Teaching Kids to Think Like Engineers

Engineering instruction should build on young students' natural problem-solving skills to prepare a future generation of critical thinkers

By Breanna Draxler
Nov 5, 2013 12:00 AMOct 9, 2019 7:22 PM
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A second-grader creates a model bridge during an Engineering is Elementary lesson at Hardy Elementary School in Arlington, Mass. Chris San Antonio/Museum of Science


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When Christine Cunningham, an education researcher and vice president at the Museum of Science in Boston, prompts elementary school students to draw an engineer at work, the pictures they hand in never surprise her. In fact, for the thousands of students Cunningham has polled around the country in recent years, childhood perceptions of engineers have been strikingly consistent — and consistently inaccurate.

“Children think engineers drive trains,” she says. Some sketch construction workers assembling buildings, bridges or roads. “The kids think engineers build these structures, not design them,” Cunningham explains. While not altogether unexpected, Cunningham says such childhood misconceptions are troubling. “If you have no idea what engineers do, then it’s not very likely that you’ll think about this as a career path,” she says.

Kids learn about the natural world in science classes, but what about the human-made world built on top of it — the buildings and vehicles and screens where they spend the vast majority of their time? This world, constructed by engineers, rarely appears in the curriculum until college, and even then, as little as 8 percent of incoming freshmen choose to pursue an engineering major, says Leigh Abts, a research associate at the University of Maryland’s School of Engineering and College of Education. Only half of those students will actually earn a degree in the field.

Repairing the Pipeline

The deficit is clear. Our society depends upon engineers to design every aspect of our lives — where we live, what we drive, how we communicate and even what we eat — but America’s primary and secondary education systems aren’t producing enough critical thinkers to keep up with the demand. This is according to a national initiative aimed at identifying and fixing the U.S. education system’s “leaky engineering talent pipeline,” led by the National Academy of Sciences, Achieve, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association. 

The group recently released Next Generation Science Standards based on research from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The standards raise the bar for integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics content — collectively, STEM — into elementary and high school classrooms.

“We are focusing on the E in STEM,” says Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director of the NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources. Engineering provides an overlooked opportunity to teach kids how to work together and solve problems at a very young age, Ferrini-Mundy says. Such experiences can empower them to do so later in life, when the stakes are higher.

Instead of a concrete curriculum or a test that students must be able to pass, the science and engineering standards lay out benchmarks for what concepts students should know at particular grade levels, each year building on those before it. They up the ante from previous iterations of science standards by integrating engineering ideas into math and language arts classes and applying engineering skills to real-world scenarios so students are better prepared for such experiences outside of school. This means instead of teaching facts that kids can just as easily Google, for example, science education should “enable students to evaluate and select reliable sources of scientific information,” according to the standards. 

The new suite of standards is necessarily open-ended, recognizing that teachers need the flexibility to teach different students in different ways. As such, the standards don’t offer specifics on how teachers should bring engineering into the classroom. “Many K-to-12 teachers are not aware of how engineering can be used to inspire and improve student performance,” says Mo Hosni, vice president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ board on education. That’s where programs like Cunningham’s come in.

Engineering Is Elementary

“Younger students need experiences with engineering and technology if they’re going to succeed in our 21st-century world — a world that increasingly depends on these disciplines,” says Cunningham, who is also the founding director of Engineering is Elementary, a program that brings engineering concepts into elementary school classrooms around the country.

In her work with Engineering is Elementary at the Museum of Science in Boston, Cunningham sees countless kids at play. She watches 3-year-olds building bridges and knocking down towers. She observes them take things apart to understand how they work. “The more I watch young children interact with the world around them, the more I am convinced that they are natural engineers,” she says.

But schools are failing to nurture these natural design inclinations, Cunningham says. Worse, rigid math- and language-arts-centric curricula can actually educate these engineering tendencies right out of children. The ubiquitous worksheet model asks kids to memorize and regurgitate facts instead of creatively applying those facts to solve problems.

