engineering (2)

 Welcome back to our Mythbuster Series. In this blog post, Dr. Mere-Cook will talk about why young children are capable of engineering!

About the author: Dr. Yvette Mere-Cook has been working with children with disabilities and their families for over 20 years as an early intervention and preschool based occupational therapist.  Having earned a Doctorate in Special Education from the University of San Francisco in 2016, Dr. Mere-Cook examines instructional practices, innovative approaches, and sensory-based strategies that support the inclusion of young children with disabilities within learning environments.  This work includes embedding the engineering design process within inclusive preschool classrooms. Currently, Dr. Mere-Cook engages in modeling best practices, teaching undergraduate students, and conducting applied research within the Early Childhood Lab at University of California, Davis's Department of Human Ecology.  

Myth: Engineering is a highly specialized skill and too difficult for young children to comprehend

Fact: Engineering involves solving problems through asking questions, exploring materials, creating solutions, and improving these solutions (Blank & Lynch, 2018;  Linder et al., 2016; Museum of Science, Boston, 2018). Research suggests that young children engage in this engineering design process during everyday play (Blank & Lynch, 2018). In fact, a study by Lippard, Lamm, Tank, and Choi (2019) identified three key engineering habits of mind or ways of thinking that preschoolers demonstrated within the art, block, sensory, and dramatic play spaces of the classroom. 

Engineering Habits of Mind

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  • Systems Thinking: Children combined materials to create solutions.  In doing so, they engaged in figuring out how objects relate and connect to one another, contributing to their understanding of how things work. Example: In the art area, a child created an envelope out of paper to hold smaller pieces of paper. When she shook her envelope, all of the small pieces fell out. She grabbed a stapler to close the sides further (IMPROVE . . . read below)

 (Image from Adobe Stock Photos) 

  • Optimism: Children demonstrated perseverance and viewed solving problems and improving solutions as part of their play, such as in the example above. 
  • Collaboration: Children actively sought the help of peers when working on solutions.  Example:  a child asked a friend to hold the other end of a measuring tape

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Interestingly, Lippard and colleagues (2019) discovered that these habits of mind appeared more often when early childhood educators actively engaged and nurtured children’s engineering thinking during play.  

What You Can Do:  Here are some ways to engage and nurture children’s engineering thinking:

  • Help Find Problems: Coming up with problems to solve can be tricky at times for young children (Blank & Lynch, 2018).  Therefore, teachers can help children think of real- world problems that can spark solutions.  One way is to involve children in any design challenges that your classroom or center is undertaking, such as creating or improving outdoor spaces (Blank & Lynch, 2018). 

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Another way to spark children’s engagement in problem solving, is to present engineering design challenges based on stories that you read. For instance, in the book, Kate Who Tamed the Wind by Liz Garton Scanlon & Lee White, the story focuses on how Kate solved her neighbor’s problem of having too much wind blow everything inside and outside of his home.  You can read this story to the children and then invite them to create their own structures that could withstand wind power. (Garton Scanlon & Lee, 2018)

