26 technology and engineering teacher May/June 2021
This Engineering in Action article presents a socially relevant
lesson designed to intentionally teach secondary students core en-
gineering concepts related to the practices of Engineering Design
and Quantitative Analysis [presented in the Framework for P-12
Engineering Learning (2020)]. This lesson also situates learning in
the context of computation and automation as described in Stan-
dards for Technological and Engineering Literacy (ITEEA, 2020) and
addresses the standards focused on human-centered design and
technological innovation/impacts. The lesson example includes (a)
class discussions to engage students in a socially relevant prob-
lem (the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic) within the context of
safety in public settings and (b) a design activity to help students
learn and apply core concepts related to Engineering Practice
(i.e., Computational Thinking, Prototyping, and Systems Analytics)
as well as knowledge related to communication technologies. At
the end of this lesson, students are expected to (1) design a social
distancing lanyard for public events (See Figure 1), (2) explore
methods of measuring distances between people via radio signals,
(3) ideate several designs that meet the needs of their identified
user, and (4) create a working prototype (including both digital and
physical elements) of their chosen design. Additionally, students
should be able to showcase their engineering practices as well as
how knowledge of their user and communication technologies
informed their design.
A “Socially” Relevant Context for
The lesson detailed in Tables 1 and 2 has been created
to embed engineering learning within a socially relevant
context to oer the opportunity for students to exercise
informed engineering practices with increased sophis-
tication. Accordingly, the lesson will help students to
develop knowledge of how COVID-19 is impacting the
world and ways in which engineering practices can
be employed to enhance safety during this pandem-
ic—helping people return to some sense of normalcy
with public events. Implementation should occur over
five class periods wherein students work together as
a team to design social distancing lanyards for events such as
college orientation, athletic competitions, concerts, or confer-
by Jackson Otto, Waseem Williams, Samuel
Moran, Luke Ingram, and Greg J. Strimel
engineering in action
Students should be able to showcase their
engineering practices as well as how
knowledge of their user and communication
technologies informed their design.
Figure 1. Social distancing
lanyards for public events.
May/June 2021 technology and engineering teacher 27
ences (Figure 2). The culmination of the lesson is a presentation
where students must demonstrate their prototype and detail their
knowledge and practices for designing and creating the device.
Through this lesson, students will be able to increase
their understanding of how micro:bits (pocket-sized pro-
grammable computers) communicate with one another.
This is important knowledge to develop for any student
interested in communication technology, as it will help
them fully understand a simple process that often
occurs in various industries. The overview of the lesson
can be seen in Table 1.
The complete lesson plan provided in Table 2 includes
a sequence of five sessions. In the first session, teach-
ers engage students by leading them in a discussion
about the impact of COVID-19, followed by an activity
introducing them to computational thinking and logical
thought processing. This provides an opportunity for
students to create and identify key criteria and constraints for
their projects and define ideal steps to create a solution (Core
Engineering Concept: EP-ED-4 Ideation). In the second session,
teachers introduce students to the micro:bit, including an activity
for students to learn the basics of how to program it. Then the
students will work in pairs to program the micro:bit to show an im-
age when a certain input is triggered (Core Engineering Concept:
EP-QA-1 Computational Thinking). The next day students are split
into small groups and given their design brief to develop a product
that uses a defined system to track the distance between individ-
uals for social distancing purposes (Core Engineering Concept:
EP-QA-4 System Analytics). Students are to ideate and come up
with several potential solutions before choosing one and creat-
Figure 2. Student wearing a social distancing lanyard design for
a college orientation event.
Figure 3. Social
made using a
micro:bit and 3D
ing a physical prototype of that idea (Core Engineering Concept:
EP-ED-5 Prototyping). Figure 3 shows how a prototype was made
using a micro:bit and 3D printing. The next day is set aside as a
workday, and the final day is meant as a day for presenting about
the designed products.
In this lesson, students are asked to build upon their prior knowledge of the current pandemic, COVID-19, and identify ways to develop
a technological innovation to benefit the safety of a targeted user group. Using the knowledge gained from that activity, students then
construct a physical prototype of an innovative distance tracker to be worn at public events. This lesson could be adapted for either a
middle or high school engineering class.
