This paper describes the use of design-based research methods in a National Science Foundation sponsored middle-school engineering education effort aimed at creating novel teaching and learning experiences. University experts and middle school teachers designed and implemented an engineering education program. The experiences were offered over a two-year period to 116 students organized into two cohorts in four middle schools as a year-round extracurricular program. The research question addressed is: "What are the characteristics of successful novel teaching and learning experiences for middle school students that use engineering-based project challenges?" The characteristics of the program were: multiple hands-on learning experiences so students discovered for themselves the means to solve the posed project challenge; deliberate use of the engineering-design process in meeting each project challenge; use of learning cycle (engage, explore, explain, expand, evaluate) method for instructional planning; cognitive apprenticeships for learners with professional engineers and undergraduate engineering students; access to high quality technologies and tools necessary to meet the project challenge; the use of questioning strategies and learning facilitation techniques that promoted student centered learning experiences; and systematic refinement of learning experience facilitation through an iterative process. Using design-based research methods in the form of a cyclic process of theoretical reflections, conceptual analysis, small-scale curriculum development, and classroom research of the interaction of the novel teaching-learning processes, the project team arrived at a final set of characteristics for engineering-design based project challenges for middle school students.