  • Intentionally Introduce Materials and Tools: Reflect on the materials that you have available for your children in your learning spaces. 
    • How would children use different classroom materials, including loose parts and recyclables? (Loose parts are open-ended materials either found in nature, such as leaves and pinecones or everyday items found at home such as boxes and milk caps (Gull et al., 2019)
    • What adaptations would I need to make for children with fine motor challenges?
    • How would they combine these materials together?
    • What tools would they need and what alternatives could I provide to ensure that all young learners create their solutions? (i.e., loop scissors, small pieces of painters’ tape, double sided tape).
    • Where in the classroom, would these materials be located to nurture children’s creative problem solving? Perhaps pinecones could be accessed near both the block area and dramatic play space?
  • Notice and Ask: Children’s engagement in the improve process is critical when nurturing engineering habits of mind. 
    • Notice how they approach creating their solutions. If building a house to withstand wind power from the example above, you may comment, “I notice that you used a large block on the bottom and taped the paper towel roll to the block.” 
    • Ask open ended questions to extend their thinking and perhaps get them thinking of different ways to improve their solution (Strasser & Mufson Bresson, 2015; Waters & Lim, 2021). For instance, after noticing that they used tape, you could ask, “I wonder what would happen if you taped the large block to the table? How would the wind affect your structure?
  • Expand Engineering Challenges: Children’s building and creating solutions does not need to end in one day. Here are some practical solutions for expanding their engagement in the engineering design process that encourages them to think deeply about their solutions, connect these to real-world 9088865273?profile=RESIZE_584xexperiences, and engage in the improve process. (Alkire, 2019) 
    • Allow time to engage in the engineering design process
    • Create a space for items that are not done, yet
    • Include non-fiction books that are related to the problem-solving challenge. For example, you can include books on weather and wind power to complement the problem that Kate was trying to solve, in the book by Garton Scanlon & Lee, 2018).
    • Invite children to listen to and feel the wind during an outdoor walk or hike

 

References

Alkire, J. (2019).  Wind Energy:  Putting the Air to Work.  Abdo Publishing

Blank, J. & Lynch, S. (2018).  Growing in STEM:  The design process:  engineering practices in preschool.  Young Children (73), 4.  Retrieved from

https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/sep2018/design-process-engineering-preschool

Garton Scanlon, L. & White, L. (2018).  Kate, Who Tamed the Wind. Schwartz & Wade Books

Gull, C., Bogunovich, J., Levenson Goldstein, S., & Rosengarten, T. (2019).  Definitions of loose parts in early childhood outdoor classrooms: 

A scoping review. The International Journal of Early Childhood

Environmental Education, 6(3), 37-52.  Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1225658.pdf

Linder, S.M., A.M. Emerson, B. Heffron, E. Shevlin, A. Vest, & A. Eckhoff. 2016. “STEM Use in Early Childhood Education: Viewpoints from the Field.” Young Children 71 (3): 87–91.

Lippard, C.N., Lamm, M.H., Tank, K.M., Choi, J.Y. (2019).  Pre-engineering thinking and the engineering habits of mind in preschool classroom. Early Childhood

Education Journal, 47, 187–198.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-018-0898-6 

Museum of Science, Boston. (2018). The Engineering Design Process.  Engineering is Elementary.  www.eie.org/overview/engineering-design-process

Strasser, J. & Mufson Bresson, L. (2015). Moving beyond the who, what, when, where, and why:  Using Bloom’s Taxonomy questioning to extend preschooler’s thinking. Young Children, 9 (1), Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/oct2015/using-blooms-taxonomy-questioning

Waters, V. & Lim, C. (2021).  Asking open-ended questions.  STEMIE. Retrieved from https://stemie.fpg.unc.edu/asking-open-ended-questions

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Engineering can feel like a daunting concept to implement with your preschoolers, but young children are already capable and interested in engineering and design problems! They ask questions and identify problems to solve. So how can you engage your preschoolers in engineering? This blog post explains preschool engineering during a free-play session by building on children’s interests and identifies crucial teaching practices to push children’s engineering ideas and thinking forward.

About the author: Gurupriya a doctoral candidate in the Ed.D Curriculum and Instruction program at Boise State University, Gurupriya's work and research interests revolve around high quality preschool STEM practices and opportunities for inclusion of students with diverse needs. She received her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from Syracuse University and worked as a preschool teacher in inclusive preschool programs. Prior to that, she worked as a special education teacher for young children with developmental disabilities in India. As a Research Assistant at Boise State University, she assists in research projects assessing teacher and parent perceptions and beliefs on early STEM education, and developing teacher supports for the implementation of early STEM education.

This blog post contains excerpts from an engineering activity conducted in an early childhood setting as part of the author’s dissertation.

Shanina’s preschoolers have been reading about different animal habitats. Some children expressed interest in building shelters.

