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Draft Essay Using the Design Process

When engineers design solutions to problems, they go through a process of brainstorming, testing different ideas, learning from mistakes, and trying again. This is called the engineering design process. The steps of the engineering design process are:

  • define the problem to solve;
  • brainstorm various solutions;
  • select a solution;
  • design, build, test and redesign solution; and
  • share results.

The engineering design process is a great way to work through any challenge that involves creating something that didn’t exist before, such as building a bridge, planning a trip—even writing an essay. You’ll use the design process as a framework to guide students through researching and writing their essay solutions.

1. Define the Problem

To get started, engineers define the problem they want to solve and the project requirements.

Help students define the problem by reviewing this year’s topic and Essay Outline together. How would they describe the essay problem using their own words? What are the different parts of the problem?


The next step in defining the problem is for students to develop a background understanding of the topic area. Have students research traditional farming practices, existing urban farms, and futuristic urban farm designs. You can start with the three case studies of futuristic farm environments on page 24 and then start mining the resource section on page 26.

As they gather ideas and examples, have students create a series of questions (a frame) to guide their analysis of each one. This same frame can be adapted to analyze the team’s designs later on. Here are some questions to get them started:

  • Was this farm built new or did it utilize existing structures?
  • What factors were used to decide the farm’s location?
  • What is the farm’s source of light?
  • How does the farm get water? Is there an efficient irrigation system?
  • Is it climate controlled? Why or why not?
  • Do they use pesticides? Should they?
  • How are nutrients provided to the plants or fed to the animals?
  • Is the farm energy efficient? Why or why not?
  • What environmental impact does the farm have on the surrounding area and how will you lessen any negative consequences? For example, does your farm recycle waste product(s)?
  • What tradeoffs does the design require?
  • What is the role of engineering in these farms? What engineering disciplines were needed to solve the technical and design challenges?


Before students can make their two crop choices, they need to be aware of which plant-based crop will provide the most vitamins and minerals and which protein-based food will be nutritious and practical for an urban farm environment. Students will need to understand where they get protein in their own diet. Meat, poultry, eggs, fish, legumes, most seeds and nuts, and several vegetables are all high in protein. But each has different growing requirements that must be taken into consideration.

Some foods, such as grains (wheat, rice, barley, etc.) are needed in such huge qualities and have such unique growing and harvesting requirements, that they are unlikely to be practical in urban farms. Other crops require such long growing cycles that the yield would not meet the needs of your students’ city. It is also important to understand that food preferences are often rooted in cultural or ethnic traditions, which must be considered when choosing which foods to grow. As they research food options, students should consider:

  • Are some foods easier to grow in your future city’s location?
  • Are there foods that are more culturally appropriate and desirable to your citizens?
  • What nutritional benefits do these foods provide?
  • How long does it take to produce a crop (either plant or animal)?
  • What is the typical crop yield of these foods on a traditional or urban farm?
  • Can they be grown in an energy efficient way?

2. Brainstorm Various Solutions

Next, engineers brainstorm a range of possible solutions.

Using what they already know from the case studies and their own research, have students brainstorm a range of foods and urban farm designs. Encourage students to think about which solutions interest them, including those in use today and those being developed for tomorrow.

As they brainstorm encourage creativity, innovation, problem solving, and futuristic thinking. Remind them that their urban farm solution can be an improvement on an existing technology or a completely new invention. It can be a single centralized solution or one that involves a network of urban farms scattered throughout the city. Whatever the final design is, it should demonstrate original ideas.

3. Select a Solution

Engineers choose the best solution and plan how to build it.

From their initial research and brainstorming, students must make four key decisions:

1. Which two foods will they grow within the boundaries of their city limits?

  • One must be a vegetable, the other must be a protein.
  • They must grow enough of each to feed their entire city. (Remember their two foods aren’t the only food their citizens will eat, but there should be enough for everyone.
  • It must be nutritionally beneficial.

2. What does their urban farm design(s) look like? How will it work?

  • How does it meet their crops basic growing needs for light, soil/growing medium, water, and nutrients?
  • Are there tradeoffs they will need to address? What are they?
  • Can they grow both crops in one environment or do they need multiple designs?

3. What makes their design energy efficient?

4. Where is it located?

4. Design, Test, and Redesign

Once a design is settled on, engineers begin building, testing, and redesigning their solution.

As they develop a design and start outlining it, it is likely the students will need to refine their ideas and solve problems that develop. This is part of the process.

At this stage it is good idea to rely on three resources to make sure they are heading in the right direction:

  1. Your Mentor may have expertise in this area or be able to call upon colleagues to help evaluate the students’ designs.
  2. The Rubric outlines the criteria the judges will use to evaluate their research essays.
  3. The Essay Outline provides a basic outline of how to structure the essay.

5. Share Results

Engineers present their work to colleagues to show how they solved a problem and learn new ideas from each other.

Now it’s time for your students to finalize their essay—an excellent way to share their ideas with a panel of judges and kids across the country.

Remind students that the essay should be no longer than 1,000 words and free of grammatical and spelling errors. They should cite at least three sources of information used during the idea development process. Students should use a variety of sources of information, such as interviews with experts, reference books, periodicals, and websites. (NOTE: Wikipedia is not accepted as a source of research.)

For additional tips about researching and writing the essay, view the “Writing the Essay” video and read essays from past winners.

Next Section: Essay Outline >