Introduction: How to Teach Project-Based Engineering to Kids

About: I'm a writer, maker, and educator who's on a mission to better the world through hands-on engineering projects. Check out my work:

If you enjoy this Instructable, then I encourage you to buy my book, Rubber Band Engineer. It's full of more awesome and original projects crafted from household hardware. You can find it wherever books are sold.

This Instructable is here to assist teachers with implementing project-based engineering lessons into their classroom. Individual project plans are assembled in a separate guide entitled Project-Based Engineering for Kids.

Be sure to check out, an amazing collection of hands-on projects for kids!

Keep it in Context
The content of this Instructable comes almost exclusively from my experience working in a particular setting, which is different from your situation. Please adapt this info to fit your situation and teaching style.

Learning Objective
By reading through this Instructable and applying its contents to your classroom, you will be able to successfully engage your students with hands-on engineering lessons. Your students will experientially understand principals of physics, mathematics, and other fields of science related to engineering, as well as fundamental engineering concepts, through project-based curriculum. Students will also improve their critical thinking and motor skills as they construct engineering projects.

Step 1: A Brief Note on Theory

Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning posits that learning can be a self-perpetuated cycle of:
  1. Coming up with new ideas
  2. Apply those ideas to create an experience
  3. Observe, reflect, and ask questions
  4. Use your observations to create new ideas and repeat!

Project-based learning, or PBL, also provides useful ideas. PBL allows students to control the direction and pace of their learning by means of problems that are centered around an open-ended challenge. Activities that promote investigation, creative critical thinking, and hands-on subject matter are central to project-based learning. Wikipedia offers an article on project-based learning.

In my approach, I do not expect the students to memorize theoretical concepts. Instead, comprehension and application come through actually engaging with an idea firsthand without necessarily being able to verbally define it. I believe that children learn best when they are in their natural state of awareness: being in the moment. An educational activity that engages the child’s entire world will naturally become a process of self-perpetuated instruction.

Step 2: Assess Your Situation

Take a moment to consider a few things before picking out projects for your class. Some projects such don't work in certain situations. For example, the last time I tried rockets indoors my students ended up accidentally destroying bits of the ceiling.

- What age group will you be teaching?
- How many students are in your class?
- How often will you need to conduct these projects?
- How much is your budget?
- How much class time can you dedicate to these projects?
- How much physical space do you have to work with?
- What is your teaching style?
- What are some limiting factors you may encounter?

For example, here is how I would answer these questions:
In an after school setting, I teach groups of ten students ages 7-12 once per week for one hour for ten weeks. I operate on a budget of $20 per student to cover all expenses (including start-up costs) for ten weeks, averaging $2 per day, per student. Classes are held in a multi-purpose room with access to a spacious yard. I like to begin each group of classes by introducing students with an easy project and then gradually offer more challenging ones. Students may take home anything they build. If it rains I must share the room with another class.

Step 3: Assemble Your Curriculum

The Good Stuff!
Visit my Instructables guide here. It includes all of my published curriculum.

Check out these websites, too: is a wonderful resource with tons of free lesson plans, activities and units. This site alone can get you started, though I found that most of the lessons emphasize conceptualization over project-based activities.

The marble roller coaster is perhaps the all-time favorite activity of my students. and offer some very neat project kits and essential materials. is the website for my program. There are a lot of pictures and some videos of current and old projects. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about what you see.

Step 4: Buying Materials

If you’re a teacher then you know how important it is to find good sources of materials. I've compiled a master list of materials that I've found to be incredibly versatile for creating engineering projects. You can find it on my website here:

However, you'll need to supply whatever is going to best serve the type of making that your kids need. Fabric for sewing, hardware for building a go kart, etc. One crucial thing is to ensure that you're getting the right stuff. Buy a small amount and test the project at home, make sure the materials work, and then make larger purchases.

Step 5: Try It at Home!

Try out projects at home at least three times!

If you're developing your own idea, try it 20 times!

I will say it again: try it out at home three times before bringing it to class.

One more time? No? Ok... But hear this! On many occasions I felt I was bringing a well-prepared project to class only to have it turn into a fiasco because I didn't thoroughly test the project. I find it helpful to imagine myself as my students when I am trying out a new project. As you test out your projects, ask yourself questions like: What aspects of this project could be challenging? How can I make this project more efficient in material/cost/preparation?

Please heed this advice and save yourself from mayhem. There's nothing quite like a class full of kids who are shouting, "This isn't working! Help me!"

