Becoming a Process Engineer by Sorting Materials at Home!

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Challenge your little process engineer to separate materials from a heterogeneous mixture without using their hands! ✋


Engineers are professional problem solvers. They collect, read and analyze data in order to solve problems. The solutions that engineers come up with could result in creating 1) a brand new product, 2) a new way to make a product or 3) a way to make products safer, have better quality or to be more cost effective.

One kind of engineer is a process engineer. Process engineers are experts in transforming processes to make new materials, products or energy sources. They design, run, test and upgrade systems and processes. In waste management, process engineers focus on how to dispose of and treat waste materials safely and effectively. Process engineers typically have a background in chemical engineering.


In this activity, I introduced what a process engineer might do in their job. We found different materials around our home, collected, and mixed them together to form a heterogeneous mixture. The mixture was then placed inside of a Ziploc bag.


The goal of this project was to separate all the materials from the bag without using hands. Only the tools that were provided could be used to separate all the pieces.




1 cup of sand, Small handful of steel nuts / bolts, Small handful of large pebbles, Small handful of plastic beads (we used fuse beads to make a heart craft at the end)


Strong Magnet, Sifter, Straw, Bowl of water, Brush, Tweezers, Small net or slotted spoon


  1. Place all the materials into a Ziploc bag or Tupperware container and mix them together.
  2. Ask your child to separate all the materials inside the container without using his or her hands and only using the tools available.
  3. Reinforce to your child that the goal is to separate all the materials with the least amount of work and time involved – this includes work required to clean up any messes.

Lessons Learned during the Process:

This is the order in which my child decided to use the tools and what she learned after each:

  1. First, my child used the magnet to remove the metal pieces from the bag. My child found that this was very useful in removing the metal pieces but that the magnet was so strong that the sand that was on top of the metal pieces, made a small mess as the metal pieces followed the magnetic field to attached to the magnet.  We pointed out that she was sorting the material by its PROPERTY – it is magnetic!
  2. Second, my child used the sifter to separate the sand from the large pebbles and plastic pieces.  We pointed out that she was separating the material by its SIZE!
  3. Third, my child laid all the rocks and plastic onto a tray and used the straw to blow the plastic pieces away from the larger pebbles. My child learned that this required a lot of work on her part to blow them. We talked about how engineers analyze processes to make processes that use less work.  We pointed out that she was separating the material by its WEIGHT.
  4. Last, my child decided to dump the large pebbles and plastic into the bowl of water with the hypothesis that the plastic would float and the large pebbles would sink. The plastic pieces floated as expected and it was easy to remove them from the water. However, the observation was made that it would take time and work for the plastic and the large pebbles to dry.  We pointed out that she was separating the material by its DENSITY (to water)!

After the beads were separated and dried, we made a fuse bead heart craft.


Process engineers work in many industries, here are a few examples of those industries and the types of processes that those engineers might over see:

  1. Refining petroleum – Reference Kids Britannica!
  2. Water waste management – Reference Kids Britannica!
  3. Recycling – Reference Kids Britannica!

Do you know a process engineer? What type of industry do they work in? If you are a process engineer and would like to be interviewed for my blog, please let me know at


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