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E is for Engineering

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Oregon Department of Transportation Engineers In School/Creative Commons

Not long ago, if you asked an eight year old what engineers do, you’d probably get a quick answer, “They drive the trains!”  This story makes eight-year-old Silas O’Neil smile. 

“Engineers solve problems,” he says, “They fix things. They figure things out and they build new things. Engineers can drive trains, but there are all kinds of engineers, like. . . electrical engineers.” 

Silas’ teacher is Nancy Mears, who teaches second grade at Montpelier’s Union Elementary School. She’s also a former architect who says, “I love teaching engineering because it feels real and can incorporate many math and literacy skills, such as graphing, information writing, and the understanding of nonfiction texts.” Although Mears may be uniquely suited to this study, engineering is a part of the curriculum for all Vermont students from kindergarten on.

When did young children begin learning about a topic they might not even be able to spell?

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One impetus arose from the publication of the Carnegie Report in 2009. This document focused on the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as “engines for democracy.” Ultimately the report led to a framework for science instruction, which outlined what students in grades K–12 should know in the fields of life science, earth science, physical science, and engineering. The framework formed the basis for the Next Generation Science Standards, but there were many steps in between, and the entire process took more than two years from the summer of 2011 to the winter of 2013. The final document was the result of collaboration by leaders in science, education, business, and industry. The actual writing of the standards was completed by a 40-member team from 26 different states including Vermont. After it was released, Vermont was one of the first six states to adopt the standards, which include “engineering design practices” from K through 12. 

Is this really necessary? There’s so much on the agenda for your elementary school student. In addition to the new standards, the curriculum includes phonetics, reading comprehension, writing genres, and math. And maybe your mother-in-law keeps asking why the kids haven’t learned to write in cursive yet. The authors of the framework, however, remind us that “In some ways, children are natural engineers. They spontaneously build sand castles, dollhouses, and hamster enclosures. and they use a variety of tools and materials for their playful purposes….Children’s capabilities to design structures can then be enhanced by having them pay attention to points of failure and asking them to create and test designs of the bridge so that it is stronger.”

Teachers like Mears value the inclusion of this topic. “Problem solving is one of the most important skills we can teach,” she notes. To better understand engineering practices, the children in her classroom may be offered a variety of problems to solve and many have to do with building structures; for example, a tower of straws and tape that can hold a baseball, a bridge that can span a specific distance and hold an apple. Silas is proud of his structure built out of toothpicks and clay, “Mine was the second tallest!”  His classmate, Iris Alexander, explains, “Our challenge was to make something that would hold up 18 marbles.” 

The class also creates structures intended to make life easier, a specially designed back scratcher for example. Building their own games out of ping pong balls, egg cartons, and other found objects is also popular. Children who grow up with an awareness of engineering as a career are more apt to consider it as an option. Many of them now busy with perfecting their structures will be better able to understand the scientific issues they’ll deal with as adults and some will become our future engineers. 

What problems will they be asked to solve?  In this century, nothing may be more pressing than climate change. 

Scientists who fear we’re way behind schedule in reversing climate change are investigating the possibilities of geo-engineering. This involves intentionally altering our climate through the use of technology. These technologies include strategies designed to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere as well as solar engineering, for example, reducing the effects of sunlight by reflecting it back into the skies. Imagine gigantic airplanes flying higher than commercial jets shooting aerosols into the stratosphere. 

Depending on who you talk to, geo-engineering is either our best hope for keeping the planet habitable or a weird reckless science with potentially disastrous side effects. Who’s right? Young engineers like Silas, Iris, and their friends who are playing with engineering in classrooms today may have answers for us tomorrow.