Susan Kunze was teaching a unit on fairy tales to her second graders at California’s Bishop Elementary School. After reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff, she challenged her students to design and build a bridge that could support the weight of a billy goat made out of a potato and straws. The lesson tied in nicely to a recent math unit about shapes. All was going well until “some students went rogue,” Kunze says. Suddenly, instead of working in groups on a collaborative plan, it was each student for him- or herself. Materials ran low. Bridges collapsed. Billy goats plunged into a crevasse between the desks.

As a veteran teacher and 2008 winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, Kunze took the failure in stride. It was all part of integrating engineering into her science curriculum.

“Engineering helps build on science and math skills,” she says. “It propels students and helps them develop critical thinking skills and creativity. That’s what engineering is about: solving problems.”

Problem solving is, in fact, the key principle behind the nationwide movement to focus more on the engineering piece of the the STEM/STEAM curricula—science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. The shift has been driven by the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize engineering design in K–12 science education. As of December 2016, the NGSS had been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia, representing 35 percent of students in the United States.


Why the E in STEM?

“Engineering focuses on the real-world application of scientific principles,” says Seth Dimbert, an educational consultant and founder of MRD Educational Technology, based in New Jersey. “The study of science is about inquiry. The study of engineering is about problem solving.”

And young children are natural problem solvers. “Kids are creative, they think on their feet, and they are natural-born builders,” says Benjamin Gross, director of STEM Innovation at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, a PreK–12 private school in Lawrence and Cedarhurst, New York. 

Gross enjoys watching his students become active learners, applying science to engineering practices. “Their brains tell them, ‘Just do it,’” he says. “In football, pregame, you’re sitting with your coach and he’s teaching you 500 plays. When you’re on the field, though, things change. Suddenly, you’re a problem solver. You’re living the experience. It’s learning by designing.


Engineering allows teachers to focus on issues that are real to their students. Ted Willard, director of NGSS at the National Science Teachers Association, points out that engineering makes the teaching of science far more equitable and accessible to all students.

“Understanding the nature of the universe may be appealing to some but not all students,” says Willard. “Engineering is a process used by all cultures.” For example, students living in rural areas may explore what will make crops grow better. In inner cities, students might deal with the challenge of producing less garbage or filtering lead from water. “Engineering gives a purpose to what students are learning,” Willard says. Plus, there is no single “right answer.” One problem can have multiple solutions, providing all kids with the opportunity to succeed.



So what can you expect in the engineering classroom? “You’re going to have to let go of the old traditional way of teaching,” says Christian Ball, a STEM teacher in grades 6–8 at Alan B. Shepard Middle School in Deerfield, Illinois.

Ball’s classroom is set up like a 21st-century shop class, or makerspace, with kids working collaboratively on projects of their own choosing—from designing paper roller coasters to experimenting with robotics.

“When my sixth graders walk in for the first time, their faces light up like they just won a car!” Ball says.

In his nine-week course, sixth and seventh graders complete three 10-day projects, while eighth graders can choose one single larger project. Each group creates a class presentation when their project is complete. As with any workshop, teachers can expect more mess and less control. “Teachers need to be comfortable with an environment that is louder and a bit more chaotic than a traditional classroom,” says John Filippi, Shepard’s principal. “Sometimes there are robots rolling down the hallway.”



Makerspaces, or even a project area in a classroom, provide opportunities for open-ended exploration. “In most of schooling, you go from A to B, but in STEM, students are choosing their own path to get to B,” Ball says. “In my class, how students are going to get there is up to them. There’s a lot of trial and error.”

Ryan King, a teacher at the K–4 Waunakee Heritage Elementary School in Wisconsin, witnessed a high level of originality and initiative in a project he assigned to his third graders through Project Lead the Way Launch. They built a simple machine, a wheel and axle that could move a whiteboard marker, using VEX parts (which he calls “high-powered Lego”).

“I gave them very little instruction,” he says. “The different ideas they came up with were incredible.”

One group used very few VEX pieces and aligned two wheels perpendicular to the length of the body. “We spent some time in class talking about the benefits and drawbacks of simple designs,” King says. Other designs were much more complex, using four wheels and a flatbed to support the marker. One group even extended the lesson to build a compound machine by attaching a lever to a couple of wheel-and-axle systems, creating a crane. They used gears to turn the lever and magnets to grab a basket.

Open-ended lessons also mean a makeover for assessments. The motto is “process over product.” King asks his students to explain their design reasoning and how their machines help to execute a task. Ball also assesses his students’ design process: “I don’t grade my students on the final product, but on the journey. If the final product doesn’t succeed, that’s fine. I want to know, ‘What did you learn? What were your successes and failures?’”

Engineering is an area where failure is perfectly acceptable—and encouraged. “I want my students to fail,” Ball says. “It’s the only way they’re going to learn. Our job is to teach skills such as collaboration and critical thinking to get students ready for the real world, where they’re going to have to make decisions, and fail, and problem-solve.”

Teachers fail, too—as Susan Kunze discovered with her “Billy Goats Gruff” project. “I realized how important it is to have a good plan in place,” she says. “I learned to make sure every student has a role to play within the group.” 


Don’t underestimate the fun factor. Because students are enjoying the learning, they are more engaged, says King. He strategically plans his science and engineering lessons toward the end of the school day.

“Kids would typically be lethargic, but it’s by far their favorite time, besides P.E. or lunch,” he says. “We’re working until the last five minutes of the day. When I ask them to clean up, they groan. They’re watching the clock, hoping they’ll have more time to work on their projects. That’s inspiring!”



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Photo: Jan von Holleben/Trunk Archive