On my first day of teaching engineering, our room was empty. It was by design that I moved out the chairs and tables and put some carpet squares out to sit on and left the walls blank.
I envisioned this project would be my first community building project for all K-5 students and we would design our room together.
I remember my students’ faces, tiny, a little confused, wondrously looking around the empty room. Then I asked them to share their hopes and dreams for our classroom and I realized quickly that robots, flying couches, dog houses and playgrounds although varied and wonderful, were not all going to be possible. However, we celebrated them by hanging their drawings up on our blank walls to share, and thus began the dream classroom project.
I’m not an engineer, nor do I have a degree in engineering or engineering education. My background is in visual arts so I literally started teaching engineering from scratch. After nine years as a middle school multimedia teacher, I yearned to explore a different path. I knew that engineering had been historically taught at the college level, and then trickled down to high school and middle school. To have the chance to start engaging students in engineering during their first years of school seemed so compelling that I decided to start a new adventure in my career.
Diving into Dreaming
In that first project, we used the engineering design process as a way of working as real engineers do when faced with any problem. We needed tables and chairs, a comfortable and productive space for learning, and a place to store our tools and materials. At first I thought I would have all K-5 students working to solve this problem in the same way, but that was before I really understood the nuance of working with children at those ages. I adapted my plans and had the 4th and 5th graders work with the younger students as interview subjects and testers of the space.
We visited my colleague’s middle school engineering classroom as a model and evaluated different elements of her room design. Eventually, we had a build weekend that involved a small, but dedicated group of students, colleagues and parent volunteers to make the students’ dreams a reality. This project became the foundation for the work I would do every school year since, and also a way for me to learn the importance of teaching students to conceptualize, plan and then build through the engineering design process.
Because I was working with younger students at a K-5 school, the middle school engineering teacher and I came up with the following kid-friendly language to communicate this process for our students: Explore (Identifying the problem/need), Play (Exploring materials/Brainstorming ideas, Design (A sketch/drawing of the solution), Build (Prototyping the design), Test (Refining the design based on feedback and testing) and Share (Communicating the solution with a larger audience).
It was a formative learning experience in my first year to collaborate, experiment, test and in my own way, do the engineering design process with my own problem of how to teach K5 engineering. It took mistakes, tests, and lots of collegial input from my director and the other teachers. Surviving this new territory meant being open to failure, learning fast and adapting to every new situation.
But, no one could prepare me for kindergarten.
We had the good fortune of having Tufts Center for Engineering Education (Tufts CEEO) as thought partners at our school. They introduced me to “novel engineering,” where teachers and students develop engineering skills by identifying and solving problems they find in literature. So, why not introduce engineering concepts in this way in kindergarten and first grade?
Of course, the first time you do anything, it never really goes according to plan and you learn a lot along the way. I found after trying this method the first time, my kinder students fought about materials, and didn’t quite know how to share. Some cried and some materials were stolen, strewn, and hoarded. At one point, I was looking at a room full of kindergarteners suddenly going bananas as the room transformed into a tornado of materials, and thinking to myself, “How did this all happen so quickly?”
Thanks to an adept colleague who stepped in to rescue me, we were able to iterate a new version of my lesson plan. We led a novel engineering study of “Make Way for Ducklings.” With her help, I was able to excite and surprise our kinder students with a big road made out of butcher paper in the middle of the room, and students had a set of their own materials to design a way for the ducklings to cross the road. This worked much better, and I learned another lesson about engineering an elementary classroom. You have to teach how to use materials, have enough for everyone, and be able to make engineering “magic” a tangible reality.
Learning by Doing
When I started teaching engineering, I knew we had Lego Mindstorms NXT kits, but I kept them hidden and locked in a cabinet. It was like I was hiding my own fear of being found out as a fraud. How could an engineering teacher not know how to teach robotics? I thought robotics was a big deal in high school, but I had no concept of what this would be like in elementary school. This was almost unheard of when I started. So, in the manner I learned many things my first year, I learned with my students. Their interest and excitement was motivating, and they taught me how to teach robotics through exploration and mini design challenges. Together, we learned how to make the robot move in different ways, make it sense the edge of a table and not fall off, and kick a ball. Then we added another layer to the project to make it more fun and turned it into a playground where each robot challenge was a playground game. It was after overcoming this challenge that I became truly cognizant of teaching with an elementary spirit of discovery, curiosity, exploration, and unbounded creativity. It was a mind-opening shift in my path as an educator to go from thinking solely about content/skills acquisition and outcomes to allowing for student inquiry and exploration, charting their own path rather than following a prescribed outcome.
