Scientific Education


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2014-12-16 post date.

Engineering in Elementary Schools: Engaging the Next Generation of Problem Solvers Today

Employment in occupations related to STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math —is projected to grow 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is faster than the 11 percent average growth rate for other occupations. Many of the fastest growing, top-paying STEM jobs are in engineering.    
Sixty-five percent of scientists and STEM graduate students developed their interest in science in elementary school, according to one study.
Who will fill the increasing number of U.S. engineering positions in the coming years? What can we do to ensure these opportunities are accessible to our nation’s children? How can the U.S. continue to set the pace in an increasingly competitive global economy?
For educators, business leaders, and policymakers, these questions loom large as engineering and other STEM positions remain some of the toughest to fill. In fact, STEM jobs take more than twice as long to fill as other job openings, according to a July 2014 report by the Brookings Institution.
An integral part of the solution lies in introducing students to engineering and problem solving at a young age — the earlier, the better.

Understanding Student Perceptions

Designing roller coasters, developing high-performance athletic apparel, and driving NASA’s Curiosity Rover are just a few of the many and varied job possibilities available to engineering professionals.
Research indicates, however, that most young students have a much narrower view of what opportunities are open to those in engineering fields.
The authors of the 2011 paper, “What is an Engineer? Implications of Elementary School Student Conceptions for Engineering Education,” found that elementary school students “conceptualized an engineer as a mechanic, laborer and technician. Students’ conceptions entailed the engineer fixing, building, or making and using vehicles, engines and tools.”
Elementary school students’ limited vision of who engineers are and what they do would not be cause for alarm if they made all career-path decisions in college, high school, or even middle school.
In reality, studies show that students decide as early as second grade whether they have an interest in— and believe they can excel at— math and science. In other words, students as young as seven and eight begin telling themselves that they are “good” or “bad” at solving problems. By this early age, some students have already begun to narrow their options, self-selecting out of anything science or math related.
It is critical to expand students’ perceptions of engineers and the role of engineering in the world. Teaching students at a young age that engineering is closely associated with problem solving, innovation, and making a positive impact can affect whether students envision themselves as, and aspire to be, engineers.
“From wearable technology, to rapid prototyping, to personalized medicine, to social media and app development, engineering and problem solving have been and will continue to be at the heart of improving lives and fueling innovation in communities around the world,” said Dr. Anne Jones, senior vice president and chief program officer at Project Lead The Way, leading provider of K-12 STEM programs in the U.S. “The engine of progress is our children. The most important investment we could make is an investment in the next generation of problem solvers.”

Engaging Students’ Natural Curiosity

It is common for young children to ask questions about anything and everything. Why not help students apply that natural curiosity to explore engineering concepts?
Research indicates that elementary age students are not to be underestimated when it comes to their capacity to understand developmentally appropriate engineering curriculum.
They are “capable of grasping both concrete examples and abstract concepts at remarkably early ages,” according to the 2010 report, “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in STEM for America’s Future” by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
Not only can young students handle engineering and problem solving at an early age, but embarking on that journey can also make students more confident in taking intellectual risks as they grow.
As author Glory Oljace notes in “STEM is Elementary: How Elementary Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Prepares Students to Beat the Gaps!,” students “cannot be expected to think critically for the first time in STEM subjects in middle school or beyond if they have not had the opportunity throughout elementary grades to experience STEM.”
Introducing students to engineering in a project- and problem-based setting when they are young helps them to seek solutions through critical thinking and hands-on exploration, while freeing them from a question and answer, right or wrong learning environment. Learning becomes not only more engaging and fun, but also more relevant and reflective of the real world.

Reaching Populations Underrepresented in Engineering

Early exposure to engineering programs matters for all students, but it is especially important for African American, Hispanic, Native American and female students, as they are seriously underrepresented in engineering. In fact, only 13 percent of American engineers are women, while underrepresented minorities account for just 12 percent of the engineering workforce.
Data shows a large achievement gap among these groups in engineering; however, according to the PCAST report, it is important to note that lack of interest is a major obstacle. “Recent evidence suggests that many of the most proficient students, including minority students and women, have been gravitating away from science and engineering toward other professions,” the report states.
When women and underrepresented minorities lack interest in STEM, they are limited from participating in well-paid, high-growth occupations — and the field of engineering is limited by lack of diversity.
“Diversity in STEM fields is critical because the problems we will be trying to solve will impact everyone, not just one or two demographics groups,” said Dr. Jones. “Further, a more diverse team brings varied perspectives, experiences, and expertise — vital ingredients for more innovative solutions.”
Preparing young students by instilling confidence in problem-solving early on can yield benefits in any career they choose, even if they do not pursue engineering. STEM disciplines and occupations carry high value skills that are in demand across many fields.
This is not just an equity issue —it is also an economic issue. With the U.S. aiming to be a global leader in talent-driven innovation, we must open doors for everyone.
Students will not explore opportunities that seem out of reach, and they cannot delve into possibilities that are altogether unknown to them. Educators must introduce — and introduce early — engineering and problem solving skills and habits of mind, along with examples of the wide variety of work that engineers do to improve our everyday lives.
This approach is integral to promoting opportunity for all, supporting the growth of American business and industry, and building upon our long held culture of innovation.

 Source:  By Dorothy Powers Gorman