Engineering Design Process

The Next Generation Science Standards are here, and with them come exciting opportunities for teachers to integrate engineering into the science curriculum!

This resource:

  • Shares examples of how the NGSS engineering standards are used at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- a leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.
  • Connects those vignettes to lessons that you can use to engage your students in engineering in the classroom.
  • And provides expanded explanations of what each standard means.

The NGSS engineering standards fit within the Engineering, Technology and Applications of Science, or ETS, Disciplinary Core Idea. Each standard addresses one of the subsections of the ETS Disciplinary Core Idea:


What is a design for, and what are the criteria and constraints of a successful solution?


What is the process for developing potential design solutions?


How can the various design solutions be compared and improved?

These ideas make up the essential elements of the Engineering Design Process (PDF) -- a process by which engineers, and now students, identify a problem, design and build a solution, test the solution, and improve on their design.

A chart showing the engineering design process, which flows from identify the problem to brainstorm solutions to select a design to build a model or prototype to test and evaluate to optionally share the solution to optimize the design. Users continue to build, test and optimize until they have achieved their goal.

This chart shows the elements of the engineering design process. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Under each grade band tab, click on the Next Generation Science Standards to learn how each of the engineering standards is used at JPL and see lessons you can use in the classroom.

Engineering standards for grades K-2

K-2-ETS1-1 K-2-ETS1-2 K-2-ETS1-3



Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Before NASA’s Cloudsat satellite was built, there were a lot of questions engineers had to answer and scientific information that needed to be gathered about clouds. This helped engineers define what their tool, in this case, a satellite, would do. According to Cloudsat Mission Manager Deborah Vane, “Cloudsat can study clouds in a way that hasn’t been studied before. One of the most uncertain parts about trying to understand how our climate might change in the future is understanding how clouds might change. We need to be able to correctly predict how they’re going to behave, how much water they’re going to carry, where they’re going to carry it." Here she discusses how they gathered information to define what their spacecraft would do.

Use it in the classroom: Sky and the Dichotomous Key
Just as Deb Vane shared the process of gathering information and asking questions to develop a space mission to collect important data about clouds, your students will learn about clouds, then use the engineering design process to develop a solution to a weather-related problem.

Expand on the standard: In the K-2 classroom, students may be aware of a problem or situation they would like to change. Asking questions about a problem, gathering information and making observations can help to clarify and understand the problem. They can ask who, what, where, when, why and how questions about things they see happening in the classroom or at school. They can gather information by counting how many times a situation happens, finding the location of an problem, or taking measurements in the location a problem occurs. These steps help to define what the problem is and identify what a successful solution will accomplish.



Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem.

Watch how it's used at JPL: How do you pick up rock sample tubes on left Mars? It starts with a drawing. The Mars 2020 rover will collect samples of Martian rocks and leave them in tubes on the surface of Mars to be collected by a later mission. That creates a problem to be solved by engineering. Robotic engineer Paulo Younse worked to help figure that out and said, “One of the solutions that we came up with is to use a robotic arm.” After defining what their design solution needs to do, and figuring out how long and how strong the arm needs to be, it was time to design the arm.

Use it in the classroom: Robotic Arm Challenge
Try this lesson with your students in which they can design and build a robotic arm, similar to those described by Paulo Younse, from ordinary materials to accomplish a simple task.

Expand on the standard: As a class, or in groups, students will brainstorm solutions to a problem by thinking of objects and tools that can be created or improved to solve that problem. After brainstorming, students will draw or create a representation of the idea in a way that communicates their thinking to others. This could be a basic sketch on paper, a simple computer drawing, or a physical model made from things like toy bricks, clay, card stock or chenille stems.



Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performs.

Watch how it's used at JPL: In an effort to land larger and more massive objects on Mars, NASA has tested a variety of parachutes on the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project, or LDSD. LDSD uses a large parachute to help slow a landing vehicle. As Dr. Chris Tanner puts it, "Parachutes are a little bit unique in the engineering design process, in that we don't have really good models to show us how parachutes work. Things that are made out of textiles are generally much harder to test and model." Tanner describes in detail some of the tests they carry out when comparing parachutes.

Use it in the classroom: Parachute Design
Similar to the way Chris talked about how JPL tests parachute designs, your students will test a parachute and then create their own design.

