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The Engineering Design Process: Aerogels

Grades: 6-12
Author: Marjorie Langston
Source: The lesson is the original work of the author. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EFC-1542358


Research currently being done at the University of Akron involves the creation of a gel polymer emulsion to make aerogels. The emulsifying agent (and dissolved phase) in the gel cannot simply be evaporated out because the holes left behind in the gel will collapse. Thus, a multistep solution exchange process is performed to get rid of the emulsifying agent (and dissolved phase) and leave the pores (holes) left behind intact. The result is a solid with lots and lots of holes in it called an aerogel.

Aerogels have been used in recent years by NASA and other entities because they have unique properties like being of a very low density and being incredible thermal insulators. Though they are very useful, aerogels are not widely used because it is still expensive to manufacture them on a large scale.

In this lesson, students will mimic polymer/process engineers by designing a process to eliminate chocolate chips from chocolate chip cookie dough (their “gel”) without destroying the holes left behind. This is a STEM lesson is in which the engineering design process is taught. An engineering design notebook is provided as well as metrics (including required teacher signatures at various points and Self, Peer, Group Evaluations) for ensuring that all students are on task at all times. Further, this notebook makes assessing individual contributions to the cooperative assignments easier many other projects.


What should students know as a result of this lesson?

  • Scientific Inquiry
  • STEAM/21 st Century Skills—collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, conflict resolution, perseverance
  • The engineering design process
  • The following terms: emulsion, emulsifying agent, compressive strength, aerogel, immiscible
  • Macrostructure of aerogels; properties and uses of aerogels; how structure influences properties and thus uses of a material
  • That aerogels are important substances being researched at the University of Akron and NASA

What should the students be able to do as a result of this lesson?

  • Explain/Define: the engineering design process, emulsion, emulsifying agent, compressive strength, aerogel, issues with making aerogels
  • Use the engineering design process and STEAM/21 st Century Skills (collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, conflict resolution, perseverance) to design a process
  • List properties of aerogels
  • Explain how structure affects properties which affects uses of a material


  • Aerogel Sample ($30-$100)—can be purchased from or . These samples are important. Alternatively, you could contact the manufacturer as ask them to donate samples to your class. Also, you can contact the Akron Global Polymer Academy to see if the research labs have samples they plan to throw away.
  • 4-8 packages premade chocolate chip cookie dough (or supplies to make it) for a class of 24 working in pairs (2-4 samples each round per pair) ($8-$20)
  • Basic lab supplies; basic household items like milk, oil, vinegar; cleaning solutions
  • Access to a heat source (Bunsen burner, oven/toaster oven) is helpful
  • Access to the internet and computers/tablets/smartphones/etc.; Google Slides, PowerPoint, or other presentation software
  • Supplies for liquid nitrogen demo or dry ice demo:
    • Liquid Nitrogen: liquid nitrogen; liquid nitrogen gloves; items such as live flowers, a racquetball and hammer, a balloon, grapes, scallions, etc. for a demo. A large cutting board (or work surface) and a bucket or deep ceramic baking dish, can be purchased from thrift stores, etc., may be helpful.
    • Dry Ice: dry ice, containers, indicator, bottle, tubing, cup with lid, etc. (See videos.)
    • Note: Your local university or a private company may have science outreach programs that bring liquid nitrogen to schools. Some even do the demos for you.
  • Candy mixture to use to determine pairs/groups


A weeks prior:


  • Ask your administration for a permission slip that will allow you use pictures of students working and their work samples for edu
  • Mention the engineering design challenge to students.
    • Design a means for removing chocolate chips from chocolate chip cookie dough and leave the holes left behind intact.
  • Tell students to be thinking of ideas and gathering supplies. Notify them that they will have a say in the design constraints (what substances are they allowed to use/not allowed to use, if cost will be a factor, etc.). Also, notify them that you will be choosing groups.
  • View and plan your liquid nitrogen demo or dry ice demo. There are lots of videos on the internet that you can use for ideas. Here are a couple:


Handouts for almost assignments except the Pre and Post test are in the Engineering Design Notebook.

Day 1-2:

  • Liquid nitrogen demo or dry ice demo.
  • Intro: Aerogel Teacher Demo—Have a volunteer hold their eyes closed and hands out. Put an index card in each hand and then an aerogel sample on one hand. Have student guess which hand. To minimize concern, tell the class what you will do before you choose a volunteer. You can let the students do this to each other. My students enjoyed trying to fool each other!
  • Pre Test
  • Mention design challenge again.


