Kids, Education and Engineering

While plenty of STEM lessons cover science, math and even technology, engineering is often left out. This dedicated educator has figured out numerous ways to bring the "E" into the classroom to help those other topics become more real for the youngest students.


Nothing brings science more to life for young students than applying what they're learning through engineering activities. That's the idea behind Engineering is Elementary, an organization created at the Museum of Science in Boston by Christine Cunningham. EiE, as it's known, has developed engineering curriculum for students in grades 1 through 5. (Now the team is also developing lessons for preschool.)

As a long-time researcher in the field of engineering education, Cunningham early on recognized that to draw more under-represented people — especially girls — into the field, there were principles the lessons needed to follow. For example, research has found that girls are more engaged when they understand why they are doing something by situating their learning in a larger context and when they can help people. Thus, each EiE engineering challenge begins with a story that provides a narrative context to help the children understand why they're undertaking a given project and connecting it to helping animals, people, the environment or society.

The curriculum created by EiE has reached 12.8 million children and an estimated 1.25 million educators. For her pioneering work in education Cunningham received the 2017 McGraw Prize in K-12 Education. Recently, THE Journal interviewed Cunningham to understand what young children are capable of learning about engineering, the role technology plays in the curriculum and how educators can integrate this kind of activity into their already busy school days. This story has been edited for length from the original interview.

Christine  Cunningham

Christine Cunningham

You work with a lot of teacher programs doing engineering education and you frequently speak on engineering in K-12. What are some of the messages you share?

I like to say that basically all children are problem solvers. If you watch any young child at play, they'll build forts and bridges and sand castles and knock them down and rebuild them. We have this natural inclination as human beings to solve problems. But what I recognized is that traditionally schools haven't really fostered that. In fact, I would argue in some cases that we've driven it out of kids by putting them in front of bubble scan tests. What I was interested in thinking about is how we can take these natural inclinations of kids and develop them in classroom settings.

We spend 98 percent of our time interacting with the engineered world — our beds, our shoes, our cars, our cellphones. Yet schools have traditionally focused on the natural world — science — and not the engineered world.

How do we bring in and develop in students these problem-solving abilities? It's not only so that we have more engineers, although that would be a nice sidebar. I think more important is trying to help students develop a set of what we call "engineering habits of mind" that help them tackle and solve problems they'll encounter in schools or their general lives.

If we can educate a generation of kids who can approach new problems in structured and systematic ways, they can go on to do anything... How do we develop things like figuring out what the criteria and constraints are with the problem? What are the conditions and limits you have to work with? How do you make decisions based on data and evidence? How do you work well in a team? How do you apply your math and science knowledge to solve the problem at hand?

We've identified 16 engineering habits of mind that really are the centerpiece of all the work we do. If we can help kids gain fluency and familiarity with those kinds of habits, we'll have educated a group of students that is ready to tackle whatever new challenges come their way in 10, 15 or 20 years — whenever they go out into the workforce.

That resonates well with teachers as well. How do you work with a teammate? How do you persist through failure? That's not a common thing in school — to celebrate a failure. As an engineer, you often test your design to failure. You need to test the outer limits. And every time you test, you try to figure out what you can learn from that failure and then redesign to make it better.

The Engineering is Elementary site has lots of great lessons. These lessons require technology. That doesn't mean giving kids computers, does it?

Exactly. The way we define technology is the more general definition which is any object, system or process that a human needs or desires. Your pencil is a technology. Your paper is a technology. Your car is a technology. Most of what we interact with is a technology. And most of those technologies, whether or not they plug into a wall, have been designed by engineers. You realize how pervasive engineers and engineering is in our society when you start to have that broader look of understanding of what technology is.

You have content for kids who are really young. What can first or second graders really learn about engineering?

Oh. They can learn a lot. The way our projects work is that you are studying various topics in science — say it's a first-grade class and the kids have been studying about plants and pollination and insects. At the same time you're doing that unit or after you've done the science, you'll then engage in a unit [we have developed] to draw upon the science knowledge that kids are learning and apply it to an engineering challenge. In that particular unit, the students are working as agricultural engineers — because each unit also features a field of engineering to help kids realize there's lots of different kinds of engineering occupations — and they're designing a hand pollinator, which is a device that can pick up and drop off pollen to pollinate a model flower. They have to think about, what is pollen and why does it matter and what does a good hand pollinator need to do? How do we know if our technology has been successful? They identify that, "OK, a good hand pollinator needs to do two things: It needs to pick up pollen and it needs to drop off pollen." You see a great discussion among the kids figuring that out. Then they need to think about, "Well, how do we know what materials we should use for this?" Particularly, what materials are going to work well for the stated challenge of picking up and dropping off pollen? The way we've structured the curriculum, the kids then have a scaffolded experience where they test the different materials that they'll have access to and figure out and collect control data about which of these works best at picking up and dropping off pollen.

