McGyvers In The Making

January 01, 2002 5 min read
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Engineering classes for elementary school kids? In Massachusetts, educators want students to know how to tinker with technology.

Julie Saxton begins the class with some stirring news: The 3rd grade science lab at the Center School in Stow, Massachusetts, is now a desert island, and the 20 or so students are trapped on it like contestants on the TV show Survivor. But while this elicits some squeals of “Cool!” the directive falls on mostly preoccupied ears—and not just because it’s Friday afternoon. Beneath the 8-year-olds’ twitchy fingers sit shiny containers of Legos. And today’s assignment, if they can sit quietly through Saxton’s instructions without exploding, is to play with them.

“So, there’s an airplane that’s going to travel by at the end of the period,” says Saxton, education coordinator for the Center for Engineering Education Outreach at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “We need to let the people inside that airplane know that we want to get off the island. We want to make the biggest splash [in the water] we can, out of things we can find. And what I’ve found for us is a seashell and a rock.”

The class decides that the rock will make the best splash. But to be certain requires some engineering know-how. Saxton asks the kids to build balances out of Lego pieces and then use them to find out which object is heavier. After showing the students her own version, she gives them a final instruction: “Remember: There are many ways to do it.” The students take the advice seriously. They build balances with sprawling arms and stubby ones, balances that look like windmills, others like airplanes. Though the students’ skills vary, for the duration of the science lab, all of them are engineers.

This project is part of a plan to put engineering in every Massachusetts classroom. A year ago, the commonwealth’s board of education voted to incorporate engineering instruction into its standard curriculum, making it the first state in the nation to require that students study the subject from kindergarten through grade 12. In high schools, engineering principles will be introduced in separate courses taught by either a shop teacher or a physics teacher or both. Covering the material with elementary school kids will require a little more creativity and training. That’s why the students at the Center School, along with those at several other pilot sites, are testing out lessons that educators may use as the curriculum is phased in over the next few years. CEEO and other engineering organizations are helping teachers create and lead the classes.

Advocates of engineering instruction in grade school say it’s important for several reasons. What children learn in science is often too far removed from their real-world experience to sustain their interest, claims Ioannis Miaoulis, dean of Tuft’s school of engineering and the top lobbyist for the Massachusetts schools’ new requirement. For instance, he says, kids may study the ins and outs of volcanoes but not how cars work. “Yet they spend much more of their time in a car than around volcanoes.” Engineering, with its hands-on activities that can demystify daily routines, “brings math and science alive,” he says.

Early instruction also can ensure that students grow up to be technologically literate, able to understand how human-made objects—from can openers to bridges to microchips—work and why one design is better than another. “[It] tends to help people be less afraid,” notes Tom Perry, director of engineering education for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. “When the wings of an airplane flex up and down, it’s a good thing.” And technologically literate people know there are many ways to solve a problem. “Engineering is trying to improve the quality of life,” says Perry. “You end up doing design where there’s always more than one solution.”

Moreover, educators say that even very young children can grasp engineering concepts such as design (for example, a rake mimics what an animal does with its paws) or appropriate materials (you need a hammer and nails, not tape or staples, to make a wood box). The lessons the Massachusetts schools are testing seem to prove that. Recently, 5th graders at the Center School designed and built their dream homes out of cardboard, then learned how to light them up with wire, batteries, and bulbs. During a forthcoming section on sound energy, 3rd graders will build musical instruments.

Sensitive to the fact that teachers are already challenged to cover a lot of material, the curriculum designers in Massachusetts are trying to complement existing lessons rather than replace them. For instance, the 3rd graders at the Center School building Lego balances on this Friday afternoon are in the midst of a unit on measurement that’s taught every year. And Center School teachers added an engineering component to a 5th grade chemistry unit by having students build their own test-tube racks.

At least 25 other states are considering incorporating engineering into their standardized curricula, according to Ioannis, so the lesson plans that accumulate from the Massachusetts classes most likely will be keenly studied. And Perry says ASME is doing what it can to promote this kind of learning nationwide. The organization offers workshops for teachers and regularly asks its 125,000 members to contact their local schools to offer support and suggestions for how to teach engineering.

Faculty members at the Center School say the new lessons have been fairly easy to manage. After all, says teacher Alycia Small, “Everything a 3rd grader can do, I hope I can do, too.” But that doesn’t mean classes are predictable. Today, the lesson is certainly surprising. At the end of the period, the kids wait patiently to pit the rock against the shell on their newly constructed Lego balances. Suddenly, a boy shrieks in surprise. “Shh, don’t tell anyone,” says Saxton, as she removes the objects from his balance. She hands them to the next kid, whose jaw falls when he sees the result: It’s the shell, not the rock, that tips the scale.

—Katharine Dunn


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