28 technology and engineering teacher May/June 2021
Engineering Concepts from the Framework for P-12 Engineering Learning (2020):
• EP-QA-1 Computational Thinking: Students should be able to dissect complex problems in a manner to generate solutions that
are expressed as a series of computational steps that a computer can perform.
• EP-ED-4 Ideation: Students should be able to generate multiple innovative ideas through both divergent and convergent thinking
processes while communicating and recording ideas in two- and three-dimensional sketches using visual-spatial techniques. This
includes knowledge related to (a) divergent thinking and brainstorming techniques, (b) convergent thinking methods (including
functional decomposition, which is the process of breaking down the overall function of a device, system, or process into its smaller
parts), and (c) employing visual-spatial abilities to convey ideas through sketching.
• EP-QA-4 System Analytics: Students should be able to investigate systems and calculate the way in which a system’s compo-
nents interact with each other, how they function over time, and the way in which they operate within the context of larger techno-
logical and natural systems.
• EK-ETA-10 Communication Technology: Draw upon the knowledge of Communication Technologies content, such as (a) digital
communication, (b) telecommunication, (c) graphic communication, (d) photonics, and (e) network systems, to visually represent,
analyze, and propose the procedures and products necessary to eectively, eiciently, and appropriately communicate data and/or
Relevant STEM Standards
• Standards for Technological and Engineering Literacy (2020) – STEL-7Z: Apply principles of human-centered design; STEL-4P:
Evaluate ways that technology can impact individuals, society, and the environment; STEL-5H: Evaluate a technological innovation
that arose from a specific society ’s unique need or want; TEC-1 Computation, Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Robotics.
• Next Generation Science Standards (2013) – HS-ETS1-2: Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down
into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering; HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex re-
al-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-os that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability,
and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
• Students will evaluate the performance of a given telecommunication system, analyzing the parameters and determining its perfor-
• Students will explain what elements constitute a telecommunication system (e.g., transmitter, channel, receiver, modulation, etc.)
and then draw a block diagram to illustrate the process.
• Students will implement a given micro computing device in a system of their own design and conduct prototype testing to identify
areas for improvement.
• Students will develop programs using advanced programming techniques, such as loops, conditional structures, and variables.
• Prototyping is the process of transforming an idea into a form (physical or digital) that communicates the idea with others with the
intention to improve the idea, over time, through testing and the collection of feedback. Prototyping is important to the practice of
Engineering Design, as it allows engineering professionals to communicate, test, and optimize their design solutions.
• Computational Thinking is the process of dissecting complex problems in a manner to generate solutions that are expressed as a
series of computational steps that a computer can perform. Computational thinking is necessary to develop eicient and automat-
ed physical systems as well as visualizations of design concepts and computational scientific models.
• System Analytics is the process of investigating systems and calculating the way in which a system’s components interact with
each other, how they function over time, and the way in which they operate within the context of larger technological and natural
systems. A system can be described as any entity or object that consists of parts, each of which has a relationship with all other
parts and to the entity as a whole. This is important to the practice of Quantitative Analysis, as every physical and digital system
is intertwined with a variety of natural, social, and technological systems, and is a system itself as well as developed through a
• Communication Technologies are the systems and products that extend the ability to collect, analyze, store, manipulate, receive,
and transmit information or data, which can include anything from graphic media to computers, cellular devices, and fiber optics.
Communication Technologies are important to Engineering Literacy, as these systems have become intertwined with our daily lives
and, in many ways, society has become increasingly dependent on them.
• How can I successfully build a prototype of an idea using the appropriate tools and materials for the desired prototype fidelity level
while establishing the appropriate testing/data collection procedures to improve my design?
• How can I successfully design, develop, implement, and evaluate algorithms/programs that are used to visualize/control physical
systems that address an engineering problem/task (Computational Thinking)?
• How can I successfully analyze an engineering system through identifying its inputs, outputs, processes, and feedback loops to
implement controls to predict and optimize system performance?
Socially Relevant Context
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are
in close contact (within about 6 feet) for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and
droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. Since people can spread
the virus before they know they are sick, it is important to stay at least 6 feet away from others when possible, even if you—or they—do
not have any symptoms. Social distancing is especially important for people who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19”
(2020, para. 2).
May/June 2021 technology and engineering teacher 29
Engineering Design-Based Lesson Plan
Engage: Sets the context for what the students will be learning in the lesson, as well as captures their interest in the topic by making
learning relevant to their lives and community.