Day 3:

  • Each day moving forward, have students watch 1-2 videos from the video list found at the end of this lesson and start recording answers in the Basic Info Section (the first page) of their Engineering Design Notebook.
    • Note: Students must watch all videos to get all answers and some answers (i.e. uses, properties, etc.) are in more than one video.
    • Second Note: One video references liquid nitrogen and another references dry ice so that is why those demos are included in this unit.
  • Post the entire video list in the Google Classroom, Drive, your teacher website, etc.
  • Introduce/review problem and engineering design challenge by reading the paragraphs below which is also in their Engineering Design Notebook:
    • The Situation

      When you shake a bottle of oil and vinegar salad dressing and look at it (before the layers separate), you are looking at an emulsion. An emulsion is a heterogeneous mixture of two immiscible substances dispersed in each other. Often an emulsifying agent is added to prevent the layers from separating.

      Aerogel research is currently being done at the University of Akron to create coatings for clothing/masks which can filter out contaminants and thus improve our health. It is also being done create better matrices for cells to grow on to fight disease, aid injuries, etc.

      This research involves the creation of an aerogel by first creating a gel polymer emulsion. Unfortunately, the emulsifying agent and dissolved liquid cannot simply be evaporated because the holes left behind in the gel will collapse. Thus, multistep solution exchange process is performed to get rid of them and leave the holes left behind intact. This involves the sample being soaked in a solution for 24 hours, put into a (different) solution for 24 hours, and then a third liquid for 24 hours before the sample is soaked and dried with supercritical liquid carbon dioxide. The result is a solid with lots and lots of pores (holes) in it called an aerogel.

      Due to their unique structure, aerogels have many properties that make them very useful. However, aerogels are not widely used because it is still expensive to make them.

      Today, you are a polymer engineer. Your job is to start with a mixture and come up with a means of eliminating part of the mixture without destroying the holes left behind. Your sample “gel” is chocolate chip cookie dough.
  • Have class come up with design constraints (what materials are allowed, how much of a material is allowed, what lab equipment is allowed, etc.). Note: You may want to have students not be able to remove the chips manually and to require that the cookie dough be in its original shape at the end. Ironically, removing
  • Have students complete the first box of the Imagine/Brainstorm Page of the Engineering Design Notebook. Remind students that they will be able move on once every person has an idea written on their paper.
  • Handout a candy mixture. Students with the same candy type are paired with each other. Pairs are preferred. Groups should not be larger than 3.
  • Allow students to chat with their partner, come up with team names, and complete the rest of the Imagine/Brainstorm page of the Engineering Design Notebook. Sign the pages. Note: Signing is a means of making sure each person/group is on task and progressing. Also, it allows you to quickly check work/provide feedback and input points later.
  • Have students complete Project Planning Log. Sign the logs.

Day 4-6:

  • From each day forward:
    • Review the Introduction to STEAM, STEAM Habits of Mind, and Engineering Design Process (See Attached Powerpoint). Maybe have it on playing on continuous loop on the smart board.
    • Have students watch 1-2 videos on aerogels/airloys and answer questions in Basic Info Section of Engineering Design Notebook.
  • Have students work on their challenge recording Lab Notes in Engineering Design Notebook and taking pictures as they go.
  • Over the next couple days, make extra copies of the rubric for the upcoming mini presentations.

Day 7-8:

  • Turn to the Mini Presentation Rubric. Go through it with them in detail . Have students put together a 4-8 slide presentation (less than 7 min). The topics to cover are listed below but are also in the rubric. Tell students they will be graded by their peers as well as by you. I would make this a very low key presentation.
  • Have students complete Reflection portion of the Project Planning Log.

Day 9-10:

  • Handout 3-4 rubrics to each team. Have them complete the top (names, team name, date). Collect it and hand them out to audience members before each team presents so the audience can also grade. Tell those who are grading to not put their name on the sheet they receive to relieve social pressure.
  • Hand out two different colored post-its to each table. Tell students that when they are not grading, they will write team names and ‘one great thing about this project is . . .’ on one colored post-it and ‘one thing to consider or one way to improve. . .’ on the other before putting the post-its in a specific area of the room after each presentation. Have a student/student aid check off each student as they turn in their comments to ensure all participate. Note: Students must complete the post-its immediately following each presentation otherwise they will forget. Also, you should complete each of your grade sheets as soon as each group finished presenting for the same reason.
  • Have each group present. Have 3-4 students grade. Choose different students each time to grade. Remember to give students time to finish grading and writing on the post-its after each presentation.
  • Have student aid hand out post-its to each group.
  • About 7 min before class ends, give students time to put post-its on their Peer Feedback page of the Engineering Design Notebook and to evaluate comments. group lessens some of the social intimidation.

