Think, Make, Try: Everyday Engineering

Think, Make, Try: Background for Educators

Learn about the Engineering Design Process, Think, Make, Try, to get ready to tackle some design challenges!

What is the Engineering Design Process?   

The Engineering Design Process is a method engineers use to identify problems, come up with multiple ideas for solving problems, test out ideas, build prototypes or models and test them out, evaluate how they worked, and make any needed changes. The key to this process is that it is a cycle of testing, revising, and trying again. At the Bay Area Discovery Museum, we’ve created an engineering design process perfect for young learners. We call it Think, Make, Try. Engineers can use Think, Make, Try to solve creative challenges, test out new ideas, and arrive at innovative solutions.  Each step of Think, Make, Try is distinct and occurs in an ongoing cycle.   

Think about the problem 

During the Think phase of the engineering design process, children learn about and consider a problem before them. Before proposing a potential solution, they may try to understand different aspects of the problem or empathize with a potential end-user. Then, they’ll come up with ideas for a solution, select the materials they’ll want to use as they move toward creating their solution, and can sketch a design of their plans. This step emphasizes the importance of thinking and planning ahead; adults and teachers should encourage children to explain their ideas by asking questions or allowing time for peers to converse with each other. 

  • Students start by identifying and articulating their understanding of a problem. Allowing students to be problem solvers develops their empathy and desire to be helpful, helps them learn responsibility, and shows that you value their ideas.
  • Once students have built a solid understanding of a problem, they begin brainstorming solutions. Encourage students to imagine many different ways they can solve the problem, before selecting one solution to work on. Ask students to sketch their design to communicate their ideas.   

Make a prototype 

The Make phase of the engineering design process is especially exciting to children, because it allows them to bring their ideas to life in a hands-on way. Each child can combine materials in a different way to build a prototype of the solution they planned out during the Think phase. There are no right or wrong answers, but it can be helpful for children to compare their work to that of their peers and to have conversations about the choices they made and opportunities to point out specific features of their creations.  Making a prototype is a hands-on, child-directed opportunity for students to see their own ideas come to fruition. Students should compare and contrast their designs with other students, providing opportunities for language development and collaboration.

  • This is also a space for students to explore and compare properties of many different materials. Having a variety of everyday and novel materials allows students to try many options and inspires their creativity. See the "Materials Scavenger Hunt" document for ideas.   

Try and retry 

In the Try phase of the engineering design process, children can test out the prototypes they made to see if they address the original problem in the way that they anticipated. During this phase, children are testing out their hypothesis to determine what works and what doesn’t. Most likely, they’ll find that some aspects of their design work as expected, while others are less successful and they’ll want to refine their ideas and make improvements. This naturally leads them back to the Think phase, which starts the process all over again.  "Try and retry” means that students are able to test their hypotheses, make inferences, and compare and contrast their design solutions. Encourage students to iterate as many times as needed to continue improving their designs, even if their designs “succeed” on their first try.

  • This step can be the most difficult for students, especially those who are not comfortable with the idea of failure. Encourage students to seek help from and support other students in improving their designs. You can also provide scaffolding for students by posing open-ended questions like “What worked or didn’t work, and why?” or “How will you change your design to make it even better?