Engineering Litter Collectors

In this unit, students explore the science phenomena of engineers mimicking plant and animal structures. Students apply what they have learned about the structures of plants and animals to mimic those structures to solve problems facing people.

Once students have explored the relationship between the structure of a bird’s beak and its ability to pick up different kinds of food, they apply that knowledge to an engineering problem. This page is a high-level extract showcasing sections of the curriculum. In this lesson, students use what they know about how plants and animals have different structures to help them get what they need to survive to design a prototype that can pick up litter.

Science Background for Teachers:

This science background gives teachers deeper background information on the phenomena students investigate in the unit. It helps teachers understand the “why” and “how” of the topic being explored, in this case, engineering litter collectors.

Like scientists, engineers follow a process to help them move from a defined problem to a solution that solves the problem. Engineers use the engineering process—the set of eight steps that engineers follow to solve problems by creating new technologies. Similar to the scientific process, the engineering process provides engineers with a logical framework to help them move from a problem that needs to be solved to a technology that solves the problem.

Engineers always begin with a problem. A problem is a need or a want that people have. This is the primary difference between scientists and engineers. Scientists begin with a question, while engineers begin with a problem. For example, one problem is how to pick up different objects, such as toys in a game.

When engineers are defining a problem, they include the criteria and constraints. The criteria are the needs the solution must meet, and constraints are ways the solution is limited. Materials and cost are two common engineering constraints. Once they have identified the problem, engineers need to research the problem to find out what is known about the problem. For example, engineers who want to design a technology to pick up toys in a game might look to nature for inspiration. They might have seen an eagle swoop down to catch prey using its giant claws. A claw is a body part at the end of an animal’s toes that is sharp and curved.

Supports Grade 1

Science Lesson: Engineering Litter Collectors

In this lesson, students apply what they know about the external structures of different animals to design a prototype to pick up litter. Students act as engineers as they go through the complete engineering process of designing, testing, and evaluating a prototype to solve a problem.  

Science Big Ideas

  • The biggest difference between scientists and engineers is that while scientists begin with a question they want to answer, engineers begin with a problem they want to solve.
  • Engineers sometimes use what they know about the structures of living things to help them design technologies.

Sample Unit CTA-2
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Science Essential Questions

  • What do engineers do?
  • What are some examples of technologies in our everyday lives that solve problems?
  • Why do engineers design prototypes first?
  • How does the shape of the eagle’s claw make it useful to mimic (copy) in a technology for picking up trash?
  • How does the shape of a beak make it able to pick up things?

Common Science Misconceptions

Misconception: Technologies never mimic nature because engineers need to come up with completely new ideas to solve problems.

Fact: Many engineers look to nature, including the structures of plants and animals, to help them design technologies that solve problems.

Science Vocabulary

Beak : the hard, pointed body part that sticks out of a bird’s face

Claw : a body part at the end of an animal’s toes that is sharp and curved

Engineer : anyone who uses scientific knowledge and mathematics to solve a problem by creating new technologies

Mimic : to copy

Prototype : a smaller version of what will be engineered

Thorn : ta hard, sharp part of a plant that sticks out of a plant’s roots, stem, or leaves

Lexile(R) Certified Non-Fiction Science Reading (Excerpt)

Solving a Problem

Miguel is designing a game. He wants to create a game where players try to pick up a toy inside a closed box.

Miguel is an engineer. Engineers solve problems. This is different from scientists. Scientists answer questions. Engineers create new technologies. A technology is anything that people make to meet their needs and wants.

Looking to Nature

Miguel’s problem is how to pick up toys in the game. Engineers use scientific knowledge to help them solve the problem.

Miguel can mimic an animal or plant’s body parts to solve the problem. To mimic means to copy. Miguel knows that eagles use their claws to catch fish. He sees that claws are good at picking up many different shapes.

Miguel also knows that some birds use their beaks to pick up things. He sees that the shape of the beak affects what the bird can pick up. And Miguel knows that a plant’s thorns can pierce some things.

After looking at claws, beaks, and thorns, Miguel decides to design a solution that mimics a bird’s claw to pick up toys. Miguel builds a prototype of his design solution. A prototype is a first draft. It is a smaller version of the final technology.


Hands-on Science Activity

In this lesson, students will engage as engineers to design and test a prototype of a litter collector. Students summarize a problem presented in an engineering scenario, which is that someone needs a way to pick up litter from the ground without touching it with their hands. Students draw a visual model of two possible solutions to the problem. They then choose one of the solutions and draw a scientific diagram of it, using their diagram as a guide for creating their litter collector prototype. Once students build their litter collector prototype, they test it to determine how well it solved the problem, meeting the requirements of the problem within the constraints. Finally, students communicate their results to the class, drawing conclusions about how people can solve problems with technology.

Science Assessments

KnowAtom incorporates formative and summative assessments designed to make students thinking visible for deeper student-centered learning.

  • Vocabulary Check
  • Lab Checkpoints
  • Concept Check Assessment 
  • Concept Map Assessment 
  • And More...

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Science Standards

See How KnowAtom Aligns to NGSS Science Standards

Discover hands-on screens-off core science curriculum for student centered K-8 classrooms. KnowAtom supports classrooms with all hands-on materials, curriculum, and professional development to support mastery of the standards.

Download the Alignment to NGSS

Standards citation: NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.