Expand on the standard: There are multiple solutions to solve any given problem, and as a result, students in the classroom will generate more than one idea to solve the problem. When two brainstormed ideas have been made into a tool or object, they will need to be tested. Students should ask, “Did the tool or object solve the problem?” If it did not, students should look at ways to change and improve their design in a way that allows it to solve the problem. Because multiple ideas may each solve the problem successfully, how well each solution solves the problem should also be considered.

Engineering standards for grades 3-5

3-5-ETS1-1 3-5-ETS1-2 3-5-ETS1-3



Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Engineers who drive the Mars rover Opportunity from Earth have to carefully consider the driving criteria designed into the rover, and its limiting constraints as they explore the red planet. The rover has logged more than a marathon’s worth of miles since landing in 2004. Engineers who built Opportunity had to define what the rover would be able to do, and understand the limits of its capabilities. Hallie Gengl, a driver on the team, discusses the factors the drive team must consider as they plan daily drives.

Use it in the classroom: Planetary Pasta Rovers
Just as a rover driver must know what the rover is capable of doing on Mars and the risks from rocks, loose materials and other hazards to design a drive to a specific point in the distance, students must discover the strengths and limitations of the materials (pasta, mints, etc.) to design their rover and perform a task.

Expand on the standard: Building on skills developed in K-2, students will make observations, gather information and ask questions to identify a problem that can be solved in the classroom, school, or community. Students will identify the goals they want to their design to accomplish—the criteria—as well as the limits they will encounter—the constraints.



Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Engineers designing missions to the surface of Mars have to develop a solution to safely deliver the mission to the surface of the planet. Dr. Anita Sengupta, an aerospace engineer, describes what it was like to develop possible solutions, and the way teams compared design solutions to ultimately choose the option that would best meet the mission requirements.

Use it in the classroom: Touchdown!
Similar to the way JPL engineers generate and compare multiple solutions to the problem of landing a spacecraft on Mars, your students work with different constraints in this design challenge to safely land astronauts on the moon.

Expand on the standard: In addition to questioning and observing, students can gather information from the Internet, texts, and local experts in the field that can aid them in designing a solution. Students can then brainstorm and develop a variety of possible solutions. Based on what they learned in their research, they will discuss which solutions they think will meet the criteria for success they defined, while at the same time fitting within the constraints they identified. Student groups or individuals might select one design solution to be built and tested, or several designs to be compared. In either case, an entire class will develop a variety of design solutions.



Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Engineers developing rockets must control variables and consider failure points when improving rocket designs to increase the amount of mass they can lift into space. “There are a lot of different pieces that you can change when you’re designing an engine or a rocket,” says Dr. Kristina Kipp, an engineer working on the Mars 2020 rover mission. “We can change the fuel type and that can change how the propulsion system works. We can change the number of engines and the size of the engines. We could even change the shape to make the rockets more aerodynamic.”

Use it in the classroom: Soda-Straw Rockets
Give your students a chance to test out different versions of a straw rocket to see which changes improve their design or which result in failures in the design of the prototype -- just as NASA rocket scientists do -- testing one variable at a time.

Another way it's used at JPL: Engineers building new antennas for the Deep Space Network (DSN) must carry out strategic testing to ensure these upgrades will work. The DSN is an important asset that allows NASA to communicate with all spacecraft in deep space. “That means the moon and beyond, places like Mars, Saturn, and the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which has left the solar system,” according to Melissa Soriano, a software engineer at JPL who works on the DSN. In this video, Soriano explains some of the variables they tested when building a new system designed to listen to faint spacecraft signals.

Use it in the classroom: Speaking in Phases
Students develop and test methods to improve communication patterns in a way that simulates how JPL Deep Space Network engineers build and test new systems used to communicate with spacecraft.

Expand on the standard: Because multiple solutions will be generated, tests need to be carried out to determine which solution(s) succeed, and which successful designs meet the criteria better than others. In a fair test, each solution is exposed to conditions similar to what it would likely face in its intended location. Changes in the design -- the variables -- can be made, but to be clear which changes lead to improvements or failures, only one variable should be tested at a time. If multiple aspects of a design are changed at once, it can be difficult for students to be sure which changes made the differences in performance. When a solution fails or does not fully meet the criteria, where it fell short should be examined and changes made.

