Engineering and Early Learning, By Adetola Salau
Early learners are natural explorers! They love to touch, squish, and test the properties of different items. They also love to talk about all that they are learning over and again. Encouraging these tendencies is necessary for the engineering process, which is centered upon inquiry and exploration.
Problem-solving is essential to engineering. Engineers are constantly on the lookout for a better way to do things. – Dinesh Paliwal
With engineering, the process is really what is important.
After three years of STEM advocacy and spreading STEM awareness, I have emphasised the ‘E’ in STEM a lot due to my engineering background and yet I still get the feeling that in the early creche and kindergarten years, teachers neglect the ‘E’ in STEM because it is deemed as involving too much work. Yet, they fail to realise that these younger ones can benefit from modified lessons that target problem-solving and creation.
In modifying lessons for my STEM bootcamp programme in 2018, I had to return to the drawing board for my young learners. I asked myself what engineering entails and had to set aside the popular notion that it is all about just building. I stared at a pictograph that I had used previously for a STEM week programme for a creche and kindergarten in Lekki, Lagos. When we worked with the little ones earlier, we depicted the engineering process through the activities carried out, as involving several steps from inquiry (asking questions) to deciding if a puplis’s creation (design) solves a challenge. It is an immersive creative process in its entirety. It is about the repeated inquiry of “What if” to every situation presented in a challenge.
From my research, I discovered that the engineering curriculum design parameters, as put together by Dr. Christine Cunningham, founding director at Museum of Science, Boston, could be adapted for early education. Focusing on six of Cunningham’s parameters we discovered:
1. A relatable storyline: Getting children to review real-world problems that are relatable to a variety of learners. In our context here in Nigeria, it can be as simple as getting rid of the plastic waste that is found everywhere and is difficult to dispose of. The aim is to dwell upon and build children’s compassion for others and boost their self esteem as problem solvers.
2. Hacking the engineering design process: With our early learners, I have deduced that it requires three steps: exploration, creation, and improvement. Children should be given the freedom to be curious and create as many simulations as they desire and is possible. Older children, for the most part, reflect and analyse whether they are getting solutions right or wrong, while younger ones move from one situation to another with little time in between. The roles of parents or teachers in the lives of these pupils, rather than assessing them too critically, is to support them by asking questions which should lead them to their own assumptions.
3. Discovery and exploration as being natural for them: Early learners are natural explorers! They love to touch, squish, and test the properties of different items. They also love to talk about all that they are learning over and again. Encouraging these tendencies is necessary for the engineering process, which is centered upon inquiry and exploration.
4. Teamwork: It is better for interpersonal skills to be embedded at these young ages, as one of the critical skills of the 21st century is collaboration. Enabling our early learners to work in pairs or small groups means that they learn how to express their ideas to each other and work towards a common goal.
5. Ownership: Children of all ages are more invested in learning when their work impacts an outcome immediately. This occurs from allowing children to direct a project they are given and to decide on the courses to take.
Ultimately, we then move away from trying to streamline children towards what we believe is the “right answer.” In fact, the majority of engineering activities have multiple solutions and allow for failure.
My favourite step of the process is the improvement stage; this enables children to develop, explore and retain the sense of resilience when designs fail.
In traditional education, failure is not an acceptable option, but in engineering, failure is embraced with open arms; as it is part of the process.
What remains in the back of my mind as critical is to realise that our learners, our designers, our engineers, never fail. Only designs fail.