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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Engineering for Everyone

As schools introduce more engineering activities, six principles will help girls and minority students embrace the E in STEM.

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The National Science Foundation coined the term STEM in the 1990s as a shorthand way to express the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math to future prosperity. But until recently, K–12 educators gave relatively little attention to the E in STEM.
Engineering may soon be receiving its due. The new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) make it a national priority to help U.S. students understand the human-made (that is to say, engineered) world in which we live. Many states have also modified their standards to integrate engineering with science.
But as educators introduce engineering into elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, they face a challenge: how to design educational experiences that are engaging and effective for all students. Making engineering instruction more inclusive is important because women and minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in engineering fields in the United States. Most schools have a way to go in terms of inviting everyone into the field.
For example, school-based engineering activities traditionally highlight competitive, decontextualized projects—which fail to attract students who value cooperative work and real-world tasks. Engineering challenges that demonstrate how engineering can help people or society would engage a wider group.
So how do we get to inclusivity?

Six Principles for Inviting Everyone

Curriculum developers associated with the Museum of Science, Boston have identified six design principles that educators can use to ensure that classroom instruction, activities, and materials in engineering engage all students—including students from underrepresented and underperforming populations. We identified these principles while developing the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum, which guides students through engineering activities based on authentic problems, but the principles can be applied to engineering activities or units in any classroom.

Set Engineering in a Real-World Context

Many students view the knowledge they learn in school as irrelevant for their careers and future lives (Carlone, Haun-Frank, & Webb, 2011). One way to set a real-world context is through a story—a fictional story, a news item, or even a problem statement.
EiE curriculum units, which are designed for students in grades 1–5, begin with a story. The main character always encounters a problem and solves it using engineering. After reading the story, students tackle the same challenge. This approach immediately places classroom engineering activities in a larger context. The stories are set in different locations around the world; the protagonists represent diverse races, ethnicities, and abilities (giving students role models); and the plots relate to students' own experiences.
For example, most kids have had the experience of being assigned chores they dislike. Unpleasant chores are a plot point in Lerato Cooks Up a Plan, a story about a girl in Botswana who is responsible for gathering firewood to cook her family's meals. It's a tiresome chore, especially because Lerato has younger siblings to watch. One of Lerato's friends, a university student studying green engineering, shows Lerato a solar oven. At first, the oven doesn't work well, but with some careful engineering, Lerato improves the design so it can cook food. Now she can spend less time collecting wood.
After reading the story, students engineer the insulation for their own solar oven, made from a shoebox. First, they conduct controlled experiments to investigate the insulating properties of foil, craft foam, paper, and cotton balls. They use the results from these experiments to decide which materials they'll use as insulation inside their own solar oven.
In addition to our elementary curriculum, EiE has developed an out-of-school-time curriculum for middle school students called Engineering Everywhere, which can be downloaded free from the project website. Each unit kicks off with a short, lively, documentary-style video that explores a real-world engineering challenge. This storytelling approach piques older students' interest. For example, one challenge invites students to engineer an urban landscape to control storm water runoff—a problem many U.S. communities face. The video introduces students to the problem by taking them on a tour of a city, with an environmental engineer as their guide.
For their engineering design challenge, students work in groups. Each group creates a model city on the bank of a model river. Students place pollutants—small pieces of plastic and drops of food dye and dish detergent—in different locations throughout the city, then use a squirt bottle to model a rainstorm. As the rain falls, students make systematic observations of how pollution is washed off hard surfaces and deposited into the river. They research existing technologies for preventing runoff in cities and test different absorbent materials, then apply what they've learned to their own city models. After-school educators introduce students to an eight-step engineering design process—Identify, Investigate, Imagine, Plan, Create, Test, Improve, Communicate—which students use to guide their work.

Highlight How Engineers Help Others

Many students are interested in people-oriented "helping" careers; this is particularly true for girls and underrepresented minorities. Because girls often want to understand the social value of what they're studying, it's a good idea to choose activities that highlight how engineering benefits people, animals, the environment, and society (National Academy of Engineering, 2008).
Sometimes simply reframing an activity you already use so that it emphasizes the altruistic aspect sparks student interest. For example, one common classroom activity is designing an electrical circuit—but often the assignment is made with no particular context. Instead, why not challenge kids to help design an electrical circuit that triggers a buzzer or light when a barnyard water trough is empty? The alarm would alert animal caregivers to refill the trough, ensuring that the animals have drinking water.
Environmental engineers often work to protect the environment. Students who are challenged to design a process for cleaning a model oil spill come to understand the work of environmental engineers, but also how this work may protect wildlife and ecosystems. Students who recommend where to locate a new bridge see the "helping" nature of geotechnical engineering because they must place the bridge not only where it will be safe, but also where it will allow villagers to easily access the school and clinic on the far side of the river.