Engineering standards for middle school




Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Spacecraft are designed with an understanding of the constraints presented by the range of temperatures that the vehicle will encounter while keeping the internal components at a temperature that is safe for operation. Belinda Shreckengost, a thermal engineer working on the Mars 2020 mission, clarifies, "Thermal engineering refers to the management of temperature of components that we're flying through the cruise mission in space to Mars, and also for the rover once we're on the surface." She expands on why this is important and touches on some of the relevant scientific principles that guide her work.

Use it in the classroom: Mars Thermos
Just as engineers at JPL must consider the science of heat transfer in designing spacecraft thermal protection, your students will be challenged to determine criteria for measurement as they attempt to keep hot water hot and cold water cold in designing a "Mars Thermos".

Expand on the standard: Middle school students extend practices developed in K-5. At this stage, they will work to identify features of a successful solution—the criteria—in greater detail. By quantifying the criteria for success, rather than offering a qualitative goal, students can use measurements to determine whether or not a solution meets the goals laid out. The limits to resources and materials—the constraints—should be identified by students in terms of what is available to them and what is appropriate in a particular environment or situation. Just as they did in previous grades, middle school students can use texts, Internet searches and subject matter experts as a source of information to help them understand the problem they are facing.



Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Engineers have to evaluate different design solutions and analyze test data to find the best solutions to problems they discover in antenna structures. “The Deep Space Network (DSN) is a network of antennas at three different locations around the globe that allow us to communicate with spacecraft in deep space at any time,” says Patti Aubuchon, a structural engineer at JPL. Making sure the 70 meter and 34 meter antennas can withstand “rainstorms, earthquakes and 100 mile per hour winds” is no easy task.

Use it in the classroom: Spaghetti Anyone?
Engage student teams, racing against the clock and each other, in building the best spaghetti tower that will support a marshmallow, modeling design solutions to a JPL structural engineering problem: supporting the massive antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Expand on the standard: Students will find that multiple solutions can meet the criteria for success and fall within the constraints of a design problem. In order to determine which solutions meet the criteria and constraints identified in a problem, tests need to be carried out. Systematic testing will test a number of factors in a design -- the variables -- in order to find strengths and weaknesses of a solution. Variables should be changed and tested one at a time so that students can identify how changes to a design impact its performance. Based on the results of testing, designs can then be modified and retested to better meet the criteria set forth.



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.


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.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Thermal engineers at JPL tested design solutions intended to keep rover components at safe operating temperature. Their tests provided them with the information needed to optimize the design. The Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers are powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, that uses a small piece of plutonium 238 to generate heat that is converted into energy that charges batteries to power the rovers. During the day, that heat needs to be removed from the rover and released into the Martian atmosphere. At night, that heat can be used to keep the internal components of the rover warm when outside temperatures drop far below zero degrees Celsius. Rover thermal systems engineer Keith Novak reveals a novel design solution that pumps liquid through tubes to move heat around. “We’re using thermal energy and a fluid loop system to keep instruments in the right temperature range. We did that with a system that would collect heat on hot plates next to the RTG, and reject heat on cold plates.”

Use it in the classroom: Feel the Heat
Middle school engineers will design a device to pass liquid through tubing in order to collect heat and move as much as possible. They will follow a process similar to Mars rover thermal engineers as they analyze data and improve their designs.

Expand on the standards: (MS-ETS1-3) The goal of engineering is not to find many solutions, but to find the best solution to a problem. By putting different designs through repeated tests, students will see how some solutions perform better in one area of testing, while other solutions perform better when subjected to another type of testing. By communicating which elements of multiple designs performed best in different tests, students can work together to redesign a solution or create a new design that incorporates the best aspects of multiple designs to better meet the criteria for success and fit within the limiting constraints.

(MS-ETS1-4)Simply put, a model is a representation of a possible solution. Physical models can be made from card stock and tape, clay, popsicle sticks and glue, or printed on a 3D printer. Computer generated models could be represented on screen as a Computer Aided Design (CAD), plotted data from a spreadsheet, or a computer simulation. Creating and using models allows students to test possible solutions, study the results of those tests, refine or update their design, and retest. This cycle of iterative testing—modeling, testing, analyzing, refining, and retesting—is an essential element of the engineering design process.

Engineering standards for high school




Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.

