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Putting the 'E' in STEM for the Littlest Learners

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Watch 3-year-olds at play and you'll see them building. On the beach, it's a sandcastle encircled by a moat. In the classroom, it's a towering edifice constructed of cardboard or blocks.

"They're natural engineers with an inclination to design the world around them," said Christine M. Cunningham, founding director of Engineering is Elementary and vice president of the Museum of Science in Boston.

Yet as natural as it comes to the youngest school goers, engineering hasn't been incorporated into the preschool and kindergarten curricula the way it has in the upper grades. The "e" in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has been largely missing for the youngest learners, at least in any significant way.

"There is some pre-engineering work being done in the early grades, a lot of building is going on, but not all educators are intentional in the way that they discuss those activities with students," said Catherine McCulloch, project director at the nonprofit Education Development Center, who has surveyed the Boston-area landscape for K-12 engineering instruction.  

New engineering curricula developed by the Museum of Science in Boston aims to change that. The museum has developed and tested lesson plans for preschoolers (Wee Engineer) and kindergartners (Engineering is Elementary for Kindergarten). The preschool curriculum includes four challenges (such as building the noisiest noisemaker) that give students practice with a three-step design process: explore, create, improve. The kindergarten curriculum includes more complex challenges (such as building a trash collector) that guide students through a five-step design process: ask, imagine, plan, create, improve. 

According to Cunningham, the activities go beyond advancing children's natural inclination to problem-solve and build. They also develop students' understanding of the human-made world around them early on, before they're exposed to stereotypes about who can and cannot do STEM.

"The curriculum opens them up to a different way of thinking before we've told them 'Engineering is hard' or 'You can't do it because you need to think in a certain way' or 'You have to be super smart,'" Cunningham told Education Week. "Instead, we're trying to build on the idea that 'This is something you can do. You've already solved problems and designed solutions.' It's harder for someone later to convince them that they can't do it."

Little Ones, Start Your Engineering

With a little prodding kids can learn to ask questions about the way things around them work: How does that door knob work? How about that pencil sharpener? The next step is to consider what is important about these things: Is it their color? Is it the materials they're made of?

This is the line of questioning preschoolers follow when tackling the curriculum's engineering challenges. For example, to make the noisiest noisemaker possible, students fill a case with items like pom poms, metal washers, or erasers and shake it to see what happens.

Cunningham said some kids don't consider the material so much when they first begin creating their noisemaker. They might stuff a bunch of soft poms poms into the case simply because they like the colors. Others might stuff the case so that even the metal washers don't move enough to produce much sound. "They start asking, 'Why isn't it making any noise?'" says Cunningham. "But then they look at what other kids are doing and that helps them to realize if they remove some of the stuff it will move. Some of them will realize if the stuff is harder it will make some noise. But not every kid is there. Some just like these colorful, soft pom poms."

It's OK. if the kids aren't there yet, said Jess Jarvis, a preschool teacher at Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center at Temple Israel, in Boston. She was one of the teachers who piloted the curriculum. "A lot of preschools can be very product oriented, where kids want to do something, finish it, and take it home," Jarvis said in an interview. "The engineering challenges help them see the process doesn't have to end there. They could put a 'save' sign on it, think about it, and go back and revise or improve it some more. It's such a good lesson for them to take away and there hasn't really been anything that allows them to do that. They can't really do that in the block area [at school] because they have to clean up."

Hands-On for All Learners

Dana Romanczyk, a kindergarten inclusion teacher at Richard J. Murphy School in Boston who piloted the new curriculum, said for her kids who struggle academically, the challenges opened up their world and their imagination. "They can't always experience success throughout the school day because they're thinking 'I don't know how to count' or 'I'm still learning to read,'" she told Education Week. "But with the challenges, they know they can come up with ideas and tell you about them. It's nice to see kids shine who don't always get the chance to shine throughout the school day." 

One of her students who is learning English and doesn't talk much figured out how to make a super well-functioning trash collector. It was all about the shape. He taped up the sides of a piece of construction paper to make it look more like a shovel and, sure enough, his apparatus, attached to a Popsicle stick, could scoop up more pom poms than the other kids' creations which generally left the construction paper flat. "The other kids were so excited," Romanczyk says. "They were like, 'He made a shovel!' And the student began telling them how they could make the shovel, too."

Later in that same challenge, students figured out what type of material (paper, cheese cloth, or plastic) the trash collector should be made of to pick litter from a pond where Danny the Duck lives. They tested the materials in water to see how they hold up. Romanczyk said her students remained interested throughout because the activity was hands-on, putting all students on equal footing.

Romanczyk was also pleased that her students could apply what they learned in building the trash collector to other situations. "They started thinking about how they can clean up our playground," she said. "The learning transferred over to other parts of the school day and their life. They began to realize that they can make a difference in this world. It was really cool." Romanczyk talks more about her students' experience with the curriculum in the video below.

At first, Jarvis and Romanczyk had worried they wouldn't be up to the challenge of teaching engineering. But they say the curriculum spelled it all out for them. The downside? The curriculum isn't free. For the pre-K curriculum and a design poster, the price is $98. For a kit with all the materials needed to complete the challenges, there is a $498 cost. More information on the program is here. The Museum of Science is working with school districts across the country to secure funding from corporate donors to help whittle down the price tag. Cunningham says there is state and federal funding available for this type of curriculum as well. 

Here are sources of free engineering lesson plans for Pre-K through 12th grades:

  • Free K-12 engineering curriculum from the University of Colorado Boulder can be found on the Teach Engineering site. 
  • Pre-K-12 engineering lesson plans on the eGFI (Engineering Go For It) site includes a Three Little Pig Design Challenge that tasks kids as young as preschool with building a house that the "big, bad wolf" cannot blow down. The site was created by the American Society for Engineering Education.
  • Tryengineering.org offers a variety of resources to help teachers who want to incorporate engineering into their curriculum. The site is a collaboration of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IBM, and the New York Hall of Science.

Photo: A kindergartner tests out a trash collector that she constructed as part of a design challenge in the new Engineering is Elementary curriculum for kindergarten classrooms. (Museum of Science, Boston)


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