Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 7 - April 2020
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedApril 15, 2020
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 8 - May/June 2020

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The NASA engineering tasks proved to be an engaging experience that helped middle school students develop an understanding of the engineering process and a relevant application.


Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics increasingly promote the integration of the engineering design and modeling processes into the K-12 curriculum and advocate for problem solving within real-world contexts. The NASA Engineering Design Challenge (EDC), Powered and Pumped Up (, supports these goals. Each EDC presents students with a real-life problem that is introduced by a NASA scientist and is to be solved by teams of students.


Engineering Design and Mathematical Modeling

According to the National Academies of Engineering and the National Research Council’s joint report, the inclusion of engineering in the K-12 classroom is expected to “provide an opportunity to engage with science content in an applied context and introduce students to the field of engineering previously underrepresented in K-12 education” (2012, p. 49-50). Likewise, the emphasis on mathematical modeling is found throughout the Common Core math standards (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010); for example, “Modeling is the process of choosing and using appropriate mathematics and statistics to analyze empirical situations, to understand them better, and to improve decisions” (p.72).             

Mathematical modeling attempts to describe various real-world interactions by explaining their dynamics through mathematics (Quarteroni, 2009). NASA’s Engineering Design Challenges unite both mathematical modeling and engineering design as will be described in the following section.



Figure 1. Engineering design process model (Model from 2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Permission received from the Center for Instructional Support/STEM, MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education).


NASA’s Engineering Design Challenges

The objective of NASA’s Engineering Design Challenges (EDCs) is to connect students, at both in-school and out-of-school settings, with the unique challenges faced by NASA scientists and engineers as they design the next generation of aeronautic and space vehicles, habitats, and technology (NASA, 2019). Each challenge includes the following elements:

  • A main problem that the scientists and researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center are currently studying.
  • Supporting science investigations that go deeper into the content and align directly with NGSS.
  • Live virtual connections to NASA Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) where participants can discuss their challenge solutions and the SMEs' work at NASA.
  • Opportunities for student teams to submit their solutions to the challenge problem to the NASA Glenn Office of Education in the form of a slide or video presentation.
  • Virtual and in-person professional development for facilitators to learn how to conduct the challenges in their own settings (NASA, 2019).


The absence of step-by-step instructions for building prototypes makes the NASA design challenges helpful to educators who want to implement inquiry design in their classroom. The emphasis is for students to understand that engineers must “imagine and plan” before they begin to build and experiment, which is why NASA requires students to draft their ideas before beginning their constructions.

Each NASA Design Challenge features objectives, a list of materials, educator information, procedures, and student worksheets. When appropriate, the guide provides images, charts, and graphics for all of the activities. All activities are intended for students to work in teams of 3 to 4. The activities can supplement curricula during the school day or serve as activities in after-school clubs. The activity guides were also designed to keep material costs reasonable, using items often already found in the classroom. Furthermore, all activities correlate to national science, mathematics, technology, and engineering standards. A list of national standards is included in Appendix A. In addition to the above-mentioned materials, Appendix B provides resources describing the specific challenge identified in this article and context from NASA’s own mission while inviting students to a realistic task. NOTE: Appendices are below.


The Powered and Pumped Up NASA Challenge

The authors attended a facilitation training directed by the Glenn NASA program officers and utilized the Powered and Pumped Up Challenge with the students. Using the engineering design process, students designed, built, and improved a stand-alone solar-powered pumping system to move water as quickly as possible between two containers. Students used light-concentrating materials, varying shapes, and structures to maximize the collection of simulated solar energy. The energy was then directed toward a solar cell to power the system and move the water (NASA, 2019). Before this challenge, three supporting science investigations were conducted to aid students with various elements of the engineering challenge. Each of the following supporting investigations took approximately 10 to 20 minutes.

  1. “How Intense Are You?” – Students examined the relationship between light intensity and the distance from a light source. 
  2. “What's the Point?” – Students explored the effect of lenses in manipulating light. 
  3. “Shed Some Light” - Students used mirrors to reflect light and learned about focusing energy to a desired location.


The sections that follow describe how students applied the engineering design process and their reactions when solving rigorous inquiry tasks.


How Students Met the Challenge Using the Engineering Design Process

Although numerous engineering design models exist, for the purposes of this activity the authors used an EDP that was provided to students and adapted from the Massachusetts Department of Education Center for Instructional Support (Figure 1, above).

The process includes identifying a need or problem, planning a design, creating a prototype, evaluating, research, and finally improving the original design. Providing feedback is central to all elements of the design process and demonstrating that the process is not linear. 


