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Our Illinois 4-H Story

Learning engineering design through robotics

Youth robotics teams from around the state are traveling to Bloomington this weekend to compete in the SpaceBot Mission Command 4-H Robotics Challenge. Teams have built and programmed Lego robots to accomplish a variety of tasks related to space travel, such as satellite control, navigation, and supply transport.

To accomplish these tasks successfully, teams use the engineering design process. This process is a series of steps that engineers, and others, use to solve problems. By mastering this process, kids gain tons of valuable skills that can help them in the real world.

The engineering design process typically begins with a group defining the problem that needs solving. This step means really taking the problem apart to try to fully understand it. Taking the time to think about the problem at the start helps kids be more deliberate when tackling challenges in their own lives.

After the problem has been identified a group will do background research on the problem by looking at what others have done. This is a great lesson for kids, as they get to see that they can build off of the work of others, instead of re-inventing the wheel.

Next, groups will take the problem and research and use it to define their specifications. Specifications are typically a detailed list of materials, dimensions, requirements, and other information needed to create the final product. Teams will keep these specifications in mind as they move to the next step of the process, brainstorming solutions.

Brainstorming is one of my favorite parts of the engineering design process to watch. In it, teams come up with all sorts of ideas that could potentially solve their problem. Some are creative. Some are functional. Some are both! Getting practice brainstorming helps get kids’ creative juices flowing. It also helps them think about approaching challenges in new ways.

Once all the ideas are on the table, groups select the idea, or combination of ideas, that they think will best meet their specifications and solve the problem. They then move on to developing those ideas through planning and development. In these steps they’ll use what they know to come up with a planned design. This might involve more research, sketches, calculations and note taking. The ultimate goal is making the idea a reality.

Once an idea is fleshed out, teams build a prototype to try to accomplish their goal. In robotics this is where the kids really get hands-on with building and programming. Rarely does a prototype work just right the first time, so teams need to move to the next step in the engineering design process: troubleshooting.

In troubleshooting, teams test their prototypes, identify problems, and then work on coming up with alternate ideas and solutions. In doing this, they are looping back to earlier steps in the engineering design process. They keep working on developing and testing new ideas until they find a good solution. The ability to troubleshoot effectively, and deal with the frustrations that are often involved in this step, builds resilient kids who are more able to deal with life’s challenges.

Ideally teams end up with a product, or robot, capable of achieving their goal or solving their problem. Sometimes constraints like materials or time get in the way of getting to this point. This is another important lesson for kids to learn. Goals might not always be achieved, but they can be proud of the hard work they put in, and the lessons they learned.

I hope all the work teams put in working through this process pays off for them at our 4-H State Robotics Challenge! Even if they don’t walk away as event champions, participants have built problem solving, teamwork and troubleshooting skills through application of the engineering design process.

If you want to learn more about the 4-H Robotics project check out the Project Spark Sheet at


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Henschen is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist with University of Illinois Extension. She provides statewide 4-H program leadership in the areas of evaluation and staff development. Amy has previously worked as a 4-H educator in both Illinois and Colorado, developing programs to meet local needs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Spanish from the University of Dayton and a master’s degree in Agricultural Extension Education from Colorado State University. Amy grew up in the Illinois 4-H program and is passionate about creating high quality programs and environments where youth can thrive.