Step 6: Structuring Your Lesson

This is how I structure my class, but you should ultimately choose a class structure that best suits your personality and situation.

1. When the students are seated quietly, I briefly explain what they are about to build and how to build it. Sometimes I offer an open-ended goal, such as “make something that can shoot this cork across the room” and then simply hand out materials. I introduce key concepts, but the focus is on experiencing the ideas rather than hearing about them. I spend ten minutes or less for the whole lecture and guided practice. By offering a brief lecture and a lot of building time, students get the best of both worlds: some ideas to get them started, and a lot time to experiment and redesign.
2. Hand out materials and allow the students to begin building and testing at their own pace. During this time, I help students by complementing the inventive features of their design, and asking open-ended questions about design aspects that I perceive as potential flaws (ie “What is the purpose of this weight, and how will it affect the flight of your helicopter?). When a student asks for help, I prefer to show them how to fix their design rather than doing it myself.
3. You can also conduct a Q&A session about the content the students have just finished exploring at the end of class to lock in the learning.

Step 7: Show Time!

Now it's up to you to create an unforgettable day in the lives of your students!

If you are new this whole teaching thing, I have attached a PDF document which offers a more detailed explanation of how I conduct my program. It was originally designed as a manual of sorts for my employees. The PDF is easy on the eyes, but if you're not a pro member then you can simply read on to view the PDF in plain text.

The Workshop for Young Engineers
Teaching Guidelines

Before-class checklist
·    Acquire a firm understanding of the project’s mechanics and key concepts. Try building the project at home.
·    Gather and organize materials.
·    Outline the lesson on a note card and bring it to class if necessary.
·    Taking room constraints into consideration: set up two stations: a building station and a materials/tools station. Arrange an open space for students to test their projects if needed.

Class structure
·    Arrive fifteen minutes early to set up materials and workstations
·    Announce the project at hand. Spend ten minutes or less guiding the students through the phases of construction and explaining key concepts. Allow students to ask questions at predetermined intervals. Avoid digressing into minor details and keep the momentum going.
·    The bulk of the class time should be spent monitoring the students as they build their design. Check up on the progress of each student and offer your help during this time. Encourage students to experiment, but also use their time effectively.
·    Have the students help clean up in the last five minutes.
·    Return the room to its original condition.

The First Day
Prepare a project that is easy for you and the students.

Welcome the students and introduce yourself. Talk a little bit about what an engineer is by giving them real life examples of engineering. I like to point out to students that almost everything manmade is influenced by engineering, such as the chair they’re sitting on, the machines that built the chair, the room they are in, etc.

Explain the class structure, including how cleanup is conducted. Tell the students what types of materials they’ll be working with and some projects they can expect. Ask the students to be open with you if they are feeling bored or unmotivated. Let them know that you will help them find something fun to do if the day’s project isn’t resonating with them.

Encourage experimentation. Many good ideas have come from students, so give them permission to try new things. Let them know that failure is a great thing because it leads to greater understanding. Students should congratulate each other or high-five whenever someone fails. This helps take away some of the social stigma around failure.

Hot glue guns
The tip of the glue gun and melted glue can cause very painful burns. Tell the students to exercise caution each time glue guns are used. If a student gets burned, he/she should immediately set the glue gun down and move swiftly to the nearest faucet. Run cool water over the burn until the pain ceases. If pain returns, run over cool water again and repeat as necessary. For more serious burns, send the student with a partner to the office for an ice pack.

Misbehavior and boredom
In my experience, most students misbehave because they’re bored. Offer options to misbehaving students, i.e. if they do not want to build a car, suggest that they build a tank, or something else entirely. Ask the student what he/she wants. The class is a success as long as every student is engaged with building something constructive.

Cleanup tips
Enforcing cleanup time can be difficult. Students are often too engaged with their project to focus on cleaning their mess, or they may feel unsure about what exactly to clean. To make things easier, announce to your students that you need them to fulfill a tangible clean-up goal. For example, “Everyone needs to put away ten pieces of trash or put away ten things that can be used again before recess.”

Be flexible
If a project is not resonating with the students, mix it up, or scrap it altogether and play freeze tag outside. Don’t have enough time to finish a project? Store away incomplete projects and pick it up next week. Use your intuition and good judgment to decide what works best for the class.

Your ideas are important
Your ideas and the ideas of students are highly valued. Please feel free to inform Lance Akiyama at if you have a great new project or an improvement to a design.

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