Choose meaningful materials for students to use during engineering projects – Bay Area Discovery Museum

Choose meaningful materials for engineering projects


Engineers use materials to visualize their ideas and share them with others. Providing students with a variety of materials to choose from is a good jumping off point for creativity – choice boosts children’s motivation to learn, and the more comfortable students are with the material, the more likely they’ll be to find new and unique ways to use it.

How to incorporate this in your classroom

1. Find out what’s relevant.

There are lots of items students interact with at home that would make great raw materials for engineering projects. Ask students to share out what materials they most commonly interact with, like cardboard boxes from package deliveries or plastic containers from yogurt or other snacks. Encourage students to bring in materials from home – items that would otherwise be destined for the recycling bin are a good place to start.

2. Create space for choice.

Rather than handing out the same materials for all students to use, curate a broad selection of items and let them choose. When working with older students, challenge their creative problem-solving skills by purposefully selecting some materials that will not work as well as others. Some students may find innovative ways to make the material work, while others may struggle. Ask them to verbalize why they think the material is not ideal, and what material they would suggest that would work better.

3. Broaden the definition of materials.

Materials are anything that is used during the creation process. It’s easy to understand how construction paper or pipe cleaners fit that definition, but can you challenge your students to think of materials more broadly? Consider how technology could be used as a material in your classroom. Can your students create something that requires the use of an overhead projector to project an image on the wall? Can a flashlight be used to set the scene for a classroom performance?

Standards Alignment

Testing out and analyzing different materials fulfills Structure and Properties of Matter Standards

As students work with different materials, ask them to describe the properties of the materials they are using, and sort similar materials together. When a project is complete, allow time for students to discuss why some materials worked better than others for the intended purpose, based on the properties they identified.

NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards)
2–PSI–1 and 2–PSI–2

The Research Shows

Adults play a role in children’s self-directed learning.

Adults can play a critical role in children’s self-directed learning by selecting specific materials for children to choose from and use in creative projects. This combination of adult-initiation and child-direction promotes exploration and learning in children.

*BADM's Published Research: CREATE Framework shares more ideas on how adults can support child-directed learning environments.

See our Educational Research in Action

Registration for Fall 2019 opens soon! Look out for an email from us in May with more information. Browse hands-on STEM programs for students in Preschool to Grade 5.

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