Engineering in Early Childhood: Learning from conference sessions

One of the conference sessions on engineering I attended at NAEYC quoted children in the title: “Don’t Call Us Kinders, We’re Engineers!”  To introduce an engineering design process to children in kindergarten up to second grade, Emily Poster and Jessica Holm from the Science Museum of Minnesota thoughtfully revise storylines used with older children by placing stories in more familiar settings and keeping them to a developmentally appropriate length. The revised stories still have a challenge, and include a character who is a professional engineer and how they use science, math, and creative thinking to design a technology. They recommend adding visual symbols to the words in graphic representations of engineering design processes, and encouraging children to “imagine” using their hands.

Materials chart lists everything needed for the fire tower building challenge.We were able to handle the materials for four different kinds of engineering design challenges, and engaged in an engineering challenge ourselves. The challenge was based on meeting a real life need that children in their region would be aware of—to design and build a model fire tower, a structure once essential for detecting and locating fires in areas that were the responsibility of the United States Forest Service, and still in use in some parts of the country. (See other lookouts at: )

Multi-level tower made with cardboard and cups.Working together with people at our table we designed and built a tower with the goals of a structure taller than the model tree (so the look outs could see over the forest to watch for fires), able to support 1 person (doll), and able to withstand the force of the wind (a fan) blowing on it. The materials were inexpensive, and easily found: paper cups in two sizes two sizes of cardboard pieces, two figures to stand on the tower to test its balance and sturdiness, and a model tree and the fan, used by the instructors. Emily and Jessica came around with the model tree cut-out to help us measure our towers and provide support for redesigning structures that were not successful. Our discussion included our redesign processes, what we might bring from our experience in the session to our own setting, and what supports we need to implement engineering lessons with K–2 students.

How did this session reflect the new understanding of what children know and how they learn as described in Taking Science to School:Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8 and the principles, declarations, and recommendations of the NSTA Position statement on early childhood science education? The program promotes learning by actively engaging in the experience and exploring the materials, the challenge recognizes that children already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, and that adults play a central and important role in helping young children learn science (National Research Council 2007 pgs 2–3). 

The museum program Emily and Jessica described recognizes that “Young children develop science skills and knowledge in both formal and informal settings,” and they “emphasize the learning of science and engineering practices, including asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations and designing solutions; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NSTA Position Statement: Early Childhood Science Education).

And their conference session provided early childhood educators with “professional development experiences that [engaged us] in learning science [and engineering] principles in an interactive, hands-on approach, enabling [us] to teach about science principles [and engineering design] appropriately and knowledgeably” (NSTA Position Statement: Early Childhood Science Education). 

Angela Searcy presenting at NAEYC 2017Poster sessions at NAEYC are an excellent way to have small group or individual conversations with presenters and learn more about their research and teaching practices. “Drive full STEAM ahead! Realistic and developmentally appropriate ways to teach science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) to infants and toddlers during daily routines and experiences” presented by Angela Searcy, gave specific examples of how to invite exploration. Photos of children at work clearly illustrated how infants and toddlers are not too young to engage in the offered opportunities for exploration, and how teacher-support is essential for children’s learning.

Child digging a deep hole in the sandbox.Educators may plan engineering activities related to children’s literature, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears or The Three Little Pigs. These are familiar stories for many children and they present problems that can be the basis of an engineering challenge. We can also look for those problems that young children identify themselves in their daily life, such as creating a sun shade on a hot day, carrying a baby doll hands-free, digging a deep hole in the sand box without it collapsing, and keeping a tall block tower upright. 

Other NAEYC conference sessions addressed engineering. If you attended or presented one of these sessions, comment below to share what you learned or where to find resources to support engineering in early childhood programs.

  • Ramps and Pathways: A fun integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
  • The “E” in STEM: Demystifying engineering
  • Garden tools, ramps, and wind socks: Promoting engineering in preschool for all learners
  • Contraptions and confidence: Transforming science learning with engineering design
  • Young engineers in the woods: Bringing engineering design challenge to the outdoor classroom
  • STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics): Stories and experiences of a new teacher merged with a seasoned administrator’s perspective!
  • Drive full STEAM ahead! Realistic and developmentally appropriate ways to teach science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) to infants and toddlers during daily routines and experiences
  • Turning STEAM into STREAM: Integrating reading/literacy in science, technology, engineering, art, and math education for preschoolers
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