• First, lead the class in a discussion defining what they know concerning COVID-19.
• Then, ask students who are willing to share, how COVID-19 may have aected them or someone they know personally. After this
small discussion, have students look at the distribution of COVID-19 across the world by continent (see www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/
geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases). The purpose of looking at this data is to illustrate the impact that COVID-19 has on a
global scale as well as introduce how to interpret health data.
• Ask students what solutions they have heard about to combat the spread of COVID-19. Create a running list together and have a
discussion about what each of these strategies entails (STEL-5H).
• Follow up from the list you create with a discussion on ways to improve these current strategies. Ideas could be focused on:
making masks that are more eective and comfortable to wear, restaurants/businesses enacting eective COVID plans, and most
importantly, creating a system that assists with people trying to social distance from each other (STEL-4P).
• Introduce the activity: Today students will be designing and prototyping a new way to communicate using social distancing lan-
yards. They will program their own micro:bit, a micro-computer, to alert the user when they are within six feet of another person
with a lanyard, as well as design a case to clip their micro:bit to a lanyard that fits the need of the targeted public event (STEL-7Z).
Explore: Enables students to build upon their prior knowledge while developing new understandings related to the topic through
• Next, students will look at logical thought processing (how do we logically think, what steps are taken to solve a simple problem,
etc.) using flowcharts in the exploration activity provided in Figure 4.
• The exploration activity will explore how an automated system (STEL-TEC-1) processes a set of instructions to complete a simple
• The exploration activity asks students to create a flowchart to complete a simple task to get an introduction to computational
Explain: Summarizes new and prior knowledge while addressing any misconceptions the students may hold.
• The students will now discuss with the class their flowchart models and compare noticeable similarities and dierences. Addition-
ally, ask the class how the creation of flowcharts to represent programming of a system can be useful in engineering and technolo-
• Then the class will work to explain several topics regarding their case study analysis (answers provided below the questions) (See
System Analytics and Computational Thinking):
• Computational Thinking – What is computational thinking? Why should engineers have a good understanding of this concept?
o Computational thinking refers to the thought processes involved in expressing solutions as computational steps or
algorithms that can be carried out by a computer. Engineers need to understand this concept not only to be able to relay
instructions to machines and systems, but to support confidence in dealing with complexity, tolerance for ambiguity, and
the ability to deal with open-ended problems.
• Functions of COVID-19 – How is COVID-19 spread between people? What are the symptoms?
o “The virus that causes COVID-19 most commonly spreads between people who are in close contact with one another
(within about 6 feet, or 2 arm lengths). It spreads through respiratory droplets or small particles, such as those in aerosols,
produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after ex-
posure to the virus. People with COVID-19 may experience: fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or diiculty breath-
ing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or
vomiting, or diarrhea” (CDC, 2020, para. 2).
• Logical Thought Processing – What is a flowchart? What are the benefits or using a flowchart ? What are the drawbacks? (See
Computational Thinking and System Analytics)
o “A flowchart is a type of diagram that represents how the algorithm will function, workflow, or process; furthermore, a
flowchart represents a solution model to a given problem” (K-12 Computer Science Framework Steering Committee,
2016). Flowcharts are great for documenting and debugging a program, analyzing a program or system, and communicat-
ing the logic of a system. The more complex the system becomes, the larger and more confusing the flowchart becomes;
any modifications that need to be made to a flowchart will require a new flowchart to be created (K-12 Computer Science
Framework Steering Committee, 2016).
Required Prior Knowledge and Skills
Students participating in this activity are expected to have prior knowledge related to:
• Feedback loops
• General knowledge of programming (beneficial but not required)
• Prototyping skills
Biomedical and research and development engineers work through problems such as how new technology can be used to heed pre-
cautions during a pandemic. This lesson serves as a glimpse into the world of creating and augmenting technology, in the context of
situated knowing and social relevance.
30 technology and engineering teacher May/June 2021
• Communication Technology and Electronics – What are micro:bits? How do they work? How do you program them?
o The BBC micro:bit is a pocket-sized computer that lets you get creative with digital technology. You can code, customize,
and control your micro:bit from anywhere. It features an embedded compass, accelerometer, and mobile- and web-based
program capabilities (Sparkfun, 2017, para. 1).
o A key feature for the following engineering challenge is the ability for multiple micro:bits to communicate with each other
via their internal “radio.”
