What is Engineering Design?

Engineering design is the method that engineers use to identify and solve problems. It has been described and mapped out in many ways, but all descriptions include some common attributes: 

Engineering design is a process. This powerful approach to problem solving is flexible enough to work in almost any situation. Engineers learn important information about both the problem and possible solutions at each step or phase of the process.

Learn about different models of engineering design.

Engineering design is purposeful. The process always begins with an explicit goal. If it were a journey, it would be one with a specific destination – not a random sightseeing trip.

Engineering design is “design under constraint.” Designers must choose solutions that include the most desired features and fewest negative characteristics. But they must stay the limitations of the given scenario, which could include time, cost, and the physical limits of tools and materials.

Engineering design is systematic and iterative. It is a process that includes steps that can be repeated, although not always in the same order. Steps include things like planning, modeling, testing, and improving designs.

Engineering design is a social, collaborative enterprise. This process is often done in small teams that include people with different kinds of knowledge and experience. Designers are continuously communicating with clients, team members, and others.

Browse through LinkEngineering’s collection of resources on engineering design to learn more about the process and its real world applications.

How are engineering design and science inquiry different?

Science is commonly described as the study of the natural world through observation and experimentation. In PreK-12 settings, it usually refers to “natural” sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and earth, space, and environmental sciences. Like engineers, scientists also use a reasoning process to solve problems: scientific inquiry.

Science inquiry and engineering design use similar cognitive tools such as brainstorming, reasoning by analogy, mental models, and visual representations.  Scientists use these tools to ask questions about the world around us and try to deduce rules that explain the patterns we see. Engineers use them to modify the world to satisfy people’s needs and wants.

“Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.”

Theodore von Karman, co-founder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In the real world today, engineering and science cannot be neatly separated. Scientific knowledge informs engineering design, and many scientific advances would not be possible without technological tools developed by engineers.

Explore the differences between engineering and science practices through resources available on this site.

What does it look like in Prek-12 Education?

All PreK-12 engineering experiences involve some form of the engineering design process. However, the process does not look the same for every experience. Numerous engineering education programs for K-12 students have been developed in recent years, and many include their own version of engineering design.

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Engineering design also tends to be described differently for students of different ages. Older students are often provided more specifics and challenged with more complex problems. Browse through LinkEngineering’s collection of original and reviewed lesson plans to see the variety of ways that engineering design is used in learning at different grade levels.

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Browse through LinkEngineering's collection of teaching examples
to see engineering education in action.

There is no single right way to implement the engineering design process.

For example, the LinkEngineer homepage displays a version of the engineering design process developed by Engineering is Elementary (EiE) at the Museum of Science, Boston, for grades K-5. This five-step model is appealing because it is simple and uses terms children are familiar with rather than technical jargon to describe the process. Learn about different models of engineering design. What works well for one classroom or after-school program may not as well in another.