Construct Activities with Multiple Solutions

Traditional lessons often require students to arrive at one correct answer. This approach can lead to disengagement, especially if students experience failure repeatedly. Open-ended activities that enable problem solvers to generate a variety of solutions foster creativity, encourage risk taking, and invite exploration of original ideas.
Open-ended activities should be designed so that students evaluate the performance of their designs against a set of criteria and constraints and have a chance to improve these designs. Sharing design solutions with the class as a whole should also be on the bill. Contemplating the common features of successful designs can spark new ideas.
Here's an open-ended biomedical engineering challenge from an EiE unit on designing knee braces. Students start by measuring the range of motion of an undamaged human knee joint. Then they're introduced to a model of an injured knee made from a Wiffle ball (the knee joint) set inside two circular cardboard tubes (the thigh and calf) held together by rubber bands. Students will see that this model moves differently from a healthy human knee.
The students' challenge is to engineer a rigid but flexible brace for the model knee that allows a normal range of motion, using only jumbo craft sticks, rubber bands, string, felt, craft foam, fabric, and cardboard. As they engineer, students need to apply knowledge about the range of motion of a knee, knowledge of material properties, and problem-solving skills. After they design a brace, students assess the range of motion it affords and its durability. Students always create different kinds of successful braces—clearly there's more than one solution!
Many teachers we work with say watching students develop a variety of solutions is a highlight of teaching engineering. One 1st grade teacher explains:
The variety of solutions the kids came up with was the most exciting thing. None of the [designs] looked the same. Not even similar, although they used the same materials…. The exciting part was to watch them try it. And then to see the wheels turning and see them talk among themselves about how to improve [their brace]. It was priceless.

Value Failure

Failure is a necessary attribute of engineering. Whether you're a student, a teacher, or an engineer, whenever you try innovative ideas, some of your designs will inevitably fail to meet the criteria or constraints of the problem. Because engineering is an iterative process, those designs can always be improved. Failure prompts reflection (What didn't work? Why?) and informs subsequent designs. That's quite a contrast with traditional schoolwork, where failure can carry a stigma.
Engineering activities should embrace failure and cast it as a learning opportunity. We should communicate that students don't fail, the design fails. In our experience, students welcome the opportunity to improve their designs. After completing an EiE activity, one student wrote, "I like the plant project. It was fun to mess up and try again." Teachers tell us that students beg to spend more time refining their designs—they come in before and after school and continue their engineering during recess and at home.
The chance to try it again can be a liberating experience, particularly for students who've been categorized as low-achieving. We hear countless stories from teachers of how a student who previously seemed disengaged from schoolwork became highly engaged in an engineering task, persisted through multiple rounds of design, and emerged as a team leader.

Foster Collaboration

Engineers routinely work in teams. Cultivating the skill of teamwork is particularly important because competitive environments can be discouraging to girls and to kids from cultures that value interaction and collaboration (Lee, 2003).
When students work productively in groups, they often identify stronger design solutions and learn more effectively. Collaborating helps students see that when you work with different people, you might generate a more diverse range of ideas, which increases the likelihood that one (or a combination) of these will succeed. Working in teams also gives students a chance to emphasize their areas of strength. Collaboration across teams shows kids how they can learn from the successes and failures of others, and when groups pool their data, trends become more apparent.
We see the centrality of teamwork when learners tackle the aerospace engineering challenge of designing a parachute that floats down as slowly as possible. Students experiment with different canopy sizes and suspension line lengths. When they pool their data across groups, the combined information helps them see the relationships among canopy size, length of suspension lines, and drop speed. If students worked individually, it would take each of them a lot more time and trials to reach the same conclusion.
Of course, students, like adults, need to learn how to work in teams. Teachers should actively encourage students to share their thoughts, consider other people's perspectives, argue from data and evidence, and compromise to select the best ideas.

Use Readily Available Materials

Using inexpensive materials that are easy to find at grocery, craft, or hardware stores is another way to invite a more diverse group of students to engage with engineering. Because low-tech materials like soda bottles or popsicle sticks are more familiar to students, they're more approachable. Underfunded schools and classrooms can also better afford low-cost equipment. And using easy-to-find materials means kids can continue to engineer at home if they get hooked by a challenge at school.
We find that when engineering challenges employ simple materials (for example, designing a way to make play dough using water, salt, and flour) students often do want to continue engineering at home, with positive results. One teacher in a bilingual school shared this story:
Last year, I worked with a very challenging student population; many of my students had been exposed to trauma and lacked trust in adults and one another. This was often manifested through a lack of motivation on school assignments and outbursts of anger and defiance. That changed when my class began working on the Engineering is Elementary chemical engineering unit, in which students design a process to make play dough. … My students became so motivated that almost half the class brought in samples and processes they had developed at home to improve the processes they were working on in class. During class, they discussed the quality of their samples and tried to figure out ways to combine their ideas to come up with the best possible sample. … We ended up comparing wheat with corn flour in our samples, as many of my Mexican and Central American students had access to corn flour at home rather than wheat, which brought in a cultural dimension. … Several students ended the unit saying they wanted to become engineers as adults.

Every Child an Engineer

As we introduce children to the "new" discipline of engineering, we should do so in ways that will attract and engage all learners and give students opportunities to experience engineering and science education meaningfully. By applying the inclusive design principles outlined here, we'll ensure that every child can engineer.

Carlone, H. B., Haun-Frank, J., & Webb, A. (2011). Assessing equity beyond knowledge- and skills-based outcomes: A comparative ethnography of two fourth-grade reform-based science classrooms. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(5), 459–485.

Lee, O. (2003). Equity for linguistically and culturally diverse students in science education: A research agenda. Teachers College Record, 105(3), 465–489.

National Academy of Engineering (2008). Changing the conversation: Messages for improving public understanding of engineering. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

End Notes

1 On its website, Engineering is Elementary provides how-to videos and other free resources to help educators incorporate the kinds of lessons and activities featured in the curriculum into their classrooms.

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