January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Engineering in Afterschool: Attitude Is Everything!

Posted: Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

by Melissa Higgins

A boisterous group of fifth grade girls stand at the front of the room at Girls, Inc., an afterschool program in Lynn, MA. Younger girls sit crowded on the floor before them. They’re waiting for the start of the Bubble Bonanza—a carnival show being put on by the fifth grade engineers who have just finished designing their very own bubble wands.

As the Rihanna song the girls chose to set the mood begins to play, the engineers blow bubbles with their wands. The crowd “oohs” and claps as the first bubble is released.

The excitement that these young engineers show is not just a fortunate byproduct of this activity—it is one of the main intended outcomes. Creating activities that get children excited about engineering is a primary goal of the developers of the Engineering Adventures (EA) curriculum, who created the Bubble Bonanza: Engineering Bubble Wands unit described above. EA is a project of Engineering is Elementary, an education program developed at the Museum of Science, Boston’s National Center for Technological Literacy. The EA project develops free-to-download engineering units designed for 3rd-5th graders in informal learning environments.

Engineering experiences that are designed to build attitudinal gains make a great deal of sense in informal learning environments. Because children participating in out-of-school time (OST) programs may be coming from different schools and different grade levels, the EA team learned early in the development process that it was not possible to rely on any shared science or engineering background. Instead, the engineering skills and experiences must be built “on-site” as a group.

Programs that focus on building positive engineering attitudes and skills in young learners show real promise for making a positive impact on content knowledge and career choices. Research has shown that interest in STEM fields is a critical indicator of the likelihood a student will pursue math and science courses and careers later in life.[i]

The EA team has crafted four belief statements about engineering learning in out-of-school time that help us create activities to build children’s engineering confidence. We encourage you to use them as well, and to check for these key components when choosing or creating engineering activities for your afterschool and camp programs.

Kids will best learn engineering when they:

  • engage in activities that are fun, exciting, and connect to the world in which they live
  • choose their own path through open-ended challenges that have multiple solutions
  • have the opportunity to succeed in engineering challenges.
  • communicate and collaborate in innovative, active, problem solving.

Let’s look at each of these individually:

Engage kids in activities that are fun, exciting, and connect to the world in which they live

Engineers solve diverse problems with wide-ranging impacts, from cleaning polluted water to improving the design of cell phones. Being explicit about how this work impacts people helps children connect engineering to their own lives. In EA units, we do this through storytelling—we use a fictional brother and sister duo who travel the world to help introduce global engineering problems. These characters send messages to the children in your program to highlight how the problem presented connects to real life.

Let kids choose their path through open-ended challenges that have multiple solutions

There are many different ways to solve a given engineering problem—the most effective solutions depend on the criteria and constraints of the challenge. In the Bubble Bonanza unit, children define their own goal for the bubble wand they will create. They might decide to create a wand that makes giant bubbles, many small bubbles, etc. Because groups create different solutions, they can each focus on individual successes, while still learning from each other.

Give kids the opportunity to succeed in engineering challenges

The engineering challenges presented in OST programs should pose a

Higgins_Photo

challenge and push children to think outside of the box. With appropriate scaffolding activities children should be able to create a successful design. Scaffolding activities, such as giving children a chance to experiment with materials, along with a bit of persistence and a focus on the “improve” step of the engineering design process, should enable groups to end up with a solution that meets the challenge.

Encourage kids to communicate and collaborate in innovative, active, problem solving

It is important to give children a chance to share the designs they created and their engineering knowledge. Each EA unit culminates in an engineering showcase. We encourage educators to invite families and other OST program members to attend the showcase, ask questions, and learn more about the engineering challenge children explored.

Back at Girls, Inc., the Bubble Bonanza had ended, but the girls are still excited and learning about engineering. Educator Linda Hall holds up a sign that says “I am an engineer because . . . ” “We made bubble makers,” volunteers Tanisha. “We asked questions,” adds Jaslene. “Imagined,” says Amanda. The girls are naming the steps of the engineering design process they used as they engineered their bubble wands. Other girls volunteer, “plan” and “improve.” “What was the most important part for us?” asks Linda. “Create!” the girls cheer.

Our evaluation of Engineering Adventures activities shows that kids who engage in our activities do develop more positive attitudes about engineering and related careers. The potential to empower children as problem solvers is what we see as the true strength and potential of using engineering in OST programs. We encourage you to try engineering activities, such as those in the EA unit “Bubble Bonanza: Engineering Bubble Wands,” in your program. To download this unit—or learn about other Engineering Adventures units—visit our website!

Melissa Higgins is Director of Curriculum Development for “Engineering is Elementary” at the Museum of Science in Boston, MA and was invited to write by CSTA member Valerie Joyner.

[i] (STEM Learning in Afterschool: An Analysis of Impact and Outcomes, Afterschool Alliance, Sept. 2011, http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/stem-afterschool-outcomes.pdf)

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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