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Engaging the "Natural Curiosity" in Grade-School Children Can Lead to STEM Careers
Elementary school science teachers sort through sail-making materials during a seminar at AAAS
A small sail fashioned from a plastic bag made taut with drinking straws, taped to a popsicle stick mast and stuck into a yellow foam boat, sat poised for its maiden voyage. A few elementary science teachers leaned in for a closer look. A sudden breeze filled the triangular sail, and the vessel glided forward. The teachers cheered, amazed by their accomplishment.
As science curriculum is shuffled to the back burner in many elementary schools—the age when students are most likely to develop a life-long interest in it—40 elementary science teachers met 22-23 September at AAAS in Washington, D.C. to learn about lesson plans and hands-on activities for use in their classrooms. The "Engineering is Elementary" seminar, hosted by AAAS and organized by the Museum of Science in Boston, showed D.C.-area teachers how to integrate engineering with science, such as by teaching the science of wind energy along with the engineering of sails.
"One of the challenges with elementary science curriculum is it could be more content rich," said Joan Abdallah, program director in the Education and Human Resources directorate at AAAS. "The problem is that kids don't see the relevance. Introducing the engineering piece to science draws them in more deeply."
Abdallah noted that in some schools, teachers are told to pull back from teaching science and to focus instead on mathematics and reading. But she urged the seminar's participants to apply reading and math to science. "If we don't do this now," she said, "we're going to lose science."
The curiosity of young children makes elementary grades ideal for developing interest in science and engineering. "These challenges—giving them an opportunity for their minds to stretch out—are fantastic," said workshop participant Gloria Allen, a fifth-grade science teacher at Plummer Elementary School in southeast D.C.
What's more, research shows that this nurtured interest can extend beyond elementary school years. Women pursuing bachelor's degrees in engineering tended to have had their interest in science and engineering piqued during their childhood, said Christine Cunningham, project director at Engineering is Elementary.
In a 1998-2002 study, Cunningham surveyed 21,000 women at 53 engineering schools across the United States. She found that 42% of women who entered engineering had a parent with a science, mathematics, or engineering career or degree.
"The women in their interviews made it clear that their parents did not necessarily encourage them to pursue an engineering degree," Cunningham said. "But these women clearly were exposed to some level of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] as part of their everyday life and did not have the stereotypes that many people have about engineers as dweebs who live in cubes, don't have families, and so forth," she said.
Cunningham's more recent studies, through the Engineering is Elementary program at the Museum of Science in Boston, show that K-12 children have a limited and often incorrect or incomplete understanding of what engineers do. For instance, young children seem to think engineers work with engines and reason that engineers must be car mechanics.
Cunningham has also found that the middle-school years can be critical. "If students start dropping out of the high-level math and science courses during middle school they are basically closing down engineering as a career," Cunningham said. "If we can get to them before middle school—when they don't have as well-developed stereotypes of STEM—and infuse a more accurate understanding, then perhaps more of the students will at least consider careers in STEM," she said.
One group of teachers made a sail from a paper cup attached to a popsicle stick mast
To get youngsters to consider careers in STEM fields, Cunningham and her Engineering is Elementary colleagues have created elementary school-level science curricula that integrate engineering and technology. Teachers can order the lessons and materials on subjects such as insects and plants (agricultural engineering), landforms (geotechnical engineering), and magnetism (transportation engineering).
"You have to get students before they receive the societal message that they're not supposed to like this," Cunningham said during the workshop at AAAS. "You have to capitalize on their natural curiosity and wanting to know how things work."
The lessons embed science and allow students to flex their science know-how by applying it to engineering problems. "We emphasize to students that there is no right or wrong answer; we want to give the idea that no one is wrong and get kids to hear different ideas" Cunningham said. "We challenge kids to make something better than their original design, and we get them to test it until it fails."
Teacher workshops guide educators through lesson plans and activities. At the AAAS workshop, the first that Engineering is Elementary has held at AAAS, teachers learned how to make hand pollinators and various wind-catching devices. Their sail-building activity, for instance, began by thinking about the challenge. What properties make a good sail? What materials do they have on hand that could be made into a sail? The teachers rummaged through possible sail-making materials: foil, waxed paper, plastic bags, felt, tissue paper, drinking straws, popsicle sticks.
Then the teachers had five minutes to create a sail and test it on a breezy "lake" modeled with fishing line stretched between two tables. A small electric fan set on medium speed provided the breeze. The set-up gives teachers an alternative to heavy, messy tanks of water—all too tempting for kids to climb into.
In between trials, the teachers tinkered with their sails: making them bigger, more symmetrical, adding structural support. The exercise in changing the design from trial to trial reinforced the curriculum's goals of encouraging children to marry their knowledge of science and engineering with problem-solving skills, and thereby improve their creations over time.
And just as they will have their students do, the teachers finished the lesson by describing what made a good sail: materials that are firm but flexible and able to billow. "Size matters in the sail—it has to be tall enough to catch the breeze," said one teacher. "You need to seal the edges so the wind doesn't leak out," said another.
When asked how the activity will work in her classroom, one teacher said: "This is going to be a blast."
10 October 2008