Students experiment with water filters. Credit: Engineering is Elementary
There’s lots of talk about how STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) can keep today’s students competitive in a global environment.
But the question is how these subjects should be taught in order to engage young students.
Teachers need to use concrete projects that “have [students] tackling real world problems for which there may be multiple ways of approaching or solving them,” says Christine Cunningham, the Director of, a project of the National Center for Technological Literacy at the in Boston.
Elementary School Engineers
Engineering may seem like too complicated a topic to teach to grade school kids.
Showing off a successful arch bridge. Credit: Engineering is Elementary
Cunningham, though, says that those in elementary school are budding engineers:
But many teachers are not familiar with how to teach engineering concepts, since few learned them when they were in school.
It’s critical that teachers get the support they need to be successful. “73 percent of elementary school teachers will say right now that they are not adequately prepared to teach engineering.”
Flash cards can be helpful in mastering certain concepts, like multiplication tables or chemical elements. In science and math, though, some experts argue that much of the nuance has been lost as standardized testing increasingly takes priority and directs classroom focus. “We have distilled a body of practice that people engage with to a set of really small things that you can memorize,” says Cunningham.
Fun with properties of light. Credit: Engineering is Elementary
One engineering project Cunningham has introduced to students begins with a story for the kids about a girl who has found a turtle that needs clean water. The challenge is put to the students: figure out how to clean the water for the turtle. They then are given a variety of common objects found around the house —cotton balls, coffee filters, and plastic soda bottles – that they can use to filter that water and help their turtle friend.
“We see the kids are very engaged and will try again and again and again to make their solution better and better, which, I would argue, is exactly what happens in the world around us,” says Cunningham.
Where Do YOU Stack Up?
Take thisfrom Smithsonian Magazine and the PEW Research Center to find out how knowledgeable you are compared with other Americans.
- Christine Cunningham, Founder and Director, Engineering is Elementary