Watch how it's used at JPL: To affect a groundwater cleanup project guided by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, NASA had to study and define the problem before they could move forward with developing solutions for cleanup. According to Groundwater Cleanup Project Manager Steve Slaten, “NASA is responsible for a large-scale groundwater cleanup that is a result of past waste disposal practices that go back to World War II when the Army was operating JPL and developing rockets for the military. Liquid wastes -- everything from toilets, to the analytical labs, chemicals, cleaning solvents and a component of rocket propellant called perchlorate -- are now in the deep ground water. It’s very important that we clean up this problem so that our neighbors have access to this resource.”

Use it in the classroom: Water Filtration Challenge
Challenge your students to model the processes NASA used to define cleanup criteria for polluted groundwater. They can then proceed with designing and implementing a filtration system much like the engineering teams working on JPL’s groundwater cleanup project.

Expand on the standard: Global problems, such as drought and water shortages, a need for clean energy, climate change, and sea level rise can have regional impacts and demand local solutions. Students in high school will define criteria in quantifiable ways that will require that students conduct measurements, and qualitative ways that will allow students to assess other aspects of design success such as community attitudes or social responses. Additionally, students will identify the limiting constraints a solution must meet, including cost, size, weight and performance, as well as a fit within society.



Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

Watch how it's used at JPL: The sun is an excellent source of energy, but to efficiently harness that power is a complex problem. Solar power towers that use concentrators, or reflectors, to send sunlight to a central tower can be very costly. Dr. Gani Ganapathi, a chemical engineer who leads the Thermal Propulsion and Materials group at JPL, is working on bringing those costs down. Lowering the cost of solar concentrators in a process that involves breaking down the problem into manageable pieces that can be solved through engineering. Ganapathi explains, “Most people are familiar with solar photovoltaic, but solar thermal is a very strong alternate technology where potential for generating power continually exists.”

Use it in the classroom: Think Green: Utilizing Renewable Solar Energy
From NASA data to application, students assess local light conditions that will determine the placement and capacity of solar panels by breaking the complex issue of switching to cleaner energy into smaller, more manageable components, such as cost considerations and solar power location selection.

Expand on the standard: Building on practices developed in earlier years students will gather information from multiple, independent sources, as well as draw on their own knowledge of scientific principles prior to brainstorming solutions. Due to the complexity of problems, as well as solutions, designs and the criteria for determining the success of a solution may need to be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts that can be systematically tested. This might mean that student teams look at individual components of a larger solution and work to improve that particular element. Students may have to consider prioritizing criteria and making trade-offs in their designs. Examples of trade-offs might include reducing weight by using a lighter, but less strong material, or using a more costly component that impacts the budget available for another component.



Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.


Use a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions to a complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints on interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem.

Watch how it's used at JPL: Designing spacecraft involves prioritizing criteria and making trade-offs based on environmental and resource constraints faced by engineers. NASA has been exploring Mars since the early 1960s and developing those missions is no small task, taking many years and thousands of people working together to complete. Dr. Sarah Milkovich, a science system engineer, says, “One important aspect of system engineering is to think about what do you really need your system do to before you figure out how it’s going to do that.”

Use it in the classroom: Marsbound! Mission to the Red Planet
Students simulate JPL mission design by bringing all aspects of a mission to fruition, mirroring the challenges facing JPL engineers. Students must stay within budget, as well as mass and energy limitations, while accomplishing the most science possible, examining tradeoffs and making sacrifices along the way.

Expand on the standards: (HS-ETS1-3) Complex real-world problems will often lead to design solutions with many criteria for success. As students learned in earlier grades, multiple designs may all have the desired qualities of a solution. However, the goal of engineering is not to simply design a solution, but to design the best solution. Students will take a systematic approach to evaluating the multiple criteria of a solution. This may include a scoring system used to rate performance toward certain criteria. Students will likely have to make compromises when evaluating against the constraints of their design—a heavier, sturdier material may be stronger, but it can also drive up costs and mass. Iterative testing—the repeated process of modeling, testing, analyzing, refining, and retesting -- will lead to an improved design.

(HS-ETS1-4)In addition to physical models, computer simulations can assist in the visualizing, testing and evaluating of a design solution. Computer simulations can involve using computer-aided-design and computer-aided-manufacturing software (CAD and CAM) to create and modify designs, programming an app to model various inputs on a design, inputting data into a spreadsheet to calculate and graph the costs of competing designs, and using presentation software to explain the effectiveness of a certain design. Students will use these tools to predict how a particular solution will affect different elements of a problem.