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Engineering Your STEM Classes: 3 Key Ideas for Success

Our work at ProjectEngin has allowed us to support a wide range of educators in a variety of schools and classrooms as they work to include more E in STEM. All have the goal of creating more skills-based, active learning experiences for their students. And most of them report encountering the same obstacles. As a vision-based enterprise, we always try to keep our eye on the goal of more meaningful education. We believe educators who are working to include more Engineering should keep the following three ideas in mind.

  1. Work to support imagination, teach creativity, and focus on process.

We like to think of imagination as free-range thinking that just happens. Young children excel at it, but very few aspects of formal education embrace it. Allow time to, as Albert Einstein put it, “…develop the childlike inclination for play”.  We often use Quick Build activities to engage imaginations. This are hands-on short building challenges involving unlikely materials.

Creativity is the skill of harnessing your imagination and making the connections needed to create reality out of your imaginative ideas. This is where brainstorming, brainwriting, divergent thinking, and other activities need to be actively taught, particularly in middle and high school classes where the quest for the “one right answer” begins to dominate. The book “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko is a great resource for creativity exercises.

Innovation and engineering are processes. This is probably the most common of all of our mantras at ProjectEngin. Following a process that starts with knowing your end user and investigating all of your options is the key to good design.

The Engineering Design Process is often a balance between divergent and convergent thinking as you move from the consideration of all possible solutions to the building and testing of a protoype that best fits a given design space.  All of the skills that are the key to 21st century learning are embedded in the process of innovation and design. Our next post will highlight key steps in the process.

  1. Allow for student choice and voice.

No Engineering Design project should be scripted to result in identical solutions from all student groups. Ever! Present an overall design challenge but allow students to identify the end-user. By mapping out the constraints and criteria relevant to their target audience, students will create unique solutions to common challenges. In our EngineerGOOD curricular modules, the challenges are based on global issues, but students choose specific places for which to develop solutions. Global view and cultural empathy follow as a natural consequence. Even a simple, generic bridge-building challenge can allow for student choice by allowing for variations in prototyping materials and the identification of a real or hypothetical location and purpose. Requiring clear connections between design and the target user reinforces the idea of following a process while enabling the creation of unique solutions.

  1. Plan time for modifications. The first attempt should never be the final result.

Many beginning “Engineering” teachers skip this step because of time pressures and the need to “cover” new material. Don’t fall into this trap! The modification phase is often where the real “aha” moments happen for students. Allow only 2 or 3 changes, one at a time. Require a justification for each and you will see students begin to make clear connections between cause and effect. If it is too difficult to modify prototypes because of construction issues or serious time constraints, request a reflection on planned modifications or next steps for implementation. Make it clear that the first model is just a beginning and embrace the facts that mistakes and failures provide a platform for genuine improvement.

Light Bulb

Most of all, model all of the above in your own practice! Engineer your activities by imagining how much fun school could be, think beyond the box, frame it all in a reproducible process, and always allow yourself time for reflection and modification once the activity is completed. Keep these three ideas in mind and avoid common obstacles as you focus on the goal of a better learning experience for all of your students!


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