Last Updated: 07/17/2013*
Kevin Jarrett isn’t your typical computer teacher.
His students build walls from clay, sand and water. They design parachutes from coffee filters. And if the things they build don’t work the first time? That’s entirely OK.
“My class is the only one in the school where we say, ‘Hey look, you failed, that’s great!’” Jarrett said. “Without failure, there is no learning. You have to learn to fail.”
Jarrett, a teacher at Northfield Community School in Northfield, N.J. is using the Engineering is Elementary curriculum, which encourages students to try new techniques until they find the right answer – just like a real-life engineer.
Kevin Jarrett and his students create parachutes out of commercial coffee filters. Photo courtesy of Kevin Jarrett.
The program aims to foster a love of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as these skills become increasingly important for tomorrow’s workforce. Raytheon is proud to sponsor the program and has provided scholarships to teachers from around the U.S. to learn the curriculum.
‘Anyone can engineer’
Many kids don’t understand what engineering is, said Kristin Sargianis, professional development director at Engineering is Elementary.
When asked what an engineer does, many kids imagine them with hammer and screwdriver in hand examining a blueprint to build a bridge, she said.
But engineers create everything from software to fuels. At Raytheon, a Waltham, Mass.-based aerospace and defense firm, more than half of the company’s 68,000 employees are engineers.
The Engineering is Elementary program includes underserved urban, rural or low-income districts where students often have the least exposure to engineering.
“We’re trying to make engineering available for all kids. It shouldn’t be limited based on where you live,” said Sargianis. “We want kids to know that anyone can engineer and anyone can design technologies to solve problems.”
Engineering is Elementary was designed by the Museum of Science in Boston, and it uses stories to teach kids about engineering.
Sample Engineering is Elementary story: “Javier Builds a Bridge”
Being a new stepbrother to little Luisa isn't always as much fun as Javier first thought it would be. When Luisa falls off the bridge leading to Javi's fort, his mother tells him they'll have to take the bridge down. After some careful thinking, Javi realizes that he might be able to convince his parents to let him keep the bridge to his fort - if he can design a safer one. With some help from his cousins and some inspiration from his little sister, Javi comes up with a new bridge design. But will it pass the inspection of his stepfather, Joe, a real civil engineer?
In each story, the main character faces an engineering challenge such as building a bridge across a stream or erecting a wall around a garden.
Students then tackle the project on their own, collaborating with classmates and using a variety of materials to build their project.
The stories tackle earth and space science topics such as astronomy and rocks, physical science topics such as electricity and sound, and life science topics, including plants and the human body.
Building bridges, exploring tombs
Rena Mincks, a teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Pullman, Wash., introduced an Engineering is Elementary project that required her 1st grade students to build a bridge between pieces of wood using index cards and other classroom materials.
The project accompanied a story in which a boy builds a bridge strong enough for his little sister to cross a stream to his fort.
Rena Mincks and one of her students test how much weight a bridge made out of index cards can hold as part of the Engineering is Elementary curriculum. Photo courtesy of Rena Minks.
Mincks said the students experimented with different methods of folding the cards and fastening them together, testing their bridge each time by placing hex nuts on top. After much trial and error, they learned that tape and an accordion-style folding technique provided the sturdiest bridge.
“The engineering part forces the students to observe and talk with each other: What’s working? What isn’t working?” Mincks said. “It’s really increased their persistence, just like engineers who don’t always succeed on the first try.”
At Washington Accelerated Elementary School in Pasadena, Calif., science teacher Jodie West and her 1st grade class followed the Engineering is Elementary curriculum to design “Egyptian tombs” out of cardboard boxes.
The students used flashlight beams reflected off mirrors to explore “hieroglyphics” inside the tombs and learn about light, angles and the interaction of light with different materials.
Jodie West and her students design an “Egyptian tomb” made out of cardboard that they will use to study angles and the properties of light beams. Photo courtesy of Jodie West.
Another class simulated an oil spill with black-tinted vegetable oil in a pan. Students then experimented with felt, cotton balls, nylon, sponges and paper towels to identify the most effective technique to clean up the spill.
All of her students enjoyed the hands-on learning but West was pleased to see that some of the most skilled engineers in her class weren’t the usual academic rock stars.
“It’s a great reminder that a kid who may struggle in one area academically can still be brilliant in another,” West said. “The student who isn’t the best reader can still be a successful engineer.”
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