Design Project and LfU

Edelson (2001) proposes the Learning-for-Use model (LfU) which is a design framework that promotes student’s construction of “deep, interconnected content knowledge and inquiry skills through activities that incorporate authentic scientific inquiry” (p.365). Based on learning principles shared with constructivism and situated learning theory, its goal is to “overcome the inert knowledge problem by describing how learning activities can foster useful conceptual understanding that will be available to the learner when it is relevant” (Edelson, 2001). Student learning is guided by a process involving motivation, knowledge construction and knowledge refinement.

While reading the Edelson article, I reflected on how a design project I typically teach could be redesigned using the LfU learning principles and steps. During the project, students design and build vehicles in engineering teams to accomplish co-constructed goals. We investigate math and scientific concepts related to the design and performance of the vehicle. My grade team typically had a representative from a robotics design competition come in. However, the content was taught didactically through lectures and focussed on memorizing content. Like the article explains “the focus on memorization leads to “inert knowledge” that cannot be called upon when it is useful” (Edelson, 2001). Students were not able to apply the knowledge when provided the opportunity. We changed the instruction a few years ago but the LfU design could further improve the experience.


By creating design challenges that are just beyond the current ability of the students to accomplish it “creates a desire (motivation) to address the limitation by acquiring new knowledge, and it creates a context in memory for integrating new knowledge” (Edelson, 2001). The challenge could be to increase the speed of the vehicle by improving handling or to design the vehicle to move a specified load. The basic design of the vehicle they build is not effective at engaging in either task.  Like in the Jasper Series, new information becomes a useful tool as opposed to an isolated fact.

Knowledge Construction

As students begin the design process they will construct mathematical and scientific knowledge relevant to the goals they are attempting to achieve. Working in small groups, students investigate the relationship between distance, time, and speed. They use digital scales and a variety of materials to experiment and determine the effect of weight and friction on the speed and control of the vehicle. When designing attachments to help move the load, students consider various likely scenarios and adjust their use of materials accordingly. They record their observations and explanations using OneNote and can revisit them after. The teacher role during this stage is to highlight relevant experiences, encourage reflection and facilitate collaboration between students.

Knowledge Refinement

During this step, the design goals can be connected. The students must design their vehicles balancing a variety of considerations. The goal we used this year was students had to complete against another robot to move a load out of a designated area. It was a combination of earlier goals and required the students to design vehicles with the speed, control, and materials necessary to effectively accomplish the task. Students must articulate their understanding of math and science concepts and explain how their designs take them into consideration. Knowledge is “reorganized, connected to other knowledge, and reinforced to support its future retrieval and use” (Edelson, 2001).

A variety of hardware and software tools can be integrated throughout the experience.

  • Google Sketchup can be used to design vehicle before using physical materials.
  • Explain Everything can be used to articulate conceptions and revisit them later. It also helps them present their thinking to other students.
  • Excel Online can be used to record data and collaboratively investigate relationships.
  • OneNote can allow students to keep a record of their experiences related to their designs.
  • Video can be used to analyze the movement of the vehicle and accurately determine its speed.


Edelson, D.C. (2001). Learning-for-use: A framework for the design of technology-supported inquiry activities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching,38(3), 355-385.

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