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Virginia Journal of Education

First Grade Engineers?

How one Chesterfield teacher used the concept of 'children's engineering.'

by Martha Newsom Smith

When I mention that I do “children’s engineering” activities with my first graders, I’m often met with blank stares and questions like, “How do first graders do engineering?” Actually, first grade is the perfect place to learn and practice engineering skills and concepts, and anyone who doubts the ability of these young children has not seen them in action. My students are better engineers than many adults I know.

Engineering involves understanding, thinking, planning and designing, problem-solving, building and creating, testing, rethinking and redoing, cooperating and explaining, and being self-motivated and responsible for one’s own learning. I give my students problems to solve, which we call “design challenges,” related to something we’re studying. The design challenge includes the necessary background information, the challenge to be solved, criteria to be met and demonstrated, and tools and materials the children may use. What is not in the design challenge is how the problem is to be solved. That part is up to the individual child, pair of children, or small group working on the challenge, and that’s when the fun and learning really begin! A typical design challenge is shown in the box on the opposite page.
My students have to decide specifically how they will create the solution that they think best solves the problem. They draw up plans, gather materials, use tools (ranging from scissors to saws) following strict safety guidelines and under close supervision, create their products, test them, and redesign and recreate as needed. Then everyone shares what they did, how they did it, why they did what they did instead of something else, what didn’t work and how they fixed it, and what did work and why.
Things go wrong and don’t go as planned, which offers a perfect opportunity to learn. My students figure out pretty quickly that I will not fix what goes wrong for them and that they don’t need me to because they have the skills and ability to do so themselves.

A typical conversation goes something like this: “Mrs. Smith, it won’t work!”

“Hmmm…what are you going to do about that?” 
It soon changes to “I had a problem and I fixed it by…..”  Oh, the sweet words of children who are allowed to think!

Children’s engineering products are not always pretty: They’re not art projects. The children create something that meets the criteria you have presented in the challenge and that demonstrates the knowledge and understanding of the subject material addressed, beauty not being a requirement. Yet the ownership of the challenge product and of the demonstrated learning far exceeds anything else I’ve ever seen. The students are actively involved in demonstrating what they know, they are the designers and engineers, and they take pride in what they have done. Verbal skills are developed as they share their creations with each other. No one is ever at a loss for words about what he or she has made, how it works, and how it fulfills the expectations of the design challenge.

We have to let go and allow our students to think, not regurgitate information that has no meaning other than to pass a test. We must create experiences that are real and meaningful. It doesn’t mean that we let go of our teaching, just that we let go of the learning and allow the children to demonstrate their knowledge in new ways and take ownership. Give your students the power to learn in any situation, and don’t feel guilty when you realize how much more fun everyone is having while they are showing you how much they have learned and how much less time you have to spend teacher-talking.  Children’s engineering is true hands-on learning.

Integrating children’s engineering into all subject areas gives students a chance to think and take more control of what they know and can do. When children realize that they are responsible for their own learning and that they can figure things out by thinking and engineering, the results are awesome!
Smith, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association, teaches first grade at J.B. Watkins Elementary School and is an adjunct instructor in children’s engineering at James Madison University. She was the 2008 Virginia Technology Education Association Elementary Technology Teacher of the Year.

Famous Americans Design Challenge

We’ve been studying famous Americans who have influenced our lives and our history. The design challenge is to use the materials and tools provided and create a famous American who meets the following criteria:

• Must be freestanding;

• Must have something to show who he or she is;

• Must have a body with head, arms and legs;

• Must have a moving part operated by a lever.

You may use any of the following materials: construction paper (no more than two sheets), stuff in the scrap box, paper fasteners, glue, ribbon, cardboard and craft sticks.

You may use any of the following tools: scissors, pencils, tack and eraser, hole punch, ruler, crazy scissors and safety goggles. You may use the heavy-duty hole punch with teacher assistance.



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