Engineering Real-World Solutions

By: Tom Higginbotham

My name is Tom, and I have a problem. I’m obsessed with my backyard ice rink. More to the point, I am obsessed with crafting a surface whose only variations from perfect are in the nanometer range. It’s an impossible dream, as the variables between my dream and me are as complex as they are numerous.

This season’s ice that was closest to perfection.

This season’s ice that was closest to perfection.

Still, there’s something deeply compelling about facing these variables, recognizing which ones I can impact (e.g., keeping the ice surface free from heat-absorbing leaves and needles), those I can not (e.g., 60 degree days in February), and doing my level-best to design solutions to those over which I have some control.

Each twig or pine needle frond will absorb more heat than its surrounding ice, causing divots in the ice. DIVOTS!!!

Each twig or pine needle frond will absorb more heat than its surrounding ice, causing divots in the ice. DIVOTS!!!

Am I an engineer? No.

Do I engineer? Yes.

As a process, the soul of engineering is systematic ‘problem’ solving, or as the NGSS puts it, “any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems (NGSS Appendix I).” The ‘systematic’ part of design includes: defining problems (and the parameters of a successful solution), developing solutions, and optimizing those solutions.


The process of engineering is pretty straightforward, and accessible to many. The NGSS authors recognize the ripeness of the opportunity that engineering design offers for our K-12 students, especially for engaging students who traditionally may not have seen themselves as scientists or engineers (including many females and rural students). Specifically, “by solving meaningful problems through engineering in local contexts,... students.... come to view science as relevant to their lives and future.”

So in spirit, the NGSS take a giant positive step by so explicitly emphasizing Engineering. Additionally, the key to authentically engaging our K-12 students, helping them envision themselves as engineers, is the same thing that drives my clinically diagnosable obsession to design solutions with my rink: I’m working on ‘problems’ that I sincerely want to solve. Not just because they’re interesting or challenging. Not because they have the allure of technology’s bells and whistles. Not because they’re an assignment my teacher gave me. I want to solve these ice problems - and this is so important - because it’s a problem that matters to me. I want to solve them because I want to solve them.

Leaf-induced divot. Not visible: the tears on my computer keyboard.

Leaf-induced divot. Not visible: the tears on my computer keyboard.

So back to the rink. One constant throughout the winter, and between periods on a hockey rink, is that resurfacing requires water. I’m on hand-pulled Zamboni version 3.0, which I have to say, is amazing. But it requires water. The best time to resurface is when it’s so cold that by the time I get to the far side of the rink, the near side that I’ve just laid down has already frozen. However, that same delicious quick-freezing water is the source of my yet unsatisfactorily solved problem: having a consistently reliable hose through which water can flow.

The problem I want to solve? Have reliable water hoses that are clear of the frozen remains of their previous use. The parameters for success?

  • Process that takes less than five minutes, from end of watering to storage of hose

  • Storage of hose is outside

  • Water flows during next use of hose

The main issues have to do with water’s properties. It finds the lowest point. It adheres to the inner walls of the hose. It coheres with itself. It freezes quickly when there’s a high surface-area- to-volume ratio. In plain English, no matter the system I’ve used for draining the hoses, absent a perfectly flat surface and perfectly flat hose, there is always a low spot in which enough water accumulates to create a frozen plug.

My first design solution, a bit sad in retrospect, was to simply roll up the hose using one of those garden hose rollers that work so well in the summer. Boy, do those provide some outstanding low points for water to accumulate and plug. I tried bringing the hoses into the basement. Wife said no. I’ve tried, with various degrees of success, the ‘porch pull’: starting with one end of the hose up on the porch (about 15 feet higher than the rink’s level), slowly pulling up the rest of the hose, draining water through its ends as it reaches its changing high-point. I’ve tried doing that twice, once forward and once backward. I’ve tried leaving the water turned on with a trickle. In every circumstance, at least 50% of the time, I end up with a frozen plug somewhere in the hose.  My best luck has come from doing ‘double-porch-pull’ and then laying the hose in big loops on the flattest part of the yard. So, my designing has no choice but to continue. Because I must have perfect ice.

As a learner, it’s exciting to look back at what I now know viscerally that I didn’t consider before beginning this work: when faced with a fatal flaw to a design that I REALLY want to solve, I have no choice but to reflect, think, learn, and design. And again, that’s the key (I think) to using design to teach our students science concepts that will persist much deeper and longer in them than would a list of memorized terms or multiple choice test items.

Using design as a learning hook has tremendous potential. It can also become the latest in a long string of truly good educational ideas that don’t live up to their billing. Have students work on problems that they want to solve because they want to solve them.

Are K-12 students professional engineers? No.

Do they engineer? Perhaps.

Can they engineer? Certainly.

Will they engineer? If it matters to them.