Design Challenge

What You Need


  • 3-ring lab binder/notebook
  • Writing materials
  • Sticky notes
  • Creativity cart or box (see Planning Ahead)
  • Two containers of water for the prototype demonstrations
  • Mop, newspaper, or paper towels to dry any spilled water
Design Challenge Photo Credit: VFS Digital Design (CC BY 2.0) via flickr.


To build and evaluate prototypes for water transport in a design challenge using a number of evaluation criteria.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that make up the Inventing Green Project, a collection of resources that engages 6-12 students with invention education. Invention education encompasses the idea that learning is powered by hands-on experiences that allow students to turn ideas into inventions with impact. You can learn more about invention education by reading the Invention Education part of the Invention Education Educator's Toolkit.

This lesson is the final of a series of three lessons that focus on the issue of the lack of access to safe drinking water in many parts of the world.

In the first lesson, Rewriting the World Water Script: Defining the Freshwater Access Crisis, students focused their research on understanding the crisis of access to freshwater that is safe to drink in tropical and near-tropical societies and its impacts on people’s daily lives.

In the second lesson, From Woodpeckers to Water: Virtual and Rapid Prototyping Models for Easing the Freshwater Access Crisis, students developed engineering solutions for solving the problem of access to freshwater sources in developing countries by examining case studies of design and exploring models.

In this third lesson, students build out their model(s) developed in the second lesson and apply knowledge of social need and cultural constraints from the first lesson to fabricate one or more prototypes. They then test them in a design challenge, evaluating performance by criteria they develop.

In this lesson, students organize teams to work collaboratively using a range of concepts from current design philosophy. They also develop and test production fabrication skills to make scalable physical objects that model a proposed solution. Students work at understanding the complex interactions of assets, constraints, costs, and benefits at the intersection of science, technology, engineering design, and culture. Finally, they communicate results to their classmates on the Design Challenge Day.

Distinctly 21st-century problem-solving skills are highly prized that integrate science, technology, creative collaboration, sharing, and communication. High school—and earlier—is an excellent developmental period to begin to acquire, master, and apply these skills. Indeed, as noted by multiple scholars of science, technical, and engineering education, K-12 presents a rich window to advance these skills. (Gamire & Pearson, 2006; Gorham, 2002; International Technology Education Association, 1996, 2000; Pearson & Young, 2002.)

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts in these Next Generation Science Standards:

Engineering Design

  • MS-TS1-3 Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.
  • MS-ETS1-4 Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.
Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
  • MS-LS2-5 Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Planning Ahead

Time: This lesson requires at least five hours of classroom work. Ten hours is better and open-ended is ideal to achieve the goal of producing physical models of the students’ proposed solutions, to evaluate in a design challenge.

Structure: The time may be distributed multiple ways. Among them: five consecutive days of one-hour class periods; two, two-and-a-half-hour session days in a week; or a one five-hour long weekend workshop on BEC Blast! (Build, Evaluate, and Communicate) solutions.

A partnership with a college or maker space/FabLab could naturally organize the time into a three-hour field trip or open lab. Keep the option open for extra credit hours because this lesson has the potential to go extremely deep, and highly engaged students likely will want to—and should. Starting a school club afterschool might be an option to accommodate them.

Part of the Design Challenge on Day 5 will include demonstrating each prototype's ability to move water from place to place. Because even if every prototype works successfully, some water will probably be spilled, give some thought to how best to set up your space to accomodate safely both presentations and spills. You may want to put down newspaper or have paper towels or a mop on hand for bigger spills.

Teacher Role: As in previous lessons, in invention education pedagogy, you have a reduced instructional role in this lesson. You should function more as a facilitator or project manager. This is because invention education encourages student initiative, leadership, and team-building so that through their engagement students form a tight, problem-solving creativity corps. You can consult the Design Challenge teacher sheet for background resources. You can learn more about invention education and/or finding mentors to help you and your students by reading the Invention Education Educator Toolkit. We also suggest that you provide your students with the Invention Education Toolkit student sheet so they can get background information on invention education.

