How To Think Like An Engineer – A STEM Workshop For Primary Schools

Overview: In this workshop, the students will use paper aeroplanes to learn about how engineers think about the world around them, and they create new objects, machines and technologies. The workshop will start with a simple question: how do you make the best possible paper aeroplane? They will then be asked to consider what this question means, and how they would define the word ‘best’. For example, is it the furthest flight, the longest duration, the straightest, the most accurate, and so on. They will then be asked to make a paper aeroplane, test it, and then alter the design to see if, and how, they can improve it. Duration: One to one and a half hours.

Intended Learning Outcome: This workshop will introduce children to the way that engineers think and how they use ‘trial and error’ learning to develop and test new designs.

STEM Areas Covered: This workshop will cover how to think like an engineer, as well as how to develop and improve engineering designs by changing one variable at a time to see what effect it has on the outcome.

What Does This Workshop Involve? This workshop will start by introducing the students to the way that engineers use ‘trial and error’ learning to create, test and improve the designs of everyday objects. They will be challenged to use this type of learning to create the best possible paper aeroplane. At this point, they will be asked to think about what this challenge actually means, and specifically what is meant by the word ‘best’. This will introduce them to the importance of defining terms properly when thinking like an engineer and before starting any work on a design. They will then each make a paper aeroplane using their own preferred design, and these will be flown to see which one performs best. They will then be divided into groups of four and be asked to think about what they could change about this best aeroplane to improve it. This could be things like changing the shape, the weight of the paper used and way it is launched. They will then be asked to make one of these changes and test whether it does or doesn’t improve the performance of the design. This will be repeated twice to see how much they can improve the design.

Next, they will be provided with templates for a range of different paper aeroplane designs, and each group will be asked to select one to make and test against their original design to see how it compares in terms of a number of different measures, such as duration of flight, length of flight, straightness of flight and accuracy. Again, this will be repeated twice to allow them to see how different designs compare. Finally, they will be set a series of challenges, and asked to select the best design for completing each one. These challenges include one or more of the following: landing on a specific target (a test of accuracy), flying through a line of hoops (a test of straightness), distance and duration of the flight.

From this, the students will learn about how to run comparisons between different designs to see which is best for a specific purpose, and see the importance of ‘trial and error’ learning. The workshop will end with a discussion on how ‘thinking like an engineer’ can be used in everyday life, and the importance of trying, and indeed failing, while trying to solve problems they may encounter.

What Type Of Space Is Required For This Workshop? This workshop has been designed to be conducted in a typical school gym, although any other similar space can be used.

How Long Will This Workshop Last? This workshop will last between one and one and a half hours, and can be adapted to fit available time slots. Our preferred time to run this workshop is between mid-morning and lunchtime as this gives children time to settle into the school day, but they are still alert enough to listen to instructions and make the most of the experience.

Is This Workshop Safe? This workshop is as safe as any practical workshop can be. Aeroplanes will only be allowed to be flown in a single direction, and all students will be required to stand behind the thrower at this time.

What Equipment Is Required? Other than providing a suitable space to carry out this workshop, there is no need to provide any additional equipment, and all materials can be supplied by us.

What Age Of Children Can Participate In This Workshop? This workshop is designed for children in P4 to P7.

How Many Children Can Be Accommodated? This workshop is designed to be carried out with a maximum of thirty-two children (divided into eight groups of four) at any one time. However, this upper limit is flexible and the workshop can be repeated several times in succession to accommodate a greater number of children from the same school.

How Much Will This Workshop Cost? This workshop costs £200 for up to thirty-two children (which would equate to a cost of £6.25 per child). If the workshop is repeated on the same day to accommodate more children, each additional repeat would cost an additional £50.

Who Will Run The Workshop? The workshop will be run by Dr Colin D. MacLeod. He has worked as a research scientist for over twenty years, as well as working as an educationalist, lecturer and street entertainer. He is a strong advocate of introducing children to the scientific method, critical thinking, ‘trial and error’ learning and STEM subjects as early as possible in their education. He is also the founder of How To Raise A Happy Genius, and an author of books for both adults and children (published under the pseudonym Colin M. Drysdale). He is also PVG-registered and has an up-to-date PVG certificate.

How Can I Book This Workshop? This workshop can be booked by emailing This email address can also be used to request further information, ask questions or discuss any special requirements. Please use the subject line Think Like An Engineer Workshop Enquiry in any such emails to help us identify them and respond as quickly as possible.