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