Learning Blast: Explore Materials

Learn how engineers investigate and consider the properties and uses of materials to select those that are most appropriate for the task.

Engineering effective solutions requires selecting materials that are best suited to the problem at hand. Engineered products often have a number of components. As part of the engineering design process, engineers consider and experiment with different materials to determine which perform best for each component of their design.  

All materials have properties—they might be lightweight, waterproof, fuzzy, shiny, opaque, etc. The properties determine how the material behaves under different conditions and how suited it is for particular tasks. 

Youth build understanding about materials as they interact with their world. Through hands-on experience they come to understand which materials, for example, absorb water or reflect light. Thus, opportunities for youth to explore, test, observe, and describe how materials function are essential. 

As you watch the video, think about this: 

  • Notice how the facilitator introduces the materials youth will be using. 
  • Watch for strategies you can use to help youth explore materials. 
  • Listen to how youth talk about the materials. 

Watch the video:

Share what you noticed:

  • What was the most interesting thing you noticed in the video? 
  • What did you notice about how the youth talk about the materials they were using?
  • What strategies did the facilitator use to encourage youth in exploring materials?
  • How can engineering activities be set up so youth are able to explore and select materials? 

What we know:

Before creating their prototype, youth should have experiences that actively build their understanding of the materials that are available to use in their designs. Investigations that invite all youth to become familiar with the materials, their traits, and their behaviors are critical. Providing opportunities to explore the materials before youth tackle the challenge focuses their efforts and allows more equitable participation. 

Educators can help youth develop and utilize knowledge of materials during engineering. As engineering problems are introduced, key performance attributes should be described. For example, the bridge needs to be strong enough to support 2 pounds or the bandage needs to be flexible enough to allow the knee to bend 90º. Identifying the necessary characteristics of a successful design signals which material properties are important. 

During the design activity, youth should consider the available materials, predict which might work well, and explain why. In diagrams of their prototypes, students should be encouraged to communicate and document their materials choices by labeling each. After testing designs, youth should be encouraged to reflect on the materials used, specifically how their fundamental properties affected the performance of their designs. 

Key Take-Away:

Engineers consider the properties of materials as they select those that are most appropriate for the task.  By having opportunities to manipulate and think about which materials are effective for a specific design, youth develop familiarity with properties of materials that guide their design decisions. These experiences will serve them in other areas of their growth as well, as they develop hands-on knowledge of the physical world around them. 


Now that you’ve watched the video, reflect on what you saw. 

  • Brainstorm at least three strategies to help youth connect their own prior experiences with materials to how those materials might perform during the Wind Tunnel engineering activity. 
  • How could you design engineering experiences to support exploring materials and making design decisions? 
  • What can you do to support youth developing hands-on knowledge of the world around them? 


Interested in doing this engineering activity with youth? Find the Wind Tunnel Activity here [Link to https://click2engineering.org/education/wind-tunnel/ ] 

Developed in collaboration with Christine M. Cunningham.  These practices are also more fully described in educational research articles, such as Cunningham & Kelly (2017).