Creativity Cart Set-Up: In this lesson, students will use materials from a Creativity Cart to build a design prototype. Be sure you have a variety of physical supplies students can manipulate to evolve iterative models. Suggested items are listed—but encourage students to be resourceful and use their imagination.

  • Pipe cleaners or bag twist ties
  • Clay or play dough
  • Paperclips
  • Balloons
  • Overhead projector transparency sheets
  • Rinsed juice cans
  • Duct tape
  • Glues/hot glue guns
  • Foam core board
  • X-Acto© knives
  • Dried pasta
  • Marshmallows
  • Shaped breakfast cereals
  • Sugar cubes
  • Variety of colored sticky notes

Student Leadership: As in previous lessons, this lesson requires each student to take turns as needed to perform leadership, administrative, and operational roles in the project by assuming and inventing titles as needed. Eventually, these roles replace most of your involvement because students respond to the needs of the project and generate titles themselves to become a self-organizing and assembling unit. For ease of the narrative, titles in this lesson include a project reporter (who records class notes).

Materials: 3-ring lab binder/notebook that serves as a class day-by-day Discovery Diary and includes graph paper, notebook sheets, and sticky notes. NOTE: It is the legacy process document from which students can document and reconstruct this effort, present project recaps, and use to improve subsequent efforts. It should be full of notes and sticky notes that could be redacted later.

If no FabLab 3D printing is an option, students should be prepared to physically model a TinkerCad design from traditional physical modeling materials including: 1/8 inch balsa wood dowels; tissue paper; decoupage coating; axels; soft wire; wire clippers; rulers; razor blades; X-Acto© knives; cutting mat; variety of materials, including foam and rubber.


Day 1: 15 Minutes
Introduce the concept of a design challenge, which is at the heart of this lesson, by asking students to use their Design Challenge student esheet to watch this Bridge Building Project video of a high school class design challenge on the physics of bridge design.

Discuss the video, considering these questions. Ask a Project Reporter to record in the class Design Diary the responses:

  • What did the video show about the test method used?
    • (It showed that the bridge had to be able to withstand a design load of 22kg while minimizing overdesign in terms of amount of building material used in the construction.)
  • If bridge strength is the variable under test, what is the analogous method we can use to test our water transport systems?
    • (An analagous method to test the water transport systems would be to see how much volume it could transport.)
  • What other variables could have been tested with bridges?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
  • By what means?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
  • What can we apply from the experience of the bridge design challenge to finding solutions to our problem of access to fresh water?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)

Next, students should use their student esheet to watch the Aquaduct Mobile Filtration Vehicle video. Once students have watched this video, discuss the video, considering these questions. Ask a Project Reporter to record in the class Design Diary the responses:

  •  How many people in the world don't have access to clean water?

(Approximately 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water.)

  • What is the Aquaduct?

(It is a pedal-powered vehicle that transports water and filters it while in motion.)

  • Why did the creators of the Aquaduct develop it?

(They developed it to try to solve some of the problems people face when trying to get to fresh water, including: having to travel long distances to get to freshwater; many women have to devote a large part of their day to gathering water; transporting water by cars, motorbikes, or trucks pollutes the air; and sanitizing water by traditional methods contributes to pollution and deforestation.)

  • What are the benefits of the Aquaduct?

(It allows people to get enough water for their families and clean it in one trip. It also allows families in developing countries to have daily access to clean water.)

  • How does the Aquaduct work?

(To use the vehicle to carry and filter water, the rider pedals it to the water source where he/she can fill the tank with water. As the rider pedals home, the peristaltic pump draws the water from the large tank through a filter to the clean water tank. The rider can remove the clean water tank and use it for water in his/her home.)

