« Back to main page


This engineering design module introduces the design and use of composite materials; with a special focus on carbon fiber composites and their use in modern airplane design and manufacture, such as with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Students engage in several mini-design challenges which lead up to a multi-day engineering design challenge where students define the problem, generate solutions, build prototypes, test, re-design, and optimize their best weave patterns for a new composite material with high tensile strength that could be used as a strong and lightweight material in airplanes. Connections are built between materials science, composite engineering, and aeronautical engineering as students explore the benefits that composites—especially carbon fiber composites—offer to airplane designers. Through their work developing composites, students build an understanding of the engineering design process and materials science.

NGSS addressed by this module:
3-5-ETS1-1   3-5-ETS1-2   3-5-ETS1-3   5-PS1-3   5-PS1-4

Grade Band: 4-5

Download the Lessons

Entire Unit: Composites
DAYS 1–10: Composites Teacher Handbook Download

DAYS 1 and 2: Squish It! Stretch It! Smash It!
Students develop their understanding of the categories of materials that make up everyday objects as they describe material properties and develop performance tests. Students investigate the use of materials, especially composites, in airplane design. Download

DAY 3: Build an Airplane
Students are introduced to the engineering design concepts of criteria and constraints. Students then participate in a Paper Airplane Mini-Design Challenge, in which they construct paper airplanes from different materials and evaluate their alignment with the design criteria using a Pugh chart. Download

DAY 4: Composites Everywhere
Students begin to investigate composites’ characteristics and how composites could help an airplane perform better. A mini-design challenge engages students in designing a candy brittle recipe, which deepens their understanding of the role of reinforcement and matrix ingredients in composite materials. Download

DAY 5: Carbon Fiber Composites
Students observe corrugated cardboard and test the cardboard for three types of material strength (compressive, tensile, and shear). Through the tests, students identify failure points and consider aspects of the cardboard that could be improved. Download

DAY 6: Textile Technology
Students explore the manufacturing methods of carbon fiber composites to further develop their understanding of what makes these materials unique. Given that carbon fiber composites are manufactured in a process akin to the textile industry, students investigate this analogy to textile technology by examining the parts of a deconstructed sweater. Download

DAYS 7, 8, 9 & 10: Composites Engineering Design Challenge
In this multiday lesson, students engage in a Composites Engineering Design Challenge as they design test, retest, optimize, and present their prototypes of a new type of composite material with the most tensile strength. Download

Download Additional Resources

Composites Student Handouts
All Lessons Download


The materials created by this collaboration were taught by the authoring teachers in Puget Sound and Houston and in 2015, a second group of teachers taught the lessons and provided feedback to improve the modules. As part of a second iteration of the modules, the senior science editor at Teaching Channel worked with Achieve to integrate the teachers’ feedback while more closely aligning the modules to The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for significant shifts in the way science is taught and learned. In 2016, a panel of science experts from around the country convened for a two day training with Achieve to learn how to incorporate the Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuiP) Rubric for Science. As part of the iterative process of improvement, the expert reviewers then completed an EQuIP Rubric for each module. Teaching Channel's senior science editor combined the reviewers input to create a third iteration of the modules that promotes a close alignment to standards while honoring the original expertise of the authoring teachers and engineers.

Partners at the Institute for Science and Math Education at the University of Washington and Educate Texas were instrumental in teacher recruitment and the necessary training for this initiative.