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.
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
child's play. Rather, it is to recognize that, from an early
age, children can be exposed to the pleasures and excitement of design
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.
engineering educators have for some time now lamented the passing of
the era when young boysfuture engineersplayed
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
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 activitiessewing,
cooking, decorating, playing with dollswhich 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
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
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
complexity. The initiative is still young, but with the thought and
care that have been put into its development, it holds great promise
engineeringas embodied in designintegrated throughout the
state's elementary and high school curricula.
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
thereby obviating the now-common problem of college-bound students
not having the proper preparation for applying for admission to engineering
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.
Petroski is the A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil E ngineering and
a professor of history at Duke University.
His latest book, “Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect
Design,” which explores the nature of design as manifested in
everyday activities and things, will be published in September