Teaching Children That "Engineering is Elementary"
Engineering is Elementary
Museum of Science, Boston
A young girl in the Dominican Republic learns how hand pollinators work while searching for a way to help a plant grow berries again. A boy in Texas tries to replace a wobbly, unsafe bridge leading to his play fort. Fed up with the chore of collecting wood for the family’s stove, a girl in Africa designs a solar-powered oven.
Thanks to an innovative program launched by the Museum of Science in Boston, students are exploring these and other engineering challenges at grade levels once reserved for blocks, crayons and the three R’s.
The Engineering is Elementary (EiE) program is designed to partner lessons in engineering with science curricula already in place in public schools. The program makes engineering fun and engaging for students by introducing them to children from a variety of cultures and backgrounds who are facing a variety of engineering problems. Students work in teams to apply their knowledge of science and mathematics, use their inquiry and problem-solving skills, and design, create and improve possible solutions. The end result, as the EiE Web site states: “Students realize that everyone can engineer!”
EiE was designed for children in kindergarten through fifth grade; more than 1.18 million students and 20,043 teachers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia currently use it.
“A Huge Success”
Kris Exline, a fifth-grade teacher at North Carolina’s Rachel Freeman School of Engineering, says the effects of the EiE program reach far beyond the science classroom.
Participating students, she says, “have gained a greater ability to problem-solve, think deeply with critical questioning, and have learned not to give up on difficult problems. Exline adds: “Using teamwork by listening to others and sharing their own ideas has helped my students solve conflicts, work through challenges, and become better prepared for real-life experiences in the future.”
Fellow teacher Andrea Raines has seen similar results among her third graders.
“The Engineering is Elementary program has been a huge success in my classroom,” she says. “Students who typically are not successful in the classroom setting have learned that they can be successful.”
A Focus on Problem-Solving
The EiE curriculum includes 20 units covering subjects from the design of water filters and parachutes to how to clean up an oil spill. At the core of the curriculum is a simple, five-step Engineering Design Process: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve. The goal is to show that engineers tend to follow the same step-by-step approach to solving diverse problems.
Each unit of the EiE program undergoes rigorous testing before it becomes part of the curriculum, including teacher and student interviews and focus groups, classroom pre-testing, and student assessments. Given all the work that goes into the design of the units, it’s little wonder that evaluations of the EiE program have shown positive results.
A June 2010 study, for example, indicated that students who completed the curriculum were significantly more likely than their peers to report interest in being an engineer. These students also were significantly more likely to report interest in and comfort with engineering jobs and skills, and to agree that scientists and engineers help make people’s lives better.
It is not just students who are benefiting from the EiE curriculum; a 2008 study showed that teachers also reported gains in knowledge and skills. According to the report, participating teachers “grew significantly in their knowledge of engineering and their confidence in teaching engineering.” The study also found that these teachers exhibited “leaps in enthusiasm for engineering and even teaching in general, and a strong commitment to continue.”
Engineering Emphasis Attracts Corporate and Foundation Support
The potential of the EiE program to build student interest in engineering and potentially steer more American youths to careers in the field has attracted the interest of a number of leading foundations and companies. Support and funding for EiE has been provided by the S.D. Bechtel, Intel and Cisco Systems Foundations as well as the Google, Inc. Charitable Giving Fund of the Tides Foundation.
EiE’s potential to get more students excited about science and engineering and related fields becomes even clearer in interviews with students who have participated in the program. “I liked the way we worked in teams and actually built the circuit instead of just learning about it,” said a fifth grade student. Added a third grade EiE participant: “I wish we had school tomorrow so we could do this some more!”