July 25, 2014

“This country spends more on beer than STEM education.” – Gwynne Howell, president and CEO of SpaceX


“STEM workers are at the forefront of inventing and producing new technologies.  Over the last decade, STEM job openings climbed three times as fast as jobs in other sectors.” – former Commerce Secretary John Bryson


“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.” – First Lady Michelle Obama


“Bringing STEM to life in the classroom, after school and at home are all good ways to get kids more interested.” – Will.i.am, musician


“We need STEM-related talent to compete globally, and we will need even more in the future.” – John Engler, former governor of Michigan


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 Engineering is Elementary, a project of the National Center for Technological Literacy at the Museum of Science in  Boston. 

Elementary School Engineers

Engineering may seem like too complicated a topic to teach to grade school kids.

Cunningham, though, says that those in elementary school are budding engineers:

“Students are born natural engineers. When you watch any young child – two or three or four year old – at play, they’re constantly building things, sandcastles, forts, and so there is a natural inclination that all humans have to build, design and redesign. And we need to capitalize on that starting in elementary school."


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.”

Hands-On Projects

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. 

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.

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  • Christine Cunningham, Founder and Director, Engineering is Elementary

science, technology, Education, Christine Cunningham, engineering, kids, STEM

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