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Integrating STEM in the elementary years: Your lesson plans may already hold the answer

It's easy to turn classroom lessons into engineering lessons.
It's easy to turn classroom lessons into engineering lessons.

Are you a teacher searching for ways to teach engineering in your elementary classroom, but want to start simple and are not quite sure how to begin?  Well, the answer may already be in your lesson plans.

As the mom of two elementary students, author of a children’s book about engineering, and an engineer, I have witnessed several of my children’s class projects that, with the addition of a sentence or two, become an engineering project.  When I can, I offer the teachers a few grade-level-appropriate sentences that relate the project to engineering.

Engineering Basics

Engineers do many different things, but the basic elements of the engineering method are generally the same:
•    brainstorming
•    planning
•    creating
•    modifying
•    team problem solving

Do any of these attributes sound familiar?  Take a look at your lesson plans–I bet you could find several projects involving at least one or two of the above listed attributes.

To help spur ideas of how you can modify your current lesson plan projects to engineering-related ones, I’ve included examples of two kindergarten projects from my daughter’s class and one second grade project from my son’s science class.  All of these projects were developed as fun teaching tools–and that is what makes them such fun engineering projects!

Gingerbread traps

“Run, run as fast you can! Can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread man!”

Those words swirled around the room as my daughter’s kindergarten teacher announced the start of gingerbread trap building. Students were allowed to choose working alone or as part of a team, and they could choose members of their team (or teams as some children migrated, joyfully sharing their ideas.)  For these young students, allowing them to choose team or individual work was essential for their enjoyment and the ultimate success of the project.

Excitement was high as kindergartners brainstormed, innovated, and built traps to catch their wayward gingerbread cookies.  Their vivid imaginations were given free reign to use any materials they found in the room–blocks, Legos, paper, connecting sticks, boxes, etc.

In the end, there were about 10 traps total–each very different from the next, yet all as effective. When the kindergartners returned from story time, they were delighted to see their gingerbread caught in the traps they built (with a little extra help from me and another teacher).  Success and joy–the traps worked just as they imagined and designed!
Their first project as gingerbread trap engineers left them with bellies full of tasty gingerbread cookies.

A great way to introduce this project as an engineering one could be:

“Today, you will be Gingerbread Trap Engineers. Your mission–create and build a trap big enough to catch our missing gingerbread cookies. Your materials–any of the items on the carpet or art table. Good luck, and begin building.”
Ice Cream Sundaes

Two days later, these same kindergartners tested their critical thinking skills on an “Ice Cream Sundae assembly line.”  With moving paper as the conveyor belt and lots of tasty goodies lined up on both sides of the table, each student had an important “job” to do as part of their contribution to the end product–big bowls of ice cream sundaes loaded with goodies.

As ice cream sundae process engineers, they learned the importance of process layout, timing, and function, as well as coordinating as a team.  Once again their little bellies were rewarded with the sweets of their labor–in record time and best of all, no waiting for anyone!

Transform this project into an engineering activity with open-ended discussion questions such as:

“What do you think our sundaes would have looked like if we had started with the sprinkles and ended with scoops of ice cream?”

“As ice cream sundae process engineers, name one thing you would change to speed up the process.”

And remember, at this young age, there are no wrong answers. Let them brainstorm and associate ideas with engineering.

Motion study

My son’s “Motion Booklet” was part of his school’s second grade science curriculum and had activities such as building paper planes and testing how far they will fly, constructing a foam glider from a template, and even sailing hand-made boats. This science lesson gave the students an awareness of their world in motion.

One page in particular really drew my attention.  The activity on this page had the students running different cars down different materials with different slopes.  Then the activity asked questions on the second and third rounds of car racing, such as “What changed?” and “Why did it change?” and “What do you think caused the change?”

This activity is engineering at its finest!  Add the following words and you have a great elementary engineering project:

“Engineers often conduct experiments such as this one to discover the effect that different materials, slopes, and even the car’s weights have on the speed of the cars. A big part of engineering is finding answers to ‘what will happen if I do X or Y or Z or a combination of the three?’”

I could go on, but I’m stopping there because that is enough for second graders.  Two sentences–that’s all that’s needed to give young elementary students an awareness of engineering.

I encourage you to add sentences like these to your curriculum.  Start small, start somewhere. Engineering doesn’t need to be the “silent E” in your STEM program any longer!

Patty O’Brien Novak is a mom of two elementary students, author of a children’s engineering book, and an engineer. Her web site is

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