What are the Circular Design principles and why should we use them during S.T.E.A.M?

Our world has been built using a linear system, we take natural resources from the Earth, we make stuff, we use the stuff we make, and then we "throw away" our stuff. It's taken us awhile, but we've finally realized that there is no such thing as "away." Everything that we make using this linear model, still ends up existing somewhere, and this results in water, air and soil pollution.

But what if we learned to copy nature? What if we started to design like nature? Nature makes no waste, everything in nature is repurposed and becomes a resource for something else. Nothing is wasted in nature, and nature runs on solar power through photosynthesis. Can we mimic this process? Can we learn to design better products that never end up in the landfill? Can we design products that decompose and add value back into the environment? Can we design systems and products that run on clean renewable energy just like nature? The answer is YES! And many companies are already leading the way with circular design. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calls this the Circular Economy and her foundation has identified 3 design principles for designing for the Circular Economy.


  1. Eliminate Waste and Pollution

  2. Circulate Products and Materials

  3. Regenerate Nature

Source: www.ellenmacarthurefoundation.org


I've been a huge fan of the Circular Economy and have used these design principles with my students for several years during STEAM projects. These circular design principles need a bit more scaffolding for younger students, so I've broken them down into 5 principles and used more common language to explain each of the principles. The circular design principles I use with my students are:

So why use circular design principles during STEAM lessons? As educators, we want to prepare our students for a changing world, for future jobs that don't exist, we want to provide them with 21st century skills that will give them the skills they need to be successful in life. If we as a society are to make progress and achieve the U.N Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, learning to use the circular design principles at an early age plants the seeds needed for a more regenerative and sustainable future.


Our Science Fairs aren't full of science projects using coal or oil, because this is old technology. When I walk around today's Science Fairs, I see solar and wind projects, robotics and biomimicry projects. Many projects today are representative of our changing world and desire to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, however many projects are still designed using the linear model, take, make, use and dispose. By incorporating one or more of the circular design principles during STEAM projects, we can change this and start building the foundation of sustainable thinking and design within our students.


A great way to introduce some of the circular design principles is through STEAM engineering challenges that only use reusable materials and are designed to be disassembled. Simply by removing tape and glue as a building material and incorporating the first design principle, Zero Waste, we can begin to create a community of circular design thinkers within our classrooms.


Below are some question cards for each circular design principle for students to use as they work through the Design Cycle during STEAM projects. Download the question cards and free graphic organizers below. Tag @teach_sustainability if you use the circular design principles with your students and let's start cultivating a community of circular design thinkers!

Circular Design Principles & Graphic Organizers
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