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Elemenatary Engineering

By Barbara Mathias-Riegel

Schools across the nation are embracing the concept that children need to be taught problem solving and design skills in order to understand our technological world.

It's 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 to produce.

A toy robot is used to demonstrate various aspects of engineering in North Carolina public schools.  Courtesty of Laura Bottomley.Miaoulis and his colleagues plan to identify at least one engineering school in each state—ideally, where there is also a school of education—that 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 act now."

The 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.

"Kids 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.

At each 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.

Ioannis Miaoulis, dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University, explains how Lego bricks and sensors are used to design a model of an automated home to 5th graders at the Center School in Stow, Mass.  Photograph by Mark Morelli.The 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 match—seemingly 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.

The 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.

Now 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).

During 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.

It all 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. Tufts engineering dean Ioannis Miaoulis explains the principles of lift, drag, and air flow in a wind tunnel to two 5th-grade students at the Center School in Stow, Massachusetts. Photograph by Mark Morelli.

"Every 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.

“All 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."

In Duke's 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 engineering—they want to share that."

A word 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.

Another 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 behind—mainly 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 way around.

This 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.

"This 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,” he says.

The 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 engineering—creative problem solving that improves the human condition—should 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.

Burghardt 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.

As for 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."

Miaoulis 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 baggage."

Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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