Even with the Next Generation Science Standard’s emphasis on engineering, there’s still a feeling that in preschool and kindergarten, teachers shouldn’t place as much emphasis on the E in STEM. But younger children can learn and benefit from modified lessons. Nia Keith, director of professional development for EiE, Museum of Science, Boston, gave attendees insights into engineering in early education in the edWebinar, “STEM in Early Education: Empowering Problem-Solving.”
First, Keith said educators need to make sure they understand what engineering actually is. Most stop short with the idea of building something. The engineering process actually involves several steps, from asking questions to determining if the student’s design solves the problem. Keith calls it a creative process, on in which even the youngest students can engage in problem solving and asking themselves, “What if?”
Next, Keith explored how engineering curriculum design parameters, as codified by Dr. Christine Cunningham, EiE founding director at Museum of Science, Boston, can be adapted for early education. She focused on six of Cunningham’s eight parameters.
1. Narrative concept: Students should examine real-world problems that are relatable to a diverse set of learners. It can be as simple as helping someone get trash out of their pond. The goal is to build the students’ empathy for someone else and give them the confidence that they can be involved in solving the problem.
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2. Engineering design process: For early education, this is three steps: explore, create, improve. Students should be allowed to ask questions and create as many iterations as possible. While older students may pause and analyze success and failure in between solutions, younger children tend to move more quickly from one solution to the next. Rather than critiquing, the teacher’s role is to ask questions and have the students convey their own conclusions.
3. Exploring materials and methods: This is a great hands-on activity for preschoolers and kindergartners. They get to touch, squish, and test the properties of different items. They can also talk about the various ways to use the materials.