Engineering starts early

Engineering is catching on in elementary schools, reports the New York Times.

Supporters say that engineering reinforces math and science skills, promotes critical thinking and creativity, and teaches students not to be afraid of taking intellectual risks.

“We still hear all the time that little kids can’t engineer,” said Christine Cunningham, director of Engineering is Elementary, a program developed at the Museum of Science in Boston that offers ready-made lessons, for about $350 each, on 20 topics, and is now used in all 50 states, in more than 3,000 schools.

“We say they’re born engineers — they naturally want to solve problems — and we tend to educate it out of them.”

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs are in favor, and high-tech businesses want Congress to fund K-12 engineering education. But some question how much students are learning.

There’s nothing new about projects like building Lego robots or designing an egg drop, says Janine Remillard, an associate education professor at the University of Pennsylvania,

“Ideally, you want them to come away with knowledge that goes beyond that problem,” Professor Remillard said. “They could just go through the motions and end up with a robot that can do a particular thing, but the next problem they face will be a new problem. This is where good teaching comes in.”

In Glen Rock, N.J., a high-performing district near New York City, teachers “plan multiday projects, often built around classic and popular stories like the Three Little Pigs, and take students step by step through the engineering process: design, build, test, evaluate.”

First graders were recently challenged with helping a farmer keep rabbits out of his garden.

In teams of four, they brainstormed about building fences with difficult-to-scale ladders instead of doors and setting out food decoys for the rabbits. They drew up blueprints and then brought them to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.

Then they planned to test their ideas with pop-up plastic rabbits. If the fences were breached, they would be asked to improve the design.

“It gets your brain going,” said Elizabeth Crowley, 7, who wants to be an engineer when she grows up. “And I actually learn something when I’m doing a project — like you can work together to do something you couldn’t do before.”

The kindergarten class designed wolf-proof homes for the three little pigs.

About Joanne