20 minutes: Introduction to Design Philosophy
Students should review the resources on the student esheet that introduce design concepts that are popular among designers, scientists, engineers, inventors, and businesses around the world. As they go through these resources, they should fill out the Introduction to Design Philosophy student sheet. Hold a class discussion to go over the questions on the student sheet:

  • Explain two key elements of design thinking that make the most sense to you.
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
  • Give an example from students filmed in the D. School Bootcamp video on why they value the approach and what they get from it.
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
  • Explain how you might apply it to the innovation process you are using in looking for a new solution for the water-access problem.
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
  • What is design thinking? What is agile innovation?
    • (Design thinking is a process where you first define the problem and then implement solutions. There are five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Agile innovation is a structured process that uses self-governing teams to accelerate the creation of new products and processes.)
  • When and where did the lean approach start? In what field are its roots often erroneously located?
    • (It started outside of IT, in the 1930s, when the physicist and statistician Walter Shewhart of Bell Labs began applying Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to the improvement of products and processes.)
  • Name two attributes of each of these approaches (four ideas total) that you can apply in designing a new solution to the water-access problem.
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
  • How do these models compare and contrast with the traditional scientific inquiry? Are they something entirely different or are they an expansion of scientific inquiry?

(Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)

Students also should reflect on how these approaches might be adapted to the goal of building their model for a solution to the freshwater access problem. They should be sure to consider the costs and benefits of any solution. Students should record their insights in the Discovery Diary.


Day 2
Students will now actually fabricate a 3D physical artifact intended to ease the water-access crisis, and test a model of it in a design challenge on Day 5. Make sure students have access to both the Build and Test student sheet and the Scoring Rubric teacher sheet and go over them together so students understand what their models and presentations should include.

45 Minutes: Generate Plans
Working with partners, students should complete the Planning for Fabrication and Design student sheet assignment in class. This should generate two plans that provide students with a roadmap to follow to build a physical prototype of their proposed solution to the water-access problem. The goal of this exercise is to help students develop their own personal innovation process using the most helpful parts of each plan. When students work on this planning phase, they should be sure to take into account the potential costs and benefits of their solution, which they should document for their final presentation.

NOTE: Students should not necessarily expect to deliver a full-scale model, nor a model made of the specific materials they would build a final product from, so it may be helpful to clarify this for them. Prototypes should, however, be capable of moving water over a designated distance.

Students should jot the steps of each plan on color-coded sticky notes, one color per project. Then they should stick their jotted notes in two columns—one for each approach—on the classroom walls. They should then take 5-10 minutes to tour all the columns of sticky notes to get an idea of what every partner team will build.

15 Minutes: Feedback Session
Students should use this time to critique each other’s plans by taking time to thoughtfully discuss the tour of sticky notes they just completed and arrive at a single plan, method, and materials list for executing their solution. Students should be given access to the Creativity Cart to see what materials are available within the classroom, but should also be given free rein to utilize additional materials as needed.

NOTE: To help students manage their time, suggest they utilize reverse planning, in which they start from Day 5 and work backwards to the present to schedule goals/tasks/deadlines. Day 5 allots one hour for the design challenge itself, and the project recap and closing ceremony.

Should students want to see some examples of physical prototypes, they can watch the following YouTube videos, linked from the student esheet:

The Science NetLinks lesson Death-Defying Cockroaches includes a challenge to build a product inspired by biomimicry. Students may find that lesson's Move like an Animal student sheet useful in looking at steps they may want to include in their plan.

DAYS 3-4
The time needed to build a prototype is variable. While it may be possible to fit this into the two hour-long class periods, students should expect to work outside class time, especially if a FabLab is involved and 3D printing is available. Students should use this time to build a physical 3D model of their proposed solution to the water access problem using 3D printing or materials found in the Creativity Cart or at home. They should follow the plan steps they devised in Day 2, with flexibility and an inclination to the iterative innovative process that finds meaning in failure: everything is data.

Allow time for students to check-in with team members to share challenges and progress; to group problem-solve, encourage, preview stages or results, revise, and plan/unplan as needed. To help students organize their plans and iterations, they should use the Build and Test student sheet to document their work.

By the end of Day 4, students should have a physical model capable of transporting water. Models will vary in scope and sophistication.