Problem-solving skills should be considered a basic literacy, says Cunningham. “Everybody, regardless of whether or not they go on to college or go on to become engineers, needs to know something about how the human-made world that they live in comes to be,” she says. STEM fields are increasingly important to our fast-paced and fast-changing society, but remain underrepresented in schools, Cunningham says.

Engineering is Elementary provides curricula that teachers can use to work toward the goals set by the Next Generation Science Standards. She and her colleagues have composed interactive lessons that empower kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers to introduce topics that may go beyond their areas of expertise or familiarity. 

Few teachers are mechanical engineers, for example, but one unit introduces students to the power and behavior of moving air, then has them design mechanical windmills to turn that movement into usable energy. In this way, the lessons show children how to palpably grasp real-world problems and demonstrate how engineers use math and science to frame, analyze and eventually solve those problems. 

So far, Cunningham’s program has reached 4 million children by introducing engineering concepts through familiar avenues like storybooks. To tackle environmental engineering, for example, students read about a Native American girl named Tehya who is snapping pictures of landscapes near her tribal home in Washington state when she discovers oil on the surface of the Elwha River.

As Tehya explores the extent of the damage to the interconnected elements of the ecosystem on which her community depends, students see the far-reaching social and environmental impacts of even small-scale water pollution. 

In an accompanying lesson, students conduct pH tests on supplied soil and water samples to trace the source of pollutants from a factory in a fictional location called Greentown. They also use various materials and methods to see what will best clean up an oil spill simulated in a 9-by-9-inch pan. Spoons, they find through trial and error, are far less effective cleaning agents than soap and sponges.

Such simple exercises hold great value, says Cunningham: The students learn how to navigate a challenge by  trying, failing and rethinking their designs and then trying some more. “The idea that failure is good can be a radical concept in the schoolroom, and it can be a new experience for students, but it’s how engineering works,” Cunningham says. Each failure informs a future design that brings an engineer one step closer to success.

Leonardo da Vinci’s original idea for a flying machine (left) was infeasible, but improved designs and technological advancements have made the helicopter a regular feature in today’s skies. Wikimedia Commons; U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Read

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3

This problem-solving perspective is best taught young because it aligns with how kids learn, Cunningham says.  Concrete examples that require hands-on solutions mean far more to kids than abstract concepts like prime numbers or fractions, she says. 

Flexing these mental muscles and fleshing out these concepts can continue as students progress through the educational system. As such, one of engineering professor Abts’ main initiatives over the past eight years has been to develop an engineering Advanced Placement test for high school students. It’s one of the few mainstream disciplines without an AP assessment, Abts explains.

Engineering is not the kind of content that can be evaluated with multiple-choice tests, the way that English  literature and chemistry are, Abts says. It is not enough to measure a student’s grasp of the subject matter; evaluating how that student approaches a problem or task to find workable solutions is more important.

Abts proposes that the AP test be based on online portfolios in which students submit videos, sketches or other visuals that demonstrate their problem-solving process, from idea to prototype to solution. Although approval of the AP test by the College Board is still in the works, the beta version of the portfolio submission site, called the Innovation Portal, is already up and running.

The Innovation Portal provides a rubric for evaluating projects structured around the design process. Students submit their work, get feedback from their teachers, glean inspiration from other projects and refine their designs as they go. The rubric’s universality makes the design process applicable to seventh-grade math projects as well as graduate school engineering portfolios, both of which are represented among the design submissions of the site’s 12,000 registered users. 

Some of the users are students in college courses like Abts’. Others are high school students submitting class projects or participants in extracurricular engineering competitions. Abts says he is also working with the U.S. Department of Defense on plans to implement the portfolio into online engineering courses aimed at helping returning servicemen and women transition their skills to a noncombat context. Each portfolio documents a student’s process for trying to solve a design challenge.

