Sep 30, 2014

Developmental Approach to Engineering: They're More Like Guidelines Than Rules

Image by Michal Zacharzewski, via
Engineering is new to a lot of teachers. When I was growing up, people thought I was going to drive a train when I said I was going to be an engineer. With little understanding of what engineering is, it's no wonder teachers are stymied on how to teach engineering to young children. 

True, kids don't yet know physics, chemistry, or calculus, but they're not necessary to start engineering. A lot of engineering happened before those fields were fully understood (or invented, in the case of calculus). Think of the Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the the Great Wall. Many famous "engineers" like Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci didn't have a formal education.

The key to their success was the process they used to create solutions to meet their needs. Persistence is one important habit that can be developed very early in life (babies, toddlers, preschool). Here's a post I wrote that may help:  Don Music -- Engineer?
  • Use authentic and meaningful engineering projects from the beginning to develop technical skills, motivate mathematical abilities, and contextualize scientific phenomena
  • Start with concrete methods of design (e.g. prototypes, reverse engineering, role-playing) and model how to move them to abstract ones of the profession (e.g. schematics, graphs, force analysis, computers)
  • Incorporate time for iteration; discourage "one and done" approaches
  • Remember engineering has its own set of required skills and concepts. Providing direct instruction on this can increase the number of students succeeded in open-ended engineering projects. These include the ability to design, optimize, work in teams, and think in terms of systems.
For those in K-12, it's best to think in terms of development rather than age or grade. If a college student has never taken something apart, starting him or her in a college-level engineering class is obviously inappropriate. The good thing is that the older child (or adult) can catch on quickly to essential foundations given the right experiences.

Christian D. Schunn's "How Kids Learn Engineering: The Cognitive Science Perspective,"gives some good background on this idea of developmental scaffolding of lessons. Regarding engineering, a field that many K-12 teachers are unfamiliar with, he also offers guidelines for incorporating engineering into the school curriculum. They make a lot of sense from my experience in teaching engineering to novices, no matter what their age.

If you're developing a STEM school, remember these engineering guidelines with respect to the science, technology, and mathematics as well. Consider dividing STEM activities into beginner, intermediate, advanced experiences--I know, that's the standard practice of good teachers. So the good news is that it holds true when teaching STEM! 

Some children come in with experiences that have developed required engineering skills and understandings. Others (usually from under-represented populations) need that experience in school.

~ until next time, Yvonne

Sep 16, 2014

The Drama That Is Engineering

image by jaylopez (Jay), via
With many states now requiring engineering ("the E in STEM"). many teachers are nervous. Though teachers I work with are adults, intelligent and well-educated, they are just novices with respect to Many wonder how they can teach this subject they never learned.

Ignorance can be an advantage, though.The "sage on the stage" method of teaching--where the teacher knows all the answers--can be a crutch to some, preventing them from owning their learning, and a joykill for others who want the thrill of experiencing the drama that engineering projects can be.

The new-to-engineering teacher can be a great "guide on the side," an approach that can allow students to discover and experience the full thriller nature engineering projects have to offer. A great engineering class hears the "Aws" of the failed prototypes, experiences the tensions of decision making under the pressure of constraints, and witnesses the shouts and jumps of a successful run. Just watch movies like October Sky or Apollo 13.

So, STEM teachers, next time you run your engineering project, think of yourself as the next Ron Howard, bent on eliciting the drama of engineering, with your students taking the starring roles.


~ until next time, Yvonne

Sep 9, 2014

Math + Social Justice = The Hunger Games

One of the things Engineer's Playground provides are free, relevant, and unique lesson ideas for teachers who try to integrate STEM with other content areas. It's not a complete lesson (with assessments, grouping strategies, etc) but it's a seed of a lesson for those who can nurture it. If you do use it, please let us know! We'd love to know.

A Seed of a Lesson: Weighing the Odds

The Gist: A great mini-project you can do with kids who like The Hunger Games relates to probability and the Reaping

The Investigation: How could Katniss and Gale have their name in the pool so many times? Is the system unfair to those who are poor?

The Introduction:
In Chapter 1, Katniss discusses Gale’s angry words to Madge. “The reaping system is unfair, with the poor getting the worst of it.” Is this true? What is the true effect of taking a tessera by a boy like Gale? In this activity, we will translate the rules described in the book into a model of that the first few years of Reaping would look like in a simplified district with 4 children: Gale, Katniss, Madge, and Peeta.

An Outline of Activities:
  • Translate the Reaping rules to a process (algorithm). Start first with concrete items like colored beads to visually represent a person's name. This helps students actually see how a person’s probability changes based on the number of tesserae taken in the year. 
  • Organize data concretely in charts: After seeing this in a model, students then use the rules to create a chart with the numbers. 
  • Visualize data patterns in graphs: To appreciate the numbers, they make different graphs (bar graph, stacked graph) to visualize what happens as the person ages.
  • Use of spreadsheets: It gets tedious to keep counting out beads or filling the chart by hand. After a few rounds, students should see that there is a pattern to the number of beads each year (formula development). Show that spreadsheets can help. And then use it to see what happens for more than just a few children in District 12.
What is practiced: 
  • Modeling: Start Simple, Add Complexity: Real systems are often complicated, but being able to simplify them and then add in complexities in a controlled way can give insight into the underlying rules of a system. When we deal with numbers, we forget that the numbers represent real things (or people) in a real world. However, numbers allow us to see the effect that certain rules or patterns have on individual people. 
  • Abstraction: Start Concrete, Find Patterns: Probability is often hard to grasp as a concept. A physical model, like a collection of marbles or gum balls help us see which items are “more likely” to happen. Graphs are another way to visualize not only one year, but across years, without having to buy more materials (as would be needed in a physical model). The ability to create a chart or graph from hand helps the student understand what the computer does with the program.

Possible Extension:
  • Use these methods in traditional problems such as coin flip, roll of a die, craps, the lottery.

Related Standards: Common Core Mathematics Standards

6.RP Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems 
1. Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities.
3. Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems

7.SP Investigate chance processes and develop, use, and evaluate probability models

Like this idea but need some tech help? Let us know. If enough people need it, we'll make an affordable guide.

Have another book you'd like to STEMify? Suggest it and we'll consider it for future posts.