When I was first tasked with creating a curriculum about environmental engineering for first graders I felt extremely daunted by the task that loomed in front of me. How was I going to interest my class of six-year old students in a curriculum that had nothing to do with unicorns, video games, or the latest dance craze? However, the more I thought about it, the less daunting it seemed. My students are natural problem solvers, always on the lookout for how to solve problems both in and out of our classroom.
Engineering is problem solving-based and uses scientific and mathematical concepts. However, I also needed to keep in mind that engineering is different from science. In engineering you must apply scientific and mathematical concepts to solve the problem. And the solution to the problem must be a sustainable and economically efficient one. These facts about engineering simply meant that my students would need to use evidence to support their reasoning while problem solving, instead of just throwing around random ideas which had no reasoning to support why they would work.
The idea of students using evidence to support their claims excited me. I work at Ross/Woodward, a classical studies inter district magnet school. Part of our curriculum includes the Paideia style seminars so that students can explain their thinking. I am always looking for topics to discuss with them and looking for ways that get them to support their thinking during our discussions. “The goal of a Paideia Seminar is to deepen understanding of ideas, concepts, and values.”
A Paideia Seminar is held in a fashion that is similar to a Socratic Seminar, the teacher acts as a facilitator and prompts the students with open-ended questions. During these seminars my students often give me one-word answers, or do not have valid reasons and evidence to support their thinking. I realized that a curriculum and discussions based in engineering where you must use evidence to support your ideas might be exactly what they needed to help them learn this crucial academic skill.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this curriculum would open many doors for my students beyond just discussions. Firstly, it teaches them about the field of engineering. My current students were originally unaware of what engineering was or what engineers do. This curriculum would introduce them to a field of work that they did not know of before. There are surveys which have been given that show that students from low income communities would create a better future for themselves if they took careers in STEM fields, however, they must be introduced to such opportunities first.
Most importantly, this type of thinking is extremely empowering for children. Engineering includes designing and building devices, processes, or structures which would solve specific problems. Students would need to think critically about a problem, figure out ways to solve the problem, and from there determine if this is a sustainable and cost-effective method. All of this inspires a new type of thinking which students are unfamiliar with. It shows them a new way to solve problems, use reasoning skills, and use evidence to support themselves. Overall, it is a powerful tool in which students can express themselves and their thinking.
Once I thought through what engineering was, and how this curriculum would supplement what I am already doing in my classroom, I realized that introducing engineering to elementary learners isn’t crazy at all. Young students are naturally curious and eager learners who yearn to understand the world around them. I suddenly realized that this curriculum made perfect sense for my current students as well as my future students to come.