In one example, a group of high school students asked how a hiker can hobble to get help if she twists her ankle far from a hospital or cell phone tower. In isolated locations, even a minor injury could be fatal, so the students submitted a design for a trekking pole that doubles as a crutch, combining lightweight durability with a detachable armpit rest and handgrip to use in case of emergency.

Another student project on the portal aims to make water sports safer. The students recognized that people often abandon the ill-fitting bulk of a life jacket so they can swim, fish or paddle with ease. If the jacket is uncomfortable, people might put themselves at greater risk by not wearing one at all, the students explain. The final iteration of their redesigned flotation device resembles a pair of unobtrusive foam suspenders, which the students claim outperformed a normal life jacket in tests at the local pool.

Abts describes the portal as a much-needed tool for instructors and students to work through the design process together, as illustrated in the above examples. Since the new science standards emphasize the need for more hands-on problem-solving projects in STEM courses, he anticipates that such a resource will become an increasingly useful tool in the future.

Teaching the Da Vinci Code

Abts teaches engineering in his own classes with what he calls “the Leonardo da Vinci approach.” When da Vinci envisioned a flying machine in the 1480s, the idea of humans being able to fly was so preposterous that his design for a helicopter-like “aerial screw” never left the pages of his sketchbook. 

Yet the idea triggered four and a half centuries’ worth of building, crashing and improving upon da Vinci’s original notion, until the first helicopter finally took off in the early 1900s. Further refinements have since turned the once-imaginary hovering vehicle into a powerful and prevalent machine.

“Engineers, basically, are problem solvers,” says Abts, who, in addition to his AP aspirations, incorporates engineering concepts into courses he teaches at the University of Maryland. In Energy 101, his students identify an energy-related problem in the world and then design a way to address it.

Even though his students aren’t engineers (most are freshmen and sophomores who have not yet chosen a major), they come up with novel ideas based on their interests and expertise. An architecture student laid out the floor plans for a home with an area dedicated to growing algae to fuel an in-house energy-producing biomass reactor. Another student conceived the idea of a flooring material that would convert kinetic energy from rowdy football fans in the stands of the University of Maryland’s stadium into electrical energy to power the lights on the field.

Abts considers these projects successful regardless of whether they are technologically feasible. That’s because he doesn’t aim to crank out engineers. Rather, he wants his students to think and learn the way engineers do —  creatively, critically and collaboratively — even if the ideas they come up with are ahead of their time or technology.

“Design itself is a process,” Abts explains, and one that requires innumerable iterations and expertise to execute. Whether his students end up being food scientists, fashion designers or engineers, Abts says they will be better prepared for their careers, and life in general, if they can apply the design process to solve the future problems our society is certain to face. 

[This article originally appeared in print as "E is for Engineering."]

Alison Mackey/Discover; Thinkstock

Next Generation Science Standards 

A recently released set of U.S. science education standards presents learning expectations for students, kindergarten through 12th grade. Each of the 200 standards addresses a concept in science, technology, engineering or math for a particular grade level. A standard doesn’t tell teachers how to teach; it provides a three-part framework to help create lesson plans catered to their classrooms.

First, lessons should engage students in the kinds of practices that scientists and engineers use to investigate the world, develop theories, build models and design systems. In one of Cunningham’s activities, designed to fit the standards, elementary students clean up a hypothetical oil spill much the way an environmental engineer would: by proposing solutions and conducting hands-on tests. 

Second, lessons should help students understand core ideas of science, engineering and technology as well as enable them to evaluate new sources of information on these topics in the future. This comes into play with the oil spill example as students learn about the chemical properties of water, oil and detergents, and how these substances interact with the environment. 

Third, students should learn how to apply concepts across many different fields of science. An oil spill isn’t just a chemical problem; the students learn that it is also environmental, biological and social, and that each aspect of the problem needs to be considered when coming up with workable solutions. Search the standards at nextgenscience.org

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