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America's Next Generation of Engineers Is Starting Earlier Than You Think

Meghan Coulbourne (Eastern North Carolina '12) has her students—some as early as Kindergarten—participating in an innovative hands-on curriculum that develops engineering skills at an young age.
Thursday, June 11, 2015

“Ms. Coulbourne, it’s working! It’s working!”

As I looked across the room I saw a tiny light bulb shining from the middle of a table, surrounded by the smiling faces of five sixth-graders. Their creation, a circuit that would light a small bulb when a trough was empty, was finally working after countless attempts. Other students began to gather around the successful design and ask questions while pointing at various parts of the circuit. Soon they were running back to their tables to improve their own designs.

These are the amazing things that I get to see students accomplish every day. My job as a STEM Coordinator is to support teachers and students as they become engineers. 

Engineers have an significant place in our society. We have them to thank for many luxuries we enjoy, from things as mundane as toothbrushes to things as extraordinary as electric cars. Unfortunately, These jobs are often outsourced to other countries in order for companies to cut costs. However, if we train our students to have the skills and mind-sets of successful engineers, then maybe we can reverse this trend here in America. Our students have the potential and the power to become the makers and creators of tomorrow.

 

Meghan Coulbourne's students participate in the Engineering is Elementary program.
These second-graders are creating mortar to utilize in wall construction and are testing their creations by using a makeshift wrecking ball to knock them down.

 

At Northside K-8 School in Eastern North Carolina, we use the Engineering is Elementary curriculum developed by the Museum of Science in Boston to teach our students these valuable skills and mind-sets. Engineering is Elementary offers a fun, hands-on way to help educators begin teaching students as early as Kindergarten about communication, collaboration, and creativity.

The curriculum comes with kits, guidelines, and materials to help us teach our students about types of engineering, world cultures, and successful problem solving.  In one of my favorite kits, students learn about ecosystems and oil spill clean-up processes. After investigating the properties of a few materials, they create their own process to save a river ecosystem. 

Our students have become student engineers who use the Engineering Design Process to ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve every single day. Students have used these kits to do everything from create working electrical circuits to designing knee braces. Any student will proudly tell you that they are an engineer at Northside K-8 School!

Another reason why engineering is so important is that it lets students put their love of learning on full display. One sunny Friday, I was in a fifth-grade classroom helping students create, test, and improve their processes. One table was struggling to contain their oil spill with a makeshift boom fashioned out of yarn. Another table was scattering their oil into smaller droplets in an attempt to soak the spill up with a coffee filter.

Despite all these small failures, our students never stopped working and never gave up. Each and every student was collaborating with their other group members. Even our students who struggle the most with engagement never looked up from their task. In fact, one of our students who often struggles in that department helped his group to create the most successful oil spill clean-up process of the day; not one drop of oil remained in their river!

Engineering is an exciting way for any student to express their creativity while learning and growing, and the Engineering is Elementary curriculum shows that young students can learn to think critically just as well as older students. The earlier we begin teaching this skill set, the better off our students will be in the long run. Engineering isn’t just a subject for our students to learn; it is a tool that they will use for the rest of their lives.

 

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