Children’s interests, including interests related to engineering, can be sparked in numerous ways. Recognizing those interests requires keen observation by early educators. Interest may come from reading a story on the rug, from observations and exploration during play, or from sharing about life outside of school, or in the form of an engineering challenge. Research suggests that preschool children should actively engage in inquiry-based projects by asking questions, collecting data, and presenting it. A skilled teacher is crucial in guiding children through the experience (Torres-Crespo et al., 2014).

Problem-based scenarios can engage children in STEM activities and expand their interests. Educators present young children with a problem relevant to their lives, then encourage and support children as they imagine, plan, create, and improve solutions to these engineering design challenges (Tippet & Milford, 2017). Let’s take a look at how Shanina used problem-based scenarios to engage her preschoolers.

Wooden blocks and plastic straw ‘forts’: building on children’s interests.

To expand children’s interest in building shelters, Shanina set up a provocation at the block area. She set up wooden blocks and plastic straws of various sizes and taped pictures of different shelters built using blocks and loose parts.8677047499?profile=RESIZE_400x

Then she posed a problem-based scenario and invited children to explore further, saying, “I wonder if we could build a shelter for the animals using the blocks and straws. How can we make it stay standing?”

Children initially began exploring the plastic straws, but a group of three children soon had an idea of their own—they wanted to build a fort. Shanina encouraged them by asking, “What is your idea?” and “What are you going to use to build the fort?”. Children specified that they wanted to build a fort that could fit the three of them inside and hold the weight of the blanket covering it.

Children began connecting the plastic straws and building a cube-shaped structure that was as tall as them. While building, the children had an idea to make an entrance to the fort by leaving one part of the structure open. However, this led to design flaws:

  • a) the structure began tilting to one side and almost tipped over due to the lack of a balanced foundation, and
  • b) the entrance was too small for the children to fit through.8677052895?profile=RESIZE_400x

Rather than point out these design flaws, Shanina gave children the opportunity to:

  • explore with the materials laid out at the block area,
  • create their structure using the materials they chose,
  • test out their creations to see how well they would hold,
  • reflect on the testing results, and then
  • problem-solve how to improve upon their creations

In doing so, Shanina observed how children worked together to build their fort, problem-solve to strengthen the fort, create an even foundation, and leave enough space to enter the fort.

To anchor children’s thinking in the engineering design process, Shanina asked open-ended questions such as, “what is your design for the structure?” and “how will you make sure it stays up?”. Open-ended questions can also support children in thinking critically about their design and work together to solve their design problem.

To complete their fort, children wanted to cover it with a blanket. Shanina prompted the children to think intentionally about their design, asking, “Do you think the fort will be able to stay standing with the blanket over it? Let’s find out!”

The children tested two blankets of different weights. The first was too heavy—parts of the fort gave into the weight. But rather than get dejected, the children rebuilt their fort, urging, “It’s ok, we can build it again!”. They negotiated with one another, commenting, “You connect the straws on that side, and I’ll work on this side” and “Can you get me some straws from the box?”. Upon completion, the children tested their fort with the second, lighter blanket and found that the fort held its weight well.

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By building on children’s curiosity, what started as a simple exploration of connecting straws transformed into a fort construction engineering challenge. With teacher facilitation, children worked together to construct the fort and think through issues that arose. Using a problem-based scenario, introducing open-ended materials and loose parts, and asking open-ended questions engaged children’s interests and encouraged them to think critically as they participated in a problem-solving process.

Often this begins by identifying and documenting children’s curiosity, wonderings, and interests and then building on it. It can take the form of children or teachers identifying a problem or question that needs a solution. Perhaps students identified something in the playground that needs fixing or have a question about how a tool works. Perhaps during a lesson on habitats, students want to know more about birds and where they live. No matter the starting point for students’ interest in a topic, posing or framing it within a problem-based scenario, introducing open-ended materials and loose parts, and asking open-ended questions can not only build on children’s interests but also further encourage children to critically think about and engage in the problem-solving process.

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