Day 11:

  • Allow class to evaluate their comments.
  • Have the class decide on Redesign Constraints and record in notebook. Note: The new constraints are only for the groups that accomplished the challenge in the first round. Those that didn’t accomplish the goal still work under the original constraints.
  • Allow students to brainstorm again, complete Brainstorm (Redesign) page and Project Planning Log (Redesign) of Engineering Design Notebook. Sign logs.

Day 12:

  • Redesign/Retest . Have students record Redesign Lab Notes and take pictures as they go.

Day 13-15:

  • Prep for final presentation. Finish Reflection portion of Project Planning Log. Have students make LinkedIn Page and link their presentation to it. A good (student) LinkedIn page will have a professional headshot; a 1-3 sentence bio; work and volunteer experience; awards including honors/AP/college classes, class rank, and GPA; and the project. Note: As of the writing of this lesson, the Accomplishment Section has a section for awards, courses, and projects.

Day 15-16:

  • Final Presentations with peer graders again
  • Self, Group, Peer Evaluation
  • Post Test
  • Show and post to Google Drive, Classroom, Etc. the STEM scholarship/internship list.


Students will explain what they have learned and how they grew in STEAM/21 st Century Skills via the Mini Group Presentation, Final Presentation/LinkedIn Page, and Posttest. Prior to that, they build communication, creativity, and critical thinking through the brainstorming activity which requires that they come up with ideas on their own, explain their ideas to their partner, and then, together, decide which idea they will pursue. The students will also build communication/explanation skills via the Self, Group, and Peer evaluation and Peer ‘Post-It’ Feedback Activity


Students will brainstorm other uses of aerogels including ways aerogels can improve lives on the posttest.


Basic Lab Safety. Knowledge of the term compressive strength/stress. Basic knowledge of a polymer is helpful but not necessary.

Best Teaching Practices

  • Wait Time
  • Hands on/Minds on Learning
  • Inquiry Approaches
  • Using Analogies
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Models
  • Problem-solving

Alignment with Standards

NGSS Standards:

  • Engineering Design
  • Matter and It's Interactions

Ohio Standards:

  • Science Inquiry and Application
  • Structure and Properties of Matter

Content Knowledge

The Engineering Design Process, 21 st Century Skills, Emulsions/solutions, Emulsifying agent, Compressive strength, How to use PowerPoint/Google Slides, Internet research


  • Basic Lab Safety


Aerogels are substances that are more than 90% air which are being researched at the University of Akron and other places because they have unique properties which make them very useful. However, an inexpensive means of removing the excess matter from the gel (synthesizing the aerogel) on a large scale has not been discovered. The students are engineers trying to discover a process for producing a substance that has air pockets due to a substance having been removed from a solid just as polymer/process engineers are.


Pretest. Basic Info Page. Brainstorming. Design Challenge Results. Lab Notes and Pictures. Mini Presentation. Self, Group and Peer Review. Peer Feedback. Redesign Brainstorm. Redesign Challenge Results. Final Presentation/LinkedIn Page. Posttest

Other Considerations

Grouping Suggestions:

  • Students should work in pairs or groups of 3—maximum. Determine how many groups you will have. Purchase a mixed bag of candy. Sort it so that you have only 2 (or 3) of each kind. Allow students to choose the candy they want. Before eating, tell them that their partner is the person with the same candy. Note: you will want to decide if the same candy but of a different flavor counts as the same candy or a different candy.

Pacing/Suggested Time:

  • The engineering design challenge (eliminate chocolate chips from chocolate chip cookie dough (their “gel”) without destroying the holes left behind) can done as a one day mini challenge or as written with engineering design notebook and individual assessments built in which takes just over two weeks. See the ‘Procedure’ above.

Printable PDF Worksheets

Extra Resources

Video List

Overview of Properties:

Videos the Highlight a Specific Property of Aerogels:

Thermal Isulative



The Aerogel Synthesis Process

  • Agnello Polyimide Aerogels - Weight Savers for Aircraft Antennae. A good summary of the work being done at NASA which mirrors that being done By Dr. Sadhan Jana’s research group at the University Akron. Highlights the work of a young female engineer. 2013. (2:16 min)
  • How It’s Made—1336 Aerogel. A thorough summary though somewhat boring. 2017. (5:60 min)

Safety Disclaimer