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Teaching Your Students to Think and Overcome Challenges like an Engineer

A question constantly facing educators is how to utilize the understanding of the growth mindset in a manner that will position students for success in school and in future careers. Too often, students view academic tasks as a measure of self-worth, causing them to avoid challenges, give up, or even regress when faced with a difficult problem or setback.

One way teachers can promote growth mindset in their classrooms is by teaching students to think like an engineer. Engineers are specialists in solving problems that require unique and complex solutions. As such, they are trained to nurture habits of mind that foster one’s ability to engage in divergent thinking and to respond positively to setbacks.

In his white paper, STEM coach Chris Anderson describes these engineering habits of mind, which include system thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, and ethical considerations, and how teachers can integrate them into lesson planning.

Read on to learn how to use engineering practices to help students approach challenges with a growth mindset and vastly expand their problem-solving toolkit.

Engineering Practices Framework

The National Research Council (NRC) highlights eight engineering practices that are crucial to the modern vision of science education:

  1. Ask Questions and Define Problems
  2. Develop and Use Models
  3. Plan and Carry Out Investigations
  4. Analyze and Interpret Data
  5. Use Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  6. Construct Explanations and Design Solutions
  7. Engage in Argument from Evidence
  8. Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information

As science education continues to evolve and improve, students’ understanding of core disciplinary ideas will be evaluated in tandem with their ability to use scientific and engineering techniques and practices as they engage with both the natural and human designed world. Teaching students about engineering practices, and giving them the tools to apply these practices, will position them for success.

While each of the NRC practices describes a relatively simple concept, the key for educators will be figuring out how to get students to internalize these lessons and developing a sense of what this will look like in the classroom.

Design Your Classroom

One simple and effective tool for introducing students to the eight engineering practices is through creative classroom design.

  • Display practices on the wall: This helps highlight their importance. Students will naturally be curious about the terms and will also be able to look to them as a reference throughout the year.
  • Put up posters: Visuals illustrating the distinctions between growth and fixed mindsets and convergent versus divergent thinking can help students internalize instructional shifts. This also reinforces the understanding that science is about processes and not just information.
  • Reserve a wall for “famous failures:” A wall dedicated to noteworthy mistakes and mishaps (think JK Rowling’s rejection by 12 publishers, Albert Einstein failing college entrance exams, etc.) can encourage students to adopt the mentality that failure is not only okay, accepted, and normal, but also of the utmost importance in process-based science education. Since educational systems have historically conditioned students to think failure is wrong and bad, a famous failures wall can go a long way toward establishing a culture of growth mindset in your classroom.

Engineering Practices in Pedagogy

The modern science classroom promotes a shifting instructional paradigm in which teachers move from begin a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” Teachers will find that the best way to get students to engage with the new curriculum is to use an instructional style in which they serve as a facilitator of engineering practices and model a growth mindset for the students.

Some students lose interest in science when they understand it to be a non-creative endeavor. Encourage boldness and creativity by rewarding interesting or unique problem-solving ideas.

Students should engage in productive struggle whenever possible. The process of designing, modeling, testing, analyzing, and redesigning a solution to a problem is where productive struggle occurs. Fighting through the challenges inherent to this process is what allows for the birth and execution of great ideas.

It should be clear to students that even if they build a wildly successful balloon-powered vehicle or marshmallow tower on their first try, they will still be required to evaluate and improve upon their design. Their ability to do so will be reflected in the assessment of their performance.

Engineering Notebooks and Evidence Statements

Initially, some teachers may have difficulty revising their assessment standards and practices to fit a new curriculum and instructional method. Engineering notebooks and evidence statements can help teachers and students address abstract concepts like productive struggle, and should be adopted in every science classroom.

  • Engineering notebooks: logs that engineers and their teammates keep during the course of a project. A student’s engineering notebook can be highly structured or completely open-ended, but the purpose of it is to create a record of the student’s contemporaneous thought processes and retrospective reflections as they work through a problem or task. These thoughts and reflections should explicitly reference the eight engineering practices.
  • Evidence statements: help teachers and students can demonstrate that they met certain performance standards. An effective evidence statement will clearly state a performance expectation that is cast in the terminology of the eight practices and the common problem-solving vocabulary established in the classroom. Students should provide concrete and concise examples of how they met the applicable standard.


The NGSS provide an excellent framework through which science education can evolve from traditional core disciplinary ideas into a more holistic, engaging, and practical study. The paradigm shift in science education aims to create self-aware, critical thinkers who understand that positive results in the real world are born from a growth mindset and persistent engagement with the design process.

By incorporating engineering practices and habits of mind into the classroom, teachers can mold students who embrace productive struggle, work through programs with creativity, and use evidence-based, problem-solving skills to push their ideas further. This approach promises to instill students with a passion for improving their world through science.



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McGraw Hill

McGraw Hill

Helping educators and students find their path to what’s possible. No matter where the starting point may be.