Identify a Need or Problem

According to NASA’s facilitation guide for Powered and Pumped Up, “engineering design begins by identifying a need or problem to be solved, improved, and/or fixed. This typically includes articulation of criteria and constraints that will define a successful solution” (p. 68). Students watched a video provided by NASA’s engineers as they described the problem and identified the need for scientists to one day transport water on Mars ( authors of this study added the viewing of a clip from the movie, Martian to add relevance and interest. The classroom teacher also utilized videos and articles produced by NASA, which can be found in Appendix B ( The purpose of these supplemental resources was to represent the need for solar power when a water source may not be in plentiful supply. 

Following the presentations of videos, reading materials, and explanations by teachers, students had a strong understanding of the problem and extended the problem to Mars. Students felt that the NASA video with educational consultants and directors of research explained the problem, making it seem more real. One student expressed “this is not just another experiment.” By the end of the three preliminary investigations, along with video resources, students were able to articulate the problem and identify the goals of the task.


TETMJ20NASATable1Planning a Design

For the NASA EDC program, “Design” is a central focus and requires two subparts. First students created a set of potential solutions and then compared and contrasted their individual designs with others within their groups. Figure 2 illustrates designs created by students before they were granted permission to purchase materials from a fictional price list (Table 1).


To support the importance of searching for the best solution rather than enacting the first idea that comes to mind, students were asked to draw designs individually and then be prepared to suggest a rationale for their choice of design. Following this period of individual effort, the four drawings became one, and the group found the “best” solutions and reasons for the purchase of materials. Although not a part of the NASA EDC program, including prices on items was introduced within the study to help students realize the importance of cost and conservation of materials for potential future flights.


Once multiple solutions were drawn, the students in each group of four were asked to discuss their strategies and come to consensus on one drawing. The supply store was initiated to create the need to conserve products and reduce costs. Placing a financial constraint of $10,000 on the cost of items further complicated the design process for students, yet added to the realism of the task. Table 1 displays prices of materials that were available for use.

For students, the design process was the most difficult phase of the EDP. Each group spent approximately 10 minutes as students stated, “we want to go and test it out.” Throughout this period, the authors and classroom teacher posed questions to redirect students to the mathematics and science involved. The following exchange gives evidence of this point: 


  • Teacher: So why do you think white paper will work better than black paper? 
  • Student: Oh, that is easy. White will not absorb the light as much as the black paper.


  • Teacher: So which do you think is better, aluminum foil or white paper? 
  • Student 2: Oh it has to be white paper. But wait, I see a lot of people with sun visors for their car made out of aluminum. So let’s go with aluminium. 


  • Teacher: How much do you think you may need?
  • Student 3: Well the distance around has to be the circumference of the lightbulb lamp, and then the length according to NASA has to be at least 20 cm high. 
  • Student 4: We are making a cylinder. We need to find the lateral surface area.


Creating a Prototype

NASA’s Powered and Pumped Up manual defined a prototype as constructed based on the design model(s) and used to test the proposed solution. “A prototype can be a physical, computer, mathematical, or conceptual instantiation of the model that can be manipulated and tested” (NASA, 2018, p. 73).

Students created prototypes based on designs they drew on  paper. Each team consisted of four students who assumed roles of resource manager, facilitator, recorder/reporter, and task manager. In creating a plan with an explanation, students were frustrated because of a lack of social skills necessary to work together. In only five groups out of 40 did students support each other as a team. Teachers reported that creating a prototype was the most difficult stage for students because they wanted to begin testing immediately upon drawing their designs or given the problem.

Students initially used black paper, aluminum foil, rubber bands, and rulers to create cylindrical shapes that would reflect the light in a way to maximize heat. Only twelve groups out of 40 described their plan to teachers in terms of the sequence of activities and who would perform each role. The classroom teachers used a graphic organizer with larger spaces to record steps and assist students in creating a prototype. Overall, students were anxious in advancing to the “testing” phase.



Testing and Evaluation

Evaluation includes drawing built upon mathematical and scientific concepts, brainstorming possible solutions, testing and critiquing models, redesigning, and refining the need or problem. Although students referred to this as “trial and error” they never returned to their drawings to change their design, and only one group restarted the entire process.

On the first day of the Powered and Pumped Up program challenge, students performed Investigation 1, “How Intense Are You?” This activity models the fact that the farther away from the sun an object is, the dimmer its light waves become and the harder it is to use its energy. Students used flashlights to investigate how much light waves spread as they travel through space. They centered their flashlight beam on a yellow dot on a centimeter ruler. Then students counted how many 1 cm squares were illuminated by the flashlight’s beam to find the diameter of the beam. Students then recorded their results on a data collection sheet as in Table 2.

Of the 40 groups, 38 created scatter plots and were able to predict the diameter of the reflection when the distances were 24 and 28 cm away, while two groups could not relate the data to the graph. Students commented that they now understood the purpose of scatterplots in making predictions (Figure 3). 


