across the nation are embracing the concept that children need to be taught
problem solving and design skills in order to understand our technological
official. Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to mandate engineering
in the pre-school through 12th grade education curriculum. "If it's
caught on in Massachusetts, there's no doubt it will be part of the curriculum
nationwide," says Ioannis Miaoulis, dean of Tufts University's school
of engineering and the creator of the innovative plan, which has taken
more than a decade of working closely with teachers and young students
and his colleagues plan to identify at least one engineering school in
each stateideally, where there is also a school of educationthat
would join Tufts in a partnership to bring engineering into a child's
experience. "The nice thing is we know the necessary steps to take,"
Miaoulis says. "This is a dream waiting to happen, and we should
dream is called "elementary engineering" for grades K-12, and
it's as practical as it is inspiring. As Miaoulis points out, the goal
is twofold: to give children problem-solving and design skills that they
need to understand our technological world, and to inspire more young
people to pursue a career in engineering and science.
may start out liking science, but usually by the second through the fourth
grade, if it turns them off, it's permanent," says Laura J. Bottomley,
adjunct assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at
North Carolina State University. With funding from the National Science
Foundation, Bottomley works with undergraduate and graduate students from
NCSU, who are assigned as fellows to help teach science, math, and technology
at six Wake County, North Carolina, public schools.
school, at the beginning of the school year, the students are told there
will be an assembly on science. "We listen to students grumble 'Oh
it's going to be boring!' as they file in," Bottomley says. "For
many of these kids, the idea of science is to open the textbook, read
it, and answer the question at the end."
No more. Bottomley and her colleague, Elizabeth Parry, come down from
the stage to tell the students that they are not going to explain everything
that day, and that there will be no tests. "We just want them to
think about why these things are going on," Bottomley says.
women then put on their lab coats and goggles, and make it very clear
that what they are about to do has to be done in a safe place with an
adult watching. (Sometimes they interrupt the demonstrations to make the
students take a pledge of safety.) One of them then lights a matchseemingly
touching it to the palm of her hand which suddenly creates a fireball.
Though captivated, the students are not told about the lycopodium powder
that made it happen.
rest of the hour is filled with more smoke, gadgets, and drama, demonstrating
various aspects of physics, chemistry, and engineering. At the end, the
students and teachers are encouraged to put their questions in a science
answer box that has been placed in their library. Usually, in a
few days' time, the box is full.
it's time for the fellows to step in. After taking workshops, keeping
journals, and observing in the classrooms, they are ready to work with
the teachers in such projects as understanding levers, the human digestive
system, or the relative size and distance of the planets (using toilet
paper, clay models, and a long hallway or the soccer field).
this time, the young students continue to put their questions in the answer
box. The fellows answer all the questions in letters mailed to the children
through the school mail service. Once a week, a selected question is featured
and answered live on the school's video news broadcast, giving the young
questioner a place of honor and a pen from the Discovery Channel.
sounds so easy, and yet it takes a great deal of preparation and planning.
Fellows have to be taught how to teach at different grade levels, how
to recognize and adapt to different ways of learning, and how to collaborate
with the teacher rather than take over or interfere.
classroom is a universe of its own," says Gary Ybarra, professor
and director of undergraduate studies in the department of electrical
and computer engineering at Duke University. His 14 NSF fellows work in
seven schools, covering four counties in North Carolina; some of their
work is in collaboration with NCSU.
of the fellows spend a period of time observing the interaction between
the teacher and the students," Ybarra says. "It's extremely
important that the fellows become integrated into the psychological aspect
of the classroom. As the teacher sees the fellow as reliable and prepared,
then a trust develops that allows the teacher to give the fellow more
responsibility. It's a gradual process that leads to team teaching."
program, an NSF fellow may put in 20 hours a week in training and teaching;
for this there is a modest compensation, though many of the fellows are
volunteers. "Usually the teaching fellows have a love of children,"
says Ybarra. "They recognize the light bulbs that go on in the children's
eyes. The understanding of a scientific concept for children is immediate
and evident . . . and this gives the fellows a deep sense of satisfaction.
They have a love of engineeringthey want to share that."
of caution, however: not all teachers and administrators respond with
open arms to this dedicated help in the classroom. At least not always
initially, and for good reasons. According to Bottomley, "Public
schools, especially in university towns, can be overwhelmed by people
coming in and doing demonstrations, or whatever, implying that [the schools]
may not be doing their job. The teachers are conditioned to expect it
to be that kind of a relationship." This is resolved when professors
explain in full what the intent of the elementary education program is
and how it's to be a collaboration of fellows and teachers, not a replacement
of expertise, Bottomley says.
major factor to consider is that teachers are incredibly busy. With nationwide
accountability of student learning, they feel the pressures of producing
students at or above grade level in reading, writing, and math. Indeed,
in many states, including North Carolina, teacher bonuses are tied to
student scores. Unfortunately, this often means that subjects such as
science are considered "interesting" but left behindmainly
because teachers, trying to meet the standards in the "three Rs,"
simply don't have time in their day for anything else. A teaching fellow,
therefore, needs to be scheduled into the teacher's day and not the other
by no means implies that fellows are nothing more than aides in the classroom.
They are there to enrich what the teacher is already teaching, whether
it be the metric system or life cycles. But they are also there to suggest
additional, innovative lessons in science or math that reflect what is
happening in the young students' world. This involves an awareness of
what the students talk about between classes or in the library. How can
their interest in cars, music, or floods be translated into a design project
that teaches problem solving? The real skill, say both Ybarra and Bottomley,
is for the fellow to present these ideas and projects to the teacher in
such a creative and vital way that it becomes a shared interest.
is a time of change when administrators and teachers are questioning their
traditional methods," says M. David Burghardt, professor in the engineering
department at Hofstra University, who for three years has taught a "children's
engineering course. "It's a ripe time for engineers to step
in and help teach critical thinking, problem solving, and design,
majority of Burghardt's students are in-service teachers in New York state
studying for a master's degree with a specialty in math, science, and
technology. Burghardt passionately believes that the essence of engineeringcreative
problem solving that improves the human conditionshould be an essential
part of a child's education, not in rote memorization of who invented
what machine, but in hands-on, purposeful activities that bring out the
child's own skills in analysis and design.
notes that while children analyze a problem with less complexity than
do adults, that analysis is still valuable. For instance, when the lesson
is to build a rocket, children don't go into a technical analysis of energy
forces as engineers would. Instead, they may watch their teacher take
two-liter plastic soda bottles, fill them partway with water, and then
compress them with air from a bike pump. When released, the bottles fly
up in the air or barely get off the ground, depending on the amount of
water. Voila! The children learn the concept of thrust and force, and
Newton's law of action and reaction.
design, "Children have their originality," says Burghardt. "They
may attach a stabilizer to the rocket, or color it differently, or they
might make a nose cone. The important thing is that it's their rocket.
It's a motivator to study other things. It's the hook."
also points out that in problem solving, "Kids do the most amazing
things." He gives the example of a group of kindergartners who designed
a unique outdoor hutch for their pet rabbit, including a barrier to keep
out the raccoons. "It's important that in teaching engineering, adults
learn to move the process along without interfering," says Miaoulis.
"The children can solve problems and design without the intellectual
Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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