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Shelley Latham Outreach Coordinator Linkengineering.org

Ten Ways to Start Engineering this School Year

PostedSaturday, August 11, 2018 at 11:36 AM

Ten Ways to Start Engineering this School Year

Summer is winding down and many teachers are preparing their classrooms for the new school year.  Hopefully, the summer break has been a time of rest, reflection and planning. If you are looking for ways to integrate engineering into your classes, we have put together this starter list.  If you are fortunate to work in a district that is supporting new approaches to STEM education with curriculum guides and professional development, you may not need this primer. But for those wanting or needing to build your own STEM lessons this will give you some ideas about where to begin.

1. Understand STEM basics

Ann Jolly, STEM educator and author of STEM by Design, lays out a list of criteria for meaningful STEM lessons: they must use the engineering design process to solve real world problems utilizing technology and grade level math and science concepts. Technology is defined as anything made by humans to solve a problem, such as pencils, scissors, rockets, and yes, computers and cell phones. In fact, teaching students how these different disciplines are defined and how they work together is an important part of STEM education and literacy.  For those of you who are a little confused about the differences between science and engineering, LinkEngineering has a helpful description. Meaningful STEM activities are hands-on and involve teamwork, collaboration, research, prototyping, testing and analysis of results with students being able to communicate their ideas and results. When done right, all the elements are integrated so that students immerse themselves in the design process, bypassing the fear and intimidation often associated with science and math. This approach to learning provides a more level playing field for students who may struggle with traditional lessons or may not see themselves as engineers or scientists.

2. Learn the Engineering Design Process & Rethink Failure

At the heart of effective STEM learning is the engineering design process (EDP). This is an open-ended, systematic approach to solving problems which involves identifying what the problem or need is, researching past solutions and design constraints, developing possible solutions, selecting the best solution based on constraints, constructing a prototype, testing, and improving. LinkEngineering has some models and videos to help explain how it works. The design process is fluid and one can jump back and forth between steps, but it provides a framework for teaching students all the elements involved in inventing and improving technology (ie: human-made things).  One of the key features of the EDP is that engineers learn from failure. Testing an idea is the only way to determine what works and what doesn’t. Failure in this context is an opportunity to redesign and improve the outcome.  The open-ended nature of engineering lessons combined with real-world problems, hands on activities, student led inquiry, the absence of one right answer, and the embracing of failure are what differentiate engineering centered learning from traditional classroom experiences.  This can be exciting and engaging for students and rewarding for educators.

3. Highlight Engineering Innovations and Engineers

Since engineering is, essentially, the creation of the human-made world, there are countless opportunities to highlight these achievements when studying history, geography, and literature. Each historical period, culture, and geographic location features significant technological advancements that solved meaningful problems. Some of these are big: water and sewage systems, the printing press, the steam engine, sewing machines, radios, computers, the internet. Others are small: the paperclip, the ballpoint pen, insect repellant, bandaids.  All have a story of innovation and invention, many of them interesting and surprising.  Most of all they present a terrific opportunity to make STEM subjects relevant to all students.  To get inspired, see some of the less known African American and women engineers who have helped shape American life.

boats

4. Stock your Bookshelves with STEM Stories

One of the easiest ways to bring engineering into the classroom is to make sure that the school library and the class bookshelf include plenty of books about the people, inventions, and discoveries that have shaped our world. These can be fiction, biography, history, picture books, how-to so long as there is a good range of subjects and styles for students to choose from.  Need some suggestions? The National Science Teachers Association has a good list and LinkEngineering member Jennifer Love has put together a list of some of her favorites.

The Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach has gone one step further and developed curriculum that uses literature as a starting point for engineering challenges called Novel Engineering. Students use existing classroom literature – stories, novels, and expository texts – as the basis for engineering design challenges that help them identify problems, design realistic solutions, and engage in the Engineering Design Process while reinforcing their literacy skills.

5. Use Engineering Videos

There are many excellent videos about engineering and engineers. These can be effective tools when introducing STEM concepts and careers, but they can also be really entertaining. Consider having a list of engineering videos that can be cued up during an unexpected lull in the classroom. LinkEngineering has a number of video resources in addition to a YouTube channel with a variety of playlists.

