Students receive an engineering design experience that is relevant, engaging, and collaborative. They have access to digital fabrication tools such as our laser cutter and 3D printers for rapid prototyping of their ideas. All 7th and 8th grade classes use a “human centered design” approach to engineering. While there are many different definitions out there, I consider the process we use to be a blend of engineering and design thinking.

What is Human Centered Design?

As with all approaches to engineering, students are learning to be problem solvers and creative thinkers. Where human centered design differs from traditional engineering is its focus on empathy. This is a current trend in engineering that’s popular at both the high school and college level.

Read more about Human Centered Design here.


Students begin every project by learning about the needs and problems of others. They continue to build on that empathy as they get constructive feedback from their users throughout the design process. This is important to make sure they are meeting the needs of the users.

Empathizing with others can be tough, but students hopefully learn an important lesson during this process. It’s not what they want that matters. It’s what the user wants!

There are a few different ways students can build empathy:

  • Interviews
  • Observations (this includes taking photos and any necessary measurements)
  • Immersion
  • Research (through learning resources such as websites, nonfiction books/articles, videos, and educational games)


Students synthesize information from empathy work to develop a need statement. This statement identifies the user(s), their needs, and any insights that can provide design opportunities. 

Design teams share a design brief with their users that outline the deliverables and scope of the project including the criteria and constraints for any products (function and aesthetics).

Brainstorm (Ideation)

Students try to generate as many potential ideas as possible for their project. The goal is quantity over quality. This can happen a few different ways but often involves jotting potential ideas (words and/or quick sketches) down on post it notes.

Students in the design team then collaborate to narrow those ideas down to 2-4 potential solutions that can be prototyped. If students are unable to narrow down their ideas, they can use a decision matrix (quantifies ideas based on project criteria and constraints) or use the questions below as guidelines:

  • Which idea will most likely make your user happy? 
  • Which idea will most likely work?
  • Which idea will most likely to be surprising/interesting for your user? 


Prototyping starts with a blueprint drawing, which is more detailed than sketches from brainstorming. It includes dimensions/measurements, lists the materials, labels the different features, and note some constraints that may exist. The blueprint helps students be focused and intentional, switching their thinking from theoretical to tangible.

From there, students turn those blueprints into physical objects through rapid prototyping. Students use paper, card stock, cardboard, tape, and other classroom materials to make “low res” mock ups of their designs. Ideally, this should be completed in one class period.

Rules for rapid prototyping: 

  1. Find the quickest path to experience
  2. Doing is the best kind of thinking
  3. Use materials that move at the speed of thought to maximize your rate of learning.

Design teams must submit the blueprint drawing and cardboard prototype for approval before moving on to more complex prototyping. They need to answer these four questions:

  1. How does the design benefit their end user and/or solve the problem statement?
  2. In their opinion, how is the solution cool? (Cool = unique, innovative, creative, special, etc.)
  3. Is the solution buildable?
  4. How is the solution going to be tested so that it can be improved based on feedback?

At this point, design teams are able to share up to four prototype ideas with their end user for feedback. Based on that feedback, students narrow those ideas down to one or two final prototypes. They may also need to create a revised blueprint drawing and/or cardboard prototype.

Digital Fabrication: The final one or two prototypes are then designed with 3D modeling software (for 3D printing) or vector graphic software (for laser cutting).

Test and Refine

Creating, testing, and refining prototypes is an iterative process.

Students create a prototype –> Users test that prototype and give constructive feedback –> Students evaluate and refine the design to make it improved –> Repeat process!

The goal for each design team is to create at least three “hi res” prototypes on the 3D printers or laser cutter. (These objects may also be combined with traditional or upcycled materials.) Design teams may create two different prototypes initially, but they must narrow it down to one final idea for printing/cutting based on input from the end users.

Testing data should include: 1) What users liked about prototype; 2) Constructive feedback; 3) Questions that arose during testing; 4) New ideas or improvements that emerged from tests. This feedback tool helps students be more intentional in what they observed and recorded. 


Design teams present their final solution to their end users. 8th graders give their final product to their client and 7th graders will have their products displayed for others. Some projects will also be shared on this website so others can benefit from their designs.