■ “Micro:bit radio signals are used to communicate with one another. This provides the ability to send data packets
from one micro:bit to another and to extend a message bus to span multiple micro:bits. So if we raise an event on
one micro:bit, then another micro:bit can receive it. This component provides a very easy to use, flexible, broadcast
radio channel. Anything we can send from one micro:bit can be received by another micro:bit nearby” (Ansari, 2018,
o The micro:bit website has numerous pre-developed lessons to teach the basics of how to program using their own web-
based, block programming, MakeCode. https://microbit.org/lessons/
o Getting started with your micro:bit resource: https://learn.sparkfun.com/tutorials/getting-started-with-the-microbit/
• Human-Centered Design and Prototyping (3D Printing) – What is human-centered design? Why does human-centered design
matter when related to product development? What are some ways we can prototype?
o “Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re
designing for and ends with a solution tailor-made to suit their needs. The goal is to empathize with the people you’re de-
signing for, and thus, a solution that addresses specific needs defined by your target market” (DesignKit, 2020, para. 1-2).
o “Prototyping is an experimental process where design teams implement ideas into tangible forms. Teams build prototypes
of varying degrees of fidelity (how well does it work/how close is it to the final product) to capture design concepts and
test on users. You can evaluate and test your designs to confirm results and adjust design flaws as needed” (Interactive
Design Foundation, 2021, para. 1).
o “3D Printing is a form of additive manufacturing that takes spools of plastic, heats them up, and precisely builds three-di-
mensional objects layer by layer. 3D printing appears on many scales, from small classroom-based projects, to car manu-
facturers, and can consistently be used to quickly and cleanly create prototypes” (3DPrinting.com, 2021).
Engineer: Requires students to apply their knowledge and skills using the engineering design process to identify a problem and to
develop/make/evaluate/refine a viable solution.
• The students are now tasked to leverage their new knowledge and insights gained to develop a
product to assist in social distancing during the pandemic.
• Students receive a design brief (Figure 5, page 31) on which they must work in small groups to cre-
ate a solution for maintaining proper social distancing.
• Students will need to create multiple sketches of their micro:bit case, select the best one, then
create it in CAD. They will then take their model, print it on a 3D printer, and test their prototype,
documenting their findings and proposed changes to be made (a sample design is provided here
and can be accessed at https://bit.ly/3qlNPye).
• A sample program for this activity is provided in Figure 6.
Evaluate: Allows students to evaluate their own learning and skill development in a manner that enables them to take the necessary
steps to master the lesson content and concepts.
• After students have devised a solution, they will propose their idea to the class in a 5 to 10-minute presentation.
• They will guide the class through their process, describe the process to reach their solution, and explain the functionality of their
• Students will be evaluated based on their performance on the case study and the engineering design challenge. Rubrics for both
are linked in Figures 4 and 5.
• There is potential to extend the activity by having students present their final designs as a product pitch. Here is a link to an exam-
ple social lanyard pitch: https://bit.ly/3smCWOx
Note. Lesson format adapted from Grubbs & Strimel (2015).
Logical Thought and Computational Thinking Exploration Activity
Your company, Robots R Us, has developed a robot made to assist people in their average, day-to-day lives. The marketing for this robot
centers on its ability to make a sandwich from scratch, but your company is struggling to finalize the programming for this task. You
have been charged with creating a flowchart describing each step that the robot must take to create a sandwich.
1. Draw a flowchart describing each step required to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
2. What were some challenges with creating a flowchart for this task?
3. What are some limits when it comes to what a robot is capable of doing? Consider your flowchart and how well a robot could
Answer Key: https://tinyurl.com/SDCSKey
Figure 4. Exploration activity.
Social Lanyard Design
May/June 2021 technology and engineering teacher 31
Figure 6. Example code for how to program micro:bits to detect distance between each
Overall, this lesson is meant to provide
a learning experience that highlights
engineering practices and gives students
an introductory experience to program-
ming and computational thinking. Such
an experience has various real-life ca-
reer applications and serves as an inside
look into a field that is not often directly
referenced in high school curriculum. As
described, the lesson provides a founda-
tion for introducing conversations about
assistive technology and social awareness.
