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.

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Comments

  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Engineering is “design, build, test, evaluate.” If you are testing on pop-up bunnies, or guessing that wolves can’t get into the pigs’ house, you are only doing the first two. It may be fun and it may be useful in some ways but it’s playing, not engineering.

  2. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Isn’t there a saying that nature must first be obeyed before it can be commanded?

    Isn’t it interesting how the education world is so good at only getting half the story. Consistently.

  3. George Larson says:

    What ever happened to building miniature models, working models or real machines as an introduction to engineering?

  4. It’s great that these children enjoy their projects, but it’s a mistake to convince them that it’s engineering. At best it’s iterative problem solving, which any decent machinist, farmer, carpenter, parent, etc. should be expected to do. Engineering as a discipline specifically involves the application of scientific/mathematical principles to design or develop a product or a process. By the standards exhibited in the rabbit-proof garden project (e.g., setting out food decoys) the typical scarecrow could be considered a piece of engineering.

    The irony is that some of the students who are most likely to be future engineers (predominately left-brained kids) will hate the the art-project portion of the project; i.e., bringing their project “to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.”

  5. Judge Crater says:

    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…

    First graders s/b building basic skills (math worksheets) not brainstorming. Getting basic math completely ingrained at an early age is a key to have any kind of a real engineering future. At that age it should be all instruction, not brainstorming on projects with no direction.

  6. It’s kind of sad that the assumption is that children no longer have any opportunity (or need) to solve practical problems in their lives outside of school.

    BTW, I’ve read comments by engineering profs nearing retirement that back in the day, many of their talented engineering students were farm boys, who had real experience with solving mechanical problems where correct knowledge and calculation were important.

  7. EB…”comments by engineering profs nearing retirement that back in the day, many of their talented engineering students were farm boys, who had real experience with solving mechanical problems”

    Tom Wolfe had the same observation about engineers involved in the space program and the electronics industry.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    david.
    IIRC, Wolfe said that a scientist would have been an engineer except he had no manual skills.
    So, are Legos and erector sets useful educational tools or not?

  9. Kudos to the Glen Rock School District for integrating engineering into their elementary curriculum! Teaching engineering to elementary students can include reading, math, writing, science and technology. What a wonderful way to usher in the future!

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