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Educating Emerging Engineers

Educating Emerging Engineers

(above image via EiE.org – click here to order it as a poster)


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Children are Born Engineers

Children are born engineers. From the time they are babies, kids take things apart, figure out how stuff works, and invent new ways to make things happen. Teaching online, in the classroom, and in my own home has provided me with opportunities to put into practice my belief that education should be alive, interesting, and tailored to each individual child. Kids are naturally curious and have an innate desire to understand how the world works; adults must provide them with the opportunities and tools to grow their engineering and problem-solving skills.

The Shortcomings of the Scientific Method

If your education was anything like mine, you were presented with the scientific method at some point in late elementary school. The scientific method is what guided us as we completed those often-dreaded science fair projects in elementary and middle school. The scientific method helps us test a hypothesis to a question that we have asked. For example, perhaps I want to know why some of the flowers in my backyard grow taller than others. I can set up an experiment to see how changing the location, amount of water, sunlight, and other factors impact the height of plant growth. These types of experiments certainly have their place, but they often feel disjointed from other academic disciplines and lack connection to student’s passions. Let us examine how the STEAM perspective differs from the traditional approach to science education.

Understanding the STEAM Approach

STEAM education provides students with a unique approach to teaching and learning. Lessons are project- and inquiry-based, with a focus on interdisciplinary learning. You probably know that STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math – but did you know that STEAM education is more than just the sum of its parts? STEAM education is about helping students develop the technical, creative, and critical thinking skills that they need to be part of an innovative future. These skills are just as vital as reading and writing. Fluency in STEAM subjects is critical for success in today’s world. An underlying goal of STEAM education is to pique a child’s interest in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, art, and math – disciplines that the child may wish to pursue in later life. The importance of play in a child’s development is well documented; teaching children from a STEAM perspective encourages them to play, ask questions, and pursue their passions and creativity from a young age. 

The Engineering Design Process

In each of my STEAM courses, students are introduced to the engineering design process. There are many versions of this process, but my favorite is from MIT and is designed specifically for kids. The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineers follow to come up with a solution to a problem. Here’s the catch – once kids are introduced to this way of problem-solving, they can use it to create innovative solutions to problems in ANY subject area! As I said earlier, kids are engineers – they take things apart and figure out how stuff works all the time! Learning and implementing the engineering design process emphasizes open-ended problem solving and encourages students to learn from failure. More on that later; for now, let’s take a look at the steps:

ASK – IMAGINE – PLAN – CREATE – IMPROVE

The first step of the engineering design process is ASK. Here, a student will ask questions such as: “What problem am I facing? What do I want to accomplish? How have other people approached this? Are there any limitations?” Next, the student will IMAGINE possible solutions. They brainstorm about what their project or idea could look like; they might draw, write, talk to a friend, and look around for inspiration. The third step is to PLAN. Here, the student chooses their best idea and lays out a blueprint and materials list. Step four is often a student’s favorite – CREATE! Here, the student puts their plan into action and builds their design and/or creates their solution. The final step of the engineering design process is critical – IMPROVE. Here, the student is encouraged to examine what worked well and what needs improvement. It is important for students to ask themselves how they can improve. Modifications are made and design testing continues. This process is iterative; each trip around the engineering design process improves the desired solution!

Valuable Lifelong Skills

What I love most about STEAM education is that students learn in a safe environment, where the value of failure as a learning exercise is taught. Because mistakes are viewed as part of the learning process, students develop confidence and resilience. The focus is on the journey, not simply on the outcome. Students are encouraged to display creativity, to put their own individual stamp on projects, to be themselves. Children have a natural desire to understand the world around them and as parents and educators, we must look for opportunities to help them develop their innate problem-solving skills. We know that life is full of obstacles; STEAM education, with a focus on the engineering design process, shapes students into thinkers who seek out and create solutions to life’s challenges – these are valuable, lifelong skills, indeed!


Since 2016, Brittany Robbins has coached over twenty students in grades 4 – 8 on a total of five FIRST LEGO League teams; two of these teams have competed in the Florida State Championship! The FIRST global robotics programs provide students with hands-on STEM experiences in the areas of research, problem solving, coding, and engineering. Her original team, the Edisonian Bots, is named in tribute to Thomas Edison who was not only homeschooled himself, but was also a Southwest Florida resident! 


Upcoming STEAM/Technology Courses with OTA!

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