Engineering First – Elementary School Curriculum

The national emphasis on STEM education will have long-lasting, positive impacts upon future generations. Unfortunately, K-5 teachers already have many demands placed upon them and the creation of new classroom modules and materials can sometimes be a daunting task. The Accelerated Bridge Construction University Transportation Center (ABC-UTC) has partnered with the West Marshall School District to develop, refine, and disseminate a customizable set of lesson plans for up to four weeks that focuses on the fundamentals of engineering and the engineering process. The module has been developed with the following performance expectations in mind:

  • Ability to ask questions, make observations, and gather information to define a problem that can be solved using engineering processes.
  • Ability to develop simple sketches, drawings, or physical models do help understand how function may be used to solve a given problem.
  • Ability to analyze data to solve a problem including comparing the strengths and weaknesses of various alternatives.


Lesson plans are variable in length and come with a suggested list of materials and activities. Generally, most lessons are 30 to 60 minutes in length with flexibility to either shorten or lengthen as necessary. Topics generally include:

Week 1

  • What is an Engineer?
  • Identify a problem and solution
  • Measurements
  • What’s the strongest shape?
  • Types and magnitudes of forces…May the Force be with You!

Week 2

  • Gnome engineers – solving a community problem with the Engineering Process
  • Famous bridges
  • Make a Plan!
  • Building a community

Week 3

  • Bridge evaluations
  • K’Nex Bridge building
  • Engineering of balsa bridges
  • Bridge engineers at work! Let the bridge building competition begin!
  • Reflection on engineering and the engineering process

Week 4

  • Trusses
  • Suspension bridges
  • Bridge abutments
  • Bridge piers
  • Bridge building with experts

The ENGINEERING FIRST module was developed collaboratively between a first-grade teacher with approximately 20 years of experience, engineering educators and researchers, and practicing engineers. The module was first utilized in 2016 and then again in Fall of 2017 with significant refinements. Now in its third iteration, the module is ready for widespread implementation.

The ABC-UTC is looking to partner with additional school districts to further implement ENGINEERING FIRST. As part of this implementation, the ABC-UTC will provide training to K-5 educators, all needed materials/supplies, and on-demand support.


  • Lori Tollefson,; First Grade Teacher, West Marshall Elementary (Iowa)
  • Brent M. Phares, PE, Ph.D.;; Director, Bridge Engineering Center, Iowa State University

Interested in Engineering First?

Please fill out the below form if you are interested in implementing Engineering First into your classroom, library, or center. We will do what we can to help you with implementation.