6. Browse Engineering Lessons/activities

Fortunately, teachers don’t have to design their own engineering lessons. There are several online resources that specialize in engineering activities that you can search for by grade level, concepts taught, subject matter, and time needed.  Many of the featured plans are standards-aligned making them easy to plug into your curriculum objectives. Getting familiar with the free resources that are available and bookmarking or downloading promising lesson plans, is a great way to start visualizing and preparing for engineering with your students.  Check out our resources here on LinkEngineering and TeachEngineering.org. PBS Design Squad has a collection of Educators Guides with engineering activities that are worth a look.

7.  Find Partners

While it is possible to start teaching engineering on your own, it’s more fun and a little easier to partner with other educators and community members.  Collaborating with other teachers is a natural place to start. Science and math teachers are logical partners, but don’t overlook art specialists and librarians who are experienced in interdisciplinary approaches to learning and contribute valuable expertise in making and research.

Your local library should have STEM book and video collections that you and your students can borrow and many have expensive, specialized equipment such as telescopes, 3D printers and other fabrication tools. Libraries also offer STEM events and programming which can sometimes be brought to local schools. Libraries love to partner with local educators, so it is worth checking in with the staff about what might be possible.

Other valuable resources include local college and university engineering departments. Professors and students often travel to classrooms with engineering workshops and the departments sometimes provide professional development opportunities for educators.  It is also worth connecting with local engineers – active or retired – who would be willing to speak with students about their work or help lead an engineering lesson. For suggestions on how to connect with local engineering resources see our article on mentoring.

bridge test

8. Look for Professional Development Opportunities

Lack of confidence is the primary reason that pk-12 educators are not teaching engineering. This is understandable, teaching something that is a bit of a mystery is difficult to do. Fortunately, you do not have to be an engineer to introduce your students to engineering. There are plenty of free or low-cost professional development resources for teachers to start building confidence about engineering in the classroom. LinkEngineering recently published an article on Learning to Teach Engineering with lots of suggestions including our Video Conversation Series with engineering educators. PBS has a self-directed online engineering workshop for educators and DiscoverE has free online trainings and resources for elementary, middle, and high school educators.

A couple of engineering education books that focus on elementary and middle school students provide both a solid overview of engineering and practical details on implementation in the classroom. Christine Cunningham, who developed Engineering is Elementary an engineering curriculum and training organization based at the Museum of Science, Boston has written Engineering in Elementary STEM Education: Curriculum Design, Instruction, Learning, and Assessment a complete handbook on engineering with kids. Christine talked with us about overcoming six common fears that teachers have about engineering in a Video Conversation which is a great preview of her work.  Ann Jolly has created a book from her excellent blog writing on how to teach middle school STEM called STEM by Design. Browsing her blog or buying her book will give you a great start on your own STEM journey.

9. Informal STEM Events

Some schools have solved the problem of finding time and resources for STEM by creating special, informal hands-on events that are designed to break down barriers and spark excitement in STEM. In an Edutopia article, Alessandra King, a Middle School Math Coordinator in Bethesda MD talks about setting up a monthly, school-wide STEM activity program that gives educators and community members a chance to share their knowledge, interests, skills and curiosity with students in a relaxed, informal and fun format. This approach would also work in individual classrooms, with a special time each month for engineering or maker challenges.

10. Get Family Involved

Research suggests that including families in STEM initiatives is important for long term learning and successful outcomes. In addition to keeping parents informed about what you and your students are engineering in the classroom, creating special school-wide family centered STEM events can be a great way to extend STEM literacy throughout the community. Family Science and Engineering has a selection of event guides and materials to take the guess work out of planning. Liza Rickey, a science and STEM curriculum specialist in Issaquah, Washington has some excellent advice for how to put together a family engineering event that was published on The Teaching Channel.

However you decide to start your path to teaching engineering, consider using the Engineering Design Process to guide your way. Understanding your objective and being clear about your constraints (time, money, teacher and student skill level) will help you choose the best approach. And even if there are false starts and missteps along the way, failure is how you learn and improve. Just ask an engineer.

Tell us how you have started engineering with your students in the comments.

Photo credits:
Top: Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr Creative Commons
Middle: Clay boats by DoDEA via Flickr Creative Commons
Bottom: Aberdeen MD STEM Expo via Flickr Creative Commons

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