Further topics to explore after teaching this
lesson could be Center for Disease Control
recommendations for maintaining safe
behavior during a pandemic, a deeper look
into computer science and the application
of computational thinking, the analysis of
systems at a larger scale (i.e., investigating
the components of a manufacturing facility,
Social Distancing Design Brief
You and your group mates are a team of research and development engineers, working to develop a product to support social distanc-
ing during this pandemic. There is a large market for individuals who want to attend public events (concerts, conferences, sporting
events, college orientation, etc.) while following proper social distancing guidelines. Your group has been tasked with creating a system
that alerts the individual when they are within 6 feet of another person. You will create a proof of concept of your solution and present the
new product idea to the product development committee in hopes of eventually having your design widely manufactured.
• Must display a Check Mark when the lanyard is 6’, or more, apart from others
• Must display an X when the lanyard is within 6’ of others
• Must emit a warning sound when the lanyard is within 6’ of others
• Must turn warning sound o when the lanyard is 6’, or more, apart from others
• Must meet client’s specific needs (concerts, conferences, sporting events,
college orientation, etc.)
• Micro:Bit and the associated cable (Version 2 with speaker)
• Kitronik’s Micro:Bit MI:Power board (https://kitronik.co.uk/products/5610-
• Documentation of ideation and prototype design
• Documentation of programming
• Sketches of the final product (hand-drawn or computer-generated)
o The sketches must show all features and explain all views
• A rapid prototype model of the innovation
o The prototype must be 3D-printed
Figure 5. Lesson design brief.
Mackey Arena, Purdue University. Image credit: Wi-
kimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/
32 technology and engineering teacher May/June 2021
a specific machine or vehicle, and many other potential systems to
explore), and potentially the commercialization of solutions to these
problems through entrepreneurial-related activities.
This lesson can be adapted to be taught in a COVID-safe envi-
ronment by adjusting the physical prototype requirements. For
example, students could use a collaborative 3D modeling software
such as Autodesk Fusion360 or TinkerCad to create their prototype
online. If students did not have access to computers that could
use 3D modeling software, they could also use Google Drawings
or Google Jamboard to collaboratively work together to brainstorm
and display design ideas. Depending on the access to equipment,
micro:bits could be sent to students for their use in developing
their products, as the web-based MakeCode is accessible through
numerous mediums of technology. The lecture, class activity, and
presentation aspects of the lesson could be facilitated over a video
call of any kind or through a socially distant classroom.
3DPrinting.com. (2021). What is 3D printing? https://3dprinting.
Advancing Excellence in P-12 Engineering Education & American
Society of Engineering Education. (2020). A Framework for P-12
engineering learning: A defined and cohesive educational foun-
dation for P-12 engineering. American Society of Engineering
Ansari, A. (2018). Communication of micro:bit using radio signal.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Covid-19
(Coronavirus Disease): Frequently Asked Questions. www.
DesignKit. (2020). What is human-centered design? www.designkit.
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. (2020).
Covid-19 situation update worldwide, as of week 50 2020.
Grubbs, M. E., & Strimel, G. (2015). Engineering design: The great
integrator. Journal of STEM Teacher Education, 50(1), 77-90.
Interaction Design Foundation. (2021). What is prototyping?
International Technology and Engineering Educators Association
(2020). Standards for technological and engineering literacy:
The role of technology and engineering in STEM education.
Reston, VA: Author. www.iteea.org/STEL.aspx
K–12 Computer Science Framework Steering Committee. (2016).
K–12 computer science framework. www.k12cs.org
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For
states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press
Sparkfun. (2017). Getting started with the micro:bit. https://learn.
Jackson Otto is a graduate student at Purdue
University studying Engineering Technology
Teacher Education. He can be reached at ottoj@
Waseem Williams is an undergraduate student
at Purdue University majoring in Organizational
Leadership with minors in Design and Innovation
and Human Resource Development.
Samuel Moran is an undergraduate student at
Purdue University majoring in Industrial Engi-
neering Technology with a minor in Design and
Luke Ingram is an undergraduate student at
Purdue University majoring in Organizational
Leadership with a minor in Design and Innova-
Greg J. Strimel, Ph.D., is an assistant profes-
sor of Technology Leadership and Innovation at
Purdue University and serves as the Director of
Transformative Research for the AE3 Research
Collaborative. He can be reached at gstrimel@