At first I was focused on finding what I thought would be great engineering challenges and activities and magically students would see themselves as engineers. But later on, I realized that I had to be more explicit about what it takes to think like an engineer. I was inspired when I discovered that the National Academy of Engineers had defined these habits of mind: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, Optimism, Systems Thinking, and Ethical Considerations, which can apply to many fields and now serve as an anchor for my teaching.
Now when I receive student reflections and write comments, I can see how the habits of mind give them a starting place to share how they are learning to be engineers. For instance, I asked my students at the beginning of the year to tell me what they think engineering is to them, and one response from a 4th grade girl was that “Engineering is creative because you can build everything you believe.” When you look at the list of hopes and dreams in our classroom it says we are engineers who“build, design, work together, are a team, never give up, care for the environment, are imaginative, problem solve, use tools, and keep trying.” By giving students a chance to practice these habits of mind in an encouraging classroom environment, I see students more willing to work like engineers to solve problems.
Lessons Learned To teach elementary engineering or to bring engineering into any classroom, here are some of the lessons I learned:
- Get out of the way. Learn together, be open to discovery and curiosity, and allow time and space for creativity. Kids are great reminders of the potential our world has to be better, and if they become engineers, they just might be in a position to truly effect change.
- Use the engineering design process, with language adapted to younger students if necessary. Anytime that you and your class have a problem that can’t be easily solved, you and your students will benefit from applying the engineering design process to it.
- Develop and foster an engineering mindset through habits of mind. No matter what students choose as a career, if they feel they have the tools to solve any problem or face any challenge, they can apply this to their life.
- Allow for the natural tendencies of young children to build (and destroy), and take the risk to create a flexible space guided by the imaginations and desires of 5-10 year olds.
Students in K-5 can learn about different engineering fields through creative projects and activities involving electrical circuits, programming LEGO robotics, video games and learning to code, building and designing things with recyclables and cheap prototyping materials, and using new technologies, such as the laser cutter and the 3-D printer in our school makerspace. But more importantly is the mindset they develop in the process: identifying problems and solving them creatively, improving, taking risks, going big, failing early and often, and getting back up when faced with a challenge and trying their best.
Teaching engineering in elementary schools gives students the familiarity to enter into a career they may not have otherwise felt a connection to. It also builds upon their natural tendency to make, create and be imaginative problem solvers. I love teaching engineering at this level because not only are students gaining skills and understanding to relate to the real world around them, but they are also defining an engineering identity. At this young age, boys and girls can see themselves enjoying math, science, technology and engineering concepts without a stigma that they aren’t good at it. And everyone can access it regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic background.
Thanks to movements like #ilooklikeanengineer, students can see their own potential. They can build their dreams, make improvements to the world around them, apply their knowledge in a constructivist manner, and see that their world can be affected by their own design.
Snapshots of Elementary Engineering
Imagine a second grade engineering class. Students at one table are working together on a project to create an Alexander Calder inspired mobile out of aluminum wire, felt, and clothing hangers. At another center, they are working collaboratively with snap circuits to turn on a light bulb with a switch. Across the room, students are working together on a design challenge to make a dream house for a mouse out of cardboard boxes, construction paper, tissue paper, and yarn.
At the same, you might hear…“Whoa! Look at this! Look at what we made!” Seconds later, a crash, boom, and applause and screams ending in “NOOoooooo!” And then laughter as a Kapla wood block tower comes crashing down.
Imagine designing and planning the tower of your dreams with a team of fellow engineering peers, building it higher than your own eye level and then watching it majestically crash with the sound of cheers, terror, and applause all wrapped up in one slow motion moment before your eyes. The trick here, of course, is not to give up, but to try again. Rebuilding with more purpose, more pizzazz and a greater vision for revision. And, of course, laughing at the majestic failure of it all while planning the next iteration.