ASEE Prism Magazine - September 2003
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- by Henry Petroski

Introducing young children to engineering is a goal embraced by educators and policymakers alike. But is it an achievable goal? After all, even college-level engineering students complain that they do not get to take courses in their future profession until they complete their freshman-year calculus, physics, chemistry and, increasingly, biology courses. No one should even have to wait until sophomore year in high school to be exposed to engineering.

The essence of engineering is design, and so by understanding the nature of design even the youngest student can have a head start on an engineering education. Learning about and engaging in elementary design activities have no prerequisites but common sense and a playful, inquisitive mind, qualities that children have in abundance. This is not to say that design is without discipline or that engineering is just child's play. Rather, it is to recognize that, from an early age, children can be exposed to the pleasures and excitement of design and thereby to the intellectual appeal of a career in engineering.

The process and products of design are ubiquitous in everyday life, and so the opportunities for children to experience them are virtually unlimited. Children at play engage in acts of design every time they rearrange their blocks, create new sandcastles, or change the rules of an old game. They redesign much of what they are taught by devising personalized ways of tying their shoes or brushing their teeth.

Older engineering educators have for some time now lamented the passing of the era when young boys—future engineers—played with Erector, chemistry, and radio sets and took apart bicycles, and later cars, to customize them. The leg up they were believed to have had toward an engineering education was, however, seldom exploited before college.

But manipulating “boys' toys” was not the only way that young children could learn about design and engineering. Young girls had long engaged in analogous creative activities—sewing, cooking, decorating, playing with dolls—which provided equally valuable experience with design. If girls were not encouraged to go into engineering, it was not for lack of talent for or exposure to the joys of design but for social and cultural reasons that are now recognized to be stereotyping, oppressive, and irrelevant.

Computers are androgynous, and with their introduction and subsequent pervasiveness have come more gender-equal opportunities. Though computers might often be thought to be nothing but black boxes that cannot easily be tinkered with, they do allow children who have grown up with them virtually unlimited creative possibilities in navigating the Internet, creating Web pages, and even just commanding the machine

Today, children of both sexes come to the earliest grades in school with similar experiences in design, but they are still seldom exploited in an educational context. The Commonwealth of Virginia is a rare exception. It expects grade-school students not only to learn about design as an explicit educational activity at all grade levels but also expects them to engage in structured design projects of increasing complexity. The initiative is still young, but with the thought and care that have been put into its development, it holds great promise for having engineering—as embodied in design—integrated throughout the state's elementary and high school curricula.

If Virginia's lead is followed, students in the future should not only bring a more explicit understanding and a more formal experience with design to high school but also should be in a position to identify early on engineering as an attractive career option. This will, of course, lead to a more informed selection of high school courses, thereby obviating the now-common problem of college-bound students not having the proper preparation for applying for admission to engineering schools.

Design is both process and product, and children grow up with both. Recognizing this incontrovertible fact and exploiting it in the earliest elementary-school grades is a most promising way to introduce potential future engineers to the essence of a great profession before it is too late.


Henry Petroski is the A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil E ngineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, ā€œSmall Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design,ā€ which explores the nature of design as manifested in everyday activities and things, will be published in September 2003.


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