How to Engage Kids in Engineering

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Christine M. Cunningham and Melissa Higgins reflect on what makes the Engineering is Elementary curriculum, described in their EL article “Engineering for Everyone” (Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015), appealing to all students.

In developing the Engineering is Elementary curriculum, which engages elementary students in engineering, our team at the Museum of Science, Boston, identified design principles that make STEM curricula attractive to students from populations underrepresented in STEM careers—girls, blacks, Hispanics, and children from low-income families. One of these principles is applying problems to the real world through stories.

“I can help Teyha solve this problem!” a 3rd grader says excitedly. She has just read a story—one component in an Engineering is Elementary unit—about a Native American girl in the Pacific Northwest who wants to help clean up an oil spill. After reading the story, this 3rd grader and her classmates will work through a series of scaffolded activities that culminate in a design challenge to develop a system that removes oil from water.EL post

Stories—whether told through books, magazine articles, videos, or other digital formats—help all children learn and are wonderful tools for engaging children in STEM subjects. Context-setting is especially valuable for STEM instruction because it helps students to understand the why as well as the what—that is, to see how knowledge gained in the classroom can be applied in the real world. To address Teyha’s challenge, for example, this 3rd grader and her classmates will use what they learned in science class about ecosystems and food webs as they consider the effects of the spill. They’ll use their math skills to conduct controlled experiments evaluating materials that could be used in a clean-up. In the end, they’ll see how science and engineering can make a difference for people and communities.

Stories help children visualize themselves in new roles; students naturally identify with storybook protagonists and put themselves in the picture. (Teachers tell us they often hear students exclaim, “That child in the book looks like me!”) Sociocultural theories of learning suggest that how students see themselves fitting into the world of STEM influences their achievement in those subjects. In our example, this 3rd grader is already seeing herself as a problem solver who can use her knowledge to help others.

We choose stories with diverse protagonists so that every student can find a character with which to identify; there are boys, girls, kids from traditional and blended families, kids from cultures around the world, and kids with different abilities. We also give each protagonist experiences that are familiar to children—doing chores, getting along with siblings, making friends, and so forth. When using stories to introduce STEM subjects, teachers should choose protagonists that will resonate with their particular students.

Inclusive STEM instruction is a national priority in the United States and an issue of economic competitiveness in the global market; millions of STEM jobs sit vacant due to a lack of qualified applicants. And it’s an issue of social justice, too. STEM jobs pay well, but minorities disproportionately have school experiences that fail to qualify (or inspire) them to pursue these jobs.

Assessment data show that all students, regardless of demographics, come away from classroom engineering activities, like those in our Engineering is Elementary curriculum, with a better understanding of what engineering is and more openness to science and engineering as future careers.

Many projects now use storytelling to promote inclusive STEM learning. Tufts University’s Novel Engineering project shows teachers how they can use classic works of literature with elementary and middle school students to set a context for engineering activities. University of Maryland’s Sci-Dentity project uses science fiction and other narratives to encourage underrepresented youth to incorporate scientific ideas into their evolving identities.

Certainly, we could teach children about ecosystems and food webs by using lists of vocabulary terms. But presenting these concepts in a story that sets the scene is far more engaging for students and makes them more likely to see themselves as part of the story of STEM.