They get access to pompoms and pipe cleaners and marbles and erasers and tin foil and tape. By doing that, we've leveled the playing field. Kids who may not have access to pompoms or marbles at home have had an opportunity to feel them, touch them, play with them, experience them and know something about them.

Most adults would be able to tell you a pompom will be much better at picking up pollen — or in our case baking soda — than marbles. But a six-year-old doesn't know that. They test these materials. They think about the properties of materials, which is another very, very important learning goal for little kids: Materials have properties, and those properties matter when you're engineering.

Then they need to think about additional challenges for the particular model flower they have. How are they going to design and create something that will work? That's where the second major part of engineering that we try to bring out in elementary kids comes in — that engineers use a structured process, the engineering design process, as they develop technology. You can go randomly try things, and we'd call that tinkering; but engineers ultimately need to be able to provide some evidence and data that their solution works.

Most high school and college design properties are at least a dozen steps. We had to think really carefully about the stages we wanted kids to go through. So the elementary school design process is five steps. That came directly from classroom teachers, who told us, "You have one hand [worth] — five steps — and no more, or the kids won't remember it. This doesn't have to be a rigid process. But rather it cues the children in to what is the point of today's lesson.

Our first step, for instance, is "Ask." At that stage the kids are thinking about what the pollinator needs to do. "What should I already know about flowers or pollen that I should apply to this? Maybe there's some research I need to do before I go on."

There are these five little phases. It helps the kids understand what they're trying to do that day. It also makes sure they're not randomly going off. Little kids left to their own devices will pick the smiley face eraser, the thing that's pink or the thing that's metal. Those are their favorite materials. Doesn't matter what you're doing.

Your organization is developing preschool materials. How is that coming along?

It's been an interesting, challenging experience. That curriculum will be released in summer 2018. We are now testing in classrooms. We spend thousands of hours testing in classrooms with real teachers before we release the materials.

We've learned a lot about what is developmentally appropriate for three- and four-year-olds. It is different. They won't touch the materials they don't like. They won't vote for them, even if they're voting for which material is worse. We've had to rethink how you get data, how you talk about data, and making sure it's valid.

Children are able to put together a design process for preschool. You can only have three steps: First, you explore, then you create, then you improve. There's a little song that helps the kids remember. The big thing in preschool that's very different, the teachers tell us, from anything that the students have done before is improve. You create lots of things. There are lots of art projects. What you don't do is go back and think about how you can make it better.

Teachers are already busy. They probably already have their math and science lessons figured out for the year. How do they integrate engineering into the mix too?

Each unit starts with an illustrated child's storybook. We wrote those carefully to make them part of literacy. You have to read about something. Why not read about engineering? Similarly, we've done a set of lessons for mathematics. The teachers can pull out the math in ways that will reinforce what they're teaching in classrooms.

What we've seen and what our research data show is that the students learn science better when they do it with engineering than when they don't. It makes sense. You're reinforcing what the kids have learned, and you're asking them to apply it in meaningful ways. That's very powerful.

Ultimately, what I'd say is teachers are committed to doing what is best for their students. If they find a product that reaches those children who haven't really been engaged or enables every child to engage at whatever level he or she is at or gets that student who has never been a group leader or in some cases has never even spoken the entire year engaged and performing well and seeing themselves differently as sort of smart engineers, they find ways [to use the curriculum]. Sometimes it's the week before holidays when all the kids have ants in their pants, and the engineering allows them to move around. Sometimes it's after state tests. [We have seen] the kids stay in from recess or come to school early. They want to bring a project home after school. Many of teachers use engineering as the carrot at the end of the day when the kids have done the "beat-em-down-with-boring" worksheets: "If you can get through these, we can do this other more engaging and hands-on thing."

Not every teacher can do it. There are certain school districts that make it very difficult because they keep locking the school day down more and more. But teachers are really innovative when they see that something is benefitting their students.

This award comes with a monetary prize ($50,000). Dare we ask, have you figured out how you'll spend it?

It will definitely be something to do with kids and education and engineering.