Mihir Ravel Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

PK-12 Engineering in the Classroom

PostedWednesday, January 2, 2019 at 8:05 PM

PK-12 Engineering in the Classroom

By Mihir Ravel and Cary Sneider

Our first blog about Pk-12 engineering included a curated group of videos on the topics of engineering design and what it means to be an engineer. Our intention was to do a series of similar posts that teachers could use to illustrate engineering concepts for their students. However, it came to our attention that LinkEngineering members are interested in seeing how experienced educators are teaching engineering experiences. So, we have compiled a new set of videos that show just that.

There is no shortage of videos on this topic.  To narrow down the list, we were loosely guided by these selection criteria:

  • To be helpful for teachers who must balance high demands with limited time, we chose only videos that are shorter than 10 minutes, and preferably under 5.
  • The video must illustrate the teacher’s intentions, the students’ level of engagement, and enough details to enable the viewer to create something like it in their own classroom. 
  • The instruction in the video should not require expensive equipment that is beyond the reach of many teachers.
  • Videos should not advocate for specific curricula.  Although good curriculum materials are valuable in engineering as in all other subject areas, we wanted to emphasize the process of good teaching, not any particular program. 
  • Videos need to be relevant to kindergarten teachers through high school teachers, and to both science and technology teachers.
  • Videos should highlight aspects of the engineering design process that may contribute to student success after high school, such as asking questions to better understand the need, coming up with various possible solutions, and testing trial solutions (prototypes) to see if they really solve the problem.

Although our audience is PK-12 educators, we’ve also included one video at the college level to illustrate that the same themes operate at all levels, from the youngest engineers to the designers of tomorrow’s technologies.

If we had to highlight one strategy for success in designing your classroom activities, it would be to focus on projects that are purposeful and related to students’ daily lives. This is nicely summed up by a quote from teacher Nicole Penn (beginning of video #5) about her students’ experience: "What surprises the students the most about engineering is that … they actually do things related to it every day."

Pre-Kindergarten STEM Activity: Bright Horizons at the Hingham Shipyard (2:34)

Kathryn, a pre-kindergarten teacher, does a beautiful job of engaging students in an integrated science mathematics activity. Although not strictly engineering, in the activity the teacher helps the students create a mental model that enables them to predict how a car sliding down a ramp will behave as the ramp is raised, imparting greater energy to the car.  This is similar to the kind of mental models that engineers use as they create and test designs to solve problems.



Kindergarten STEM Activity (2:49)

Kindergarten teacher Jessica Frisch demonstrates her original ideas for what STEM should be like for kindergarteners, starting with fun.  The video illustrates several challenges involving the use of various building materials including magnets, and how the teacher helps the students articulate their understanding of how the properties of different materials enable their uses for construction projects.



Kindergarten Engineers (3:23)

This short video by elementary principal Brad Gustafson is unique in that there is no voice-over, just video of kindergarteners engaged in building and using some rather complex cars.  Although this one does not fully meet our criterion of not requiring specialized equipment, the overwhelming enthusiasm of the children, and their high-level capabilities, encouraged us to include it.



Elementary Engineering: From Simple Machines to Life Skills (5:53)

Although volunteer artists are helping out in this second grade classroom, the art design teacher, Courtney Bryant, starts this video by emphasizing that the students are asking the questions, doing the research, and making the decisions in creating a special, hands-on, interactive school playground. She explains that this is a part of their school’s effort to integrate arts into the STEM curriculum. The short video illustrates how the teacher introduces science concepts (simple machines, energy) while engaging the students in using these concepts creatively, and developing skills, such as drawing, to clarify their ideas, and to learn to collaborate on teams. A segment of an engineering project for the fourth grade—to design a “dream car” illustrates ways of helping students develop more sophisticated skills, such as drawing with two-point perspective, and using their drawings as the basis for developing 3D models.



Using Engineering Design in the Middle School Classroom (4:11)

(click on photo or title to follow link to video)

Eighth grade science teacher Tom Jenkins explains that all of his design classes begin with students looking at a problem that they identify themselves, and then he guides the class as a whole in solving the problem. An important element of the class is that students begin with individual ideas and then collaborate in teams to develop group designs. This video clearly demonstrates a number of useful teacher techniques, such as generating multiple solutions, making data-based decisions, and working as a team.

Rocket launch

Engineering in Middle School Classrooms (4:11)

Nicole Penn describes her school’s engineering curriculum, which is based on creative design challenges, as a way for students to discover that they do engineering almost every day. The activities are intended not only to help students develop individual skills, but also to get them to appreciate the importance of working in groups. She ends by noting that these skills are the ones students will need to be able to serve society as adults.



Energy & Matter Across Science Disciplines  (9:26)

(click on title or photo to follow link to video)

High school teacher Tricia Shelton demonstrates the cross-cutting principles of the Next Generation Science Standards in this video that combines life science exploration with engineering design to examine energy and matter.  Tricia uses the strategy of integrating engineering design into traditional sciences in her 9th grade anatomy and physiology and biology classes as a way to inspire students and expand their views of these disciplines and how they work together. Students use creativity and evidence-based reasoning to make claims about how energy flows through the two systems. The first engineering activity is to develop a “Rube Goldberg” device to maximize transfer of energy. As an alternative to a traditional written report, the kids make a video explaining their design. This approach pulls in the creative and artistic students who may not be engaged by writing lab reports.  A second activity is to identify an organism that would provide the most efficient source of energy for humans, and the ecosystem that would support such an organism, based on what they have learned about energy transferrence. Focus of the class is for students to apply concepts in both engineering and natural systems. Integrating the disciplines led to growth in one student’s thinking, who noted: "I never would have thought that what we’re learning about in photosynthesis would correlate to how a marble rolls down a track."


An Iconic MIT Engineering Class (6:46) 

David R. Wallace, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and his students describe an engineering design course at MIT that engages students in developing both skills and attitudes needed for successful engineers to solve real-world problems.  The teaching methods that are celebrated in the class—such as creativity, generating different ideas, testing, building teamwork skills, and focusing on the needs of users—are similar to those that reflect good teaching from Kindergarten through high school. A common theme is that students are intrinsically motivated in their learning when the theme is designing a real product to solve a real problem.



To find other engineering videos, check out the playlists on our YouTube channel. If you know of other videos that demonstrate good engineering teaching, let us know in the Ask a Comment, below. If you are able, include a link and tell us what you like about it.


Top photo credit: still from Elementary Engineering: From Simple Machines to Life Skills from the Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia.



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