that have changed over time.  (Ex:  phones)  Choose three to study in depth.  For each piece of technology chosen, list three positive impacts of the technology and three negative impacts of the technology.  Then compare and contrast the present-day version of the technology to a former version of the technology.  Describe the positive and negative features of both forms.  Have students complete a "reverse engineering lab."  Students should take apart a manufactured product and identify the components that make it work.  Then students should evaluate the durability of the parts, as well as the components that make the machine work.  Use the science notebooks to sketch the inside the machine and brainstorm ideas for making the machine more durable and less expensive.  Throughout engineering labs, schedule "mini-conventions" for students to collaborate on strategies/techniques that have been utilized to achieve the engineering design challenge.  Explain that collaboration is key in engineering.

Instructional Resources 

Instructional suggestions/options

Students in grades 5-8 can begin to differentiate between science and technology, although the distinction is not easy to make early in this level. One basis for understanding the similarities, differences, and relationships between science and technology should be experiences with design and problem solving in which students can further develop some of the abilities introduced in grades K-4. The understanding of technology can be developed by tasks in which students have to design something and also by studying technological products and systems.

In the middle-school years, students' work with scientific investigations can be complemented by activities in which the purpose is to meet a human need, solve a

human problem, or develop a product rather than to explore ideas about the natural world. The tasks chosen should involve the use of science concepts already familiar to students or should motivate them to learn new concepts needed to use or understand the technology. Students should also, through the experience of trying to meet a need in the best possible way, begin to appreciate that technological design and problem solving involve many other factors besides the scientific issues.

Suitable design tasks for students at these grades should be well-defined, so that the purposes of the tasks are not confusing. Tasks should be based on contexts that are immediately familiar in the homes, school, and immediate community of the students. The activities should be straightforward with only a few well-defined ways to solve the problems involved. The criteria for success and the constraints for design should be limited. Only one or two science ideas should be involved in any particular task. Any construction involved should be readily accomplished by the students and should not involve lengthy learning of new physical skills or time-consuming preparation and assembly operations.

During the middle-school years, the design tasks should cover a range of needs, materials, and aspects of science. Suitable experiences could include making electrical circuits for a warning device, designing a meal to meet nutritional criteria, choosing a material to combine strength with insulation, selecting plants for an area of a school, or designing a system to move dishes in a restaurant or in a production line.

Such work should be complemented by the study of technology in the students' everyday world. This could be achieved by investigating simple, familiar objects through which students can develop powers of observation and analysis-for example, by comparing the various characteristics of competing consumer products, including cost, convenience, durability, and suitability for different modes of use. Regardless of the product used, students need to understand the science behind it. There should be a balance over the years, with the products studied coming from the areas of clothing, food, structures, and simple mechanical and electrical devices. The inclusion of some nonproduct-oriented problems is important to help students understand that technological solutions include the design of systems and can involve communication, ideas, and rules.

(NSES p. 161 and 165)

New Vocabulary 


Collaborate: The process of working together to reach a consensus.

Consensus:  A decision that everyone in the group agrees upon.

Impact:  The effect of a new technology on life.

Model:  A representation of the final product.  It can be physical (3D) or conceptual (2D)

Design:  A product created or constructed according to a plan

System:  An organized arrangement of components that work together to perform a specific task. 

Subsystem:  A set of elements, which is a system itself, and a component of a larger system.

Technology:  A device that was created to make life easier. Extends the ability of people to change the world; to reach further with their hands, voices, senses and minds.

Source:  Strand Maps

Technology Connections 

Software:  Inventor Software (Similar to CAD, used within the PLTW curriculum)  Auto Desk Inventor

Web-based:  Google SketchUP (This free download allows students to easily design 3D models/sketches of their engineering ideas.)  Sketch Up

Cross Curricular Connections 

English/Language Arts:  Students might research the history of an invention or innovation and report on the impact that the invention has made on daily human life, economic trends, or political changes.

Math:  Students might complete a "consumer report" activity, comparing the costs, benefits, and tradeoffs of a particular piece of technology.  They might develop charts or graphs to display research.


Additional Resources

PBS Design Squad:  This site contains multiple engineering-based activities.

PBS Design Squad

How Stuff Works:  This site describes how technologies work in "layman's terms."

How Stuff Works

Edheads Web site  to activate  the minds and encourage critical thinking and design.  Student can choose engineering design activities that simulate cell phone design, simple machines and many more.


Assessment of Students

Formative:  Imagine you are at local retailer, looking at new cell phones.  How do you determine which phone is "best"?  What criteria do you use?

Summative:  Choose one piece of technology that you use on a regular basis.  Describe the positive and negative impacts that the machine has on your daily life. 

Assessment of Teachers

Questions could be used as self-reflection or in professional development sessions.

List some of the engineered products that students have not lived without.  How have these products impacted their life in positive ways?  Negative ways?  How can you help students to recognize how these products have changed over time?

How is the design process similar to the scientific method?

We know that concepts are best remembered when they are taught in the context of an activity.  How will you set up your activities so that students can periodically stop and identify the step they are working toward in the design process?


Struggling Learners 

Struggling and At-Risk

Motivate a struggling learner by providing engineering challenges that directly relate to the learner's personal life.  Offer choices in materials for solving the problem, and consistently praise the students for considering multiple trials and methods for designing the solution.

English Language Learners 

Illustrate and diagram concepts with vocabulary on the board during discussion

Give step-by-step directions for labs

Prepare word walls or glossary sheets with illustrated vocabulary for students to easily access

Summarize discussion and learning more frequently

In setting up groups, pair non-native with native speakers.

Make connections to the students' out of school experiences

Vary instructional delivery to include picture books, video, etc.

Extending the Learning 

Challenge students to complete a "reverse engineering lab."  After taking apart a machine, instruct the students to recreate the machine, using fewer parts or making it more reliable.


Identify engineered products produced in the countries that represent the ethnic backgrounds of the student population.  Provide students with opportunities to research and share a brief history of the product's development and how the product impacts society.

Special Education 

Provide students with materials and a picture of a model.  Tell the students to use the materials to create a 3-D model of the picture.  Provide students with an opportunity to compare and contrast the characteristics of a physical and conceptual model.


Classroom Observation 


Administrators can expect to see students working in small learning groups, comparing products or designing a device to accomplish a prescribed task.  Students may be working with teacher-provided materials, or they may be working with items brought from home.  As they work, students are sketching diagrams or taking notes in their science journals.


Students who are exposed to a variety of engineering and research situations at home will come to school with a stronger background and personal confidence for learning the engineering standards.  Develop spatial and communication skills in your child by constructing and building toys and household items together.  Engage your child in conversations about how/why things do or do not work.  Model appropriate research before purchasing new products, and point out the features or data that make a product more valuable to you than another.