  • Student: Oh so I can use the table and the graph to figure what comes next. 
  • Teacher: What happens if we change the angle of the light? 
  • Student: Well, let’s see.
  • Teacher: Simply record your results in your table.
  • Student: Naw, it is not right. It should be a right angle, that gives the best light. (Laughs at the use of “right”) I mean. That gives you the best light.


On the second day of the Powered and Pumped Up challenge, the teacher suggested that students create a chart of their results after noticing more haphazard trial and error. The teacher explained that while expert engineers test and retest, they do so in more intentional ways, such as recording their efforts and reflecting on their successes as well as their failures. Teachers used a chart and table for students to record results and review/revise their work as shown in Table 3 similar to NASA’s EDC.

During testing and evaluation, students had difficulty calculating the percentage of change between time trials. Only 23% of students were able to calculate the percentage of change (given the formula). Many students had difficulty with substituting values into the formula. More pronounced were students’ difficulties with number sense represented by their lack of recognizing an impossible solution when they disregarded the order of operations. For example, if their baseline time was 15 seconds, and their second trial took 20 seconds, they found the percentage of change to be 20-15/15 = 20-1= 19% improvement.



Research is an essential step within the engineering design process as well as in NASA’s challenges and one that provided teachers in the study with an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of finding credible sources while students used the information to support their decisions. Teachers obtained news articles on their own about the Mars Curiosity rover finding traces of organic material in a mudstone deposit in Mars’ Gale crater. Teachers asked students to read articles about this particular discovery and brainstorm researchable questions, which included:

  • What organic materials did NASA find on Mars? How long was it there?  
  • Are there any other planets on which scientists have found water?
  • How do we get oxygen on Mars?
  • What is methane, and how does that make a difference?


Among the many sources, students used the History Channel and the New York Times as resources. In addition, during scheduled times, NASA allowed students to ask questions of scientists currently working on solar panels for the Mars mission. The following questions were developed by students in these classes and directed to NASA’s experts during a conference call:

  • Do your experiments ever not work?
  • Do you like what you are doing?
  • How long did you have to go to school in order to work with NASA?
  • How much math do you need to work at NASA?
  • What happens if you break something?


A final question posed by the teachers baffled students, “Besides NASA, can you think of anyone else who could benefit from this problem being solved?” Perhaps since students have clean water available to them, their only response was to suggest that we can bring people to Mars and they would benefit. However, students never imagined that some parts of the world are without clean drinking and bathing water. One student then interjected: “Many of those countries have a lot of sun, maybe this will work there.”



The NASA engineering tasks proved to be an engaging experience that helped middle school students develop an understanding of the engineering process and a relevant application. By being actively involved in the process of designing, constructing, and testing a water-pumping device, students developed an understanding of the necessity of the steps within the engineering design process. Encountering obstacles during the construction process helped students to learn from their failures and rely on their peers. Many engineering projects for middle school-aged students cited in the literature (Hirsch, Berliner-Heyman, Carpinelli, & Kimmel, 2012; Robinson, Adelson, Kidd, Cunningham, 2018; Cunningham & Kelly, 2017) emphasize the interdisciplinary, project-based learning environment that draws on math, science, and technology and offers major benefits to students at all levels, as it fosters skills such as problem solving, communication, teamwork, independence, imagination, and creativity.


The NASA Engineering Design Challenge provided engagement for all middle school level students. It allowed for differentiation of student- and discipline-centered learning and provided challenging curriculum for all levels of students. All students were engaged because of their interest in the project and the amount of work to be completed. Because of this project, the University/K-12 School partnership implements all of the NASA engineering challenges throughout the middle school curriculum.


NOTE: Appendices for this article are below.



Council of Chief State School Officers & National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. (2010). Common core state standards for mathematics. Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved from

Cunningham, C. M. & Kelly, G. J. (2017). Epistemic practices of engineering for education. Science Education, 101(3), 486–505.

Hirsch, L. S., Kimmel, H., Rockland, R. & Bloom, J. (2006). A study of the impact of enrichment programs on girls’ attitudes towards engineering. Proceedings of the 2006 International Conference on Engineering Education, San Juan, PR, July 2006.

NASA. (2018). Glenn EDCs - powered and pumped up. Retrieved from

NASA. (2019). Glenn engineering design challenges. Retrieved from

Quarteroni, A. (2009). Mathematical models in science and engineering. Notices of the AMS, 56(1), 10-19.

Robinson, A., Adelson, J. L., Kidd, K. A., & Cunningham, C. M. (2018). A talent for tinkering: Developing talents in young, low-income children through engineering curriculum. Gifted Child Quarterly, 62(1), 130–144. DOI: 10.1177/0016986217738049.


Joanne Caniglia, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. She can be reached at

Michelle Meadows, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Tiffin University, Tiffin, Ohio.




Appendix B


Online Resources


Informational Videos


Glenn Research Center - Office of Education

Phone: (216) 433-6656


Robert LaSalvia

Chief, Office of Education