Students should prepare a five-minute presentation about their prototype, using the Scoring Rubric as a framework for the types of information they present to the class. (Think seven slides, one for each metric.) Included in their presentation should be information on the model they've built, how they've tested and redesigned their prototype, mechanical specifications (specs), the problem they are solving and why their design might or might not be used by the target audience (cultural specs), the costs and benefits of their design, a rudimentary plan for how they would build and disseminate their product (implementation), and any other information they deem important or helpful to understanding their prototype.

Visit the Lemelson Foundation's page on Impact Inventing for help in thinking about what to include in the Costs and Benefits and Cultural Specs portions of their presentations.


Happy Design Challenge Day! Its goal is embodied in the National Science Education Standards cited at the start of this lesson: To propose designs and choose between alternative solutions, plan for implementation, evaluate the solution and its consequences, and communicate the problem, process, and solution.

At the start of class, partners should register their models on a white board. Record performance rankings based on the seven metrics of the Scoring Rubric teacher sheet.

Each partner pair gives a five-minute presentation on their prototype using the rubric found on the teacher sheet as a framework for the types of information they present to the class. At the end of their presentation, students should demonstrate their prototype by moving water between the designated containers.

The judge assigns points to the prototype on the seven information metric categories of the scoring rubric. Out of 28 possible points, the prototype closest to 28 wins the Design Challenge.

Design Challenge

  1. Opening Ceremonies: music, balloons, ostrich rides, water cannon, the usual
  2. Presentations Commence: performances are recorded
  3. Results are tabulated
  4. Winners are announced: based on the point totals. In the seven-metric example above, a perfect score indicating all desirable traits were optimized would be 28.
  5. Discuss the questions in the final section of the Build & Test student sheet to consider and summarize successful prototypes, practices, and philosophies from the students' perspective:
    1. How did your team move water from one place to another?
    2. Among all the teams, what worked best and why?
    3. How did you change your design as you were working on it?
    4. If you had to do it all over again, would your design change? If so, how would it change?
    5. If you had to build your product for use in an area where it might be needed, are there things you'd need to change? What might you need to do differently? Are there questions you'd need to consider for long-term use or for the disposal of your product at the end of its lifespan?
    6. How do you think working as a group helped you to complete this project?
    7. What parts of the engineering design process did you use?


Innovative engineering design skills developed in this lesson can be applied to a similar Science NetLinks project, the Make a Mission planet Mercury lesson.

Each partner pair could communicate their results/conclusion/lessons learned in two Tweets—a total of 280 characters—summing up each message to: 1) peer scientists and inventors and 2) the community they are trying to help. Share Tweets with each other and, from the aggregate of class Tweets, group-write a 300-word press release and create an illustration to post on the project’s FaceBook page and/or for inclusion in the Discovery Diary.

Or, to extend the learning within this topic, students could tackle this project: The class-kept and co-authored Discovery Diary exists as a 3-ring notebook with paper entries and a blizzard of colored stick notes. It is a vital resource for teaching and learning. Now:

  1. Recap the entire project by organizing students into a digitizing corps to make the physical binder an easily accessible Google Doc or other sharable, accessible collaborative resource. One way to easily involve the whole class is to form students into teams responsible for moving sections of the diary by day or date to ensure all entries of the physical diary content migrate to the cloud.
  2. Using Google Forms or another free template/checklist software, create an index to serve as a finding aid so topical entries can be easily located from one introductory page. Print this out and add it to the physical 3-ring binder Discovery Diary.
  3. Develop metadata terms for the entire project that will be useful in a real-life application of this lesson in aiding searches and Web accounts of it.
  4. Sample metadata terms might include: rapid prototyping, Tinkercad, high school engineering, Survival Guide to Modeling Rapid Prototyping, Chapter 1: learning, using, applying and troubleshooting with Tinkercad, Creativity Commons, etc.

Funder Info
The Lemelson Foundation
Based in Portland, The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives. Inspired by the belief that invention can solve many of the biggest economic and social challenges of our time, the Foundation helps the next generation of inventors and invention-based businesses to flourish. The Lemelson Foundation was established in the early 1990s by prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. To date the Foundation has made grants totaling over $200 million in support of its mission. For more information, visit http://lemelson.org.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards