March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Getting Started On Engineering

Posted: Saturday, June 1st, 2013

by Pete A’Hearn

One of the biggest concerns I have heard about the NGSS is that elementary teachers are not well prepared to teach the science standards and are especially concerned about the addition of engineering. So, I was happy this week to visit several classrooms at Vista Del Monte elementary school where elementary teachers were diving into engineering big time.

Second grade teachers Dena Azzolin and Debbie Gordon at Vista Del Monte were preparing their students to build bridges. To start, they tested a few bridge designs to learn what works and what doesn’t work.  They were reading the story, “Three Little Pigs,” with an emphasis on how different forces were used in the story. Kids were talking about which forces were involved in a bridge – the supports exert an upward force and the load exerts a downward force.  The goal is for teams of students to build and test their own bridges, and along the way they will test different materials and shapes, and record data and observations.  Note that this was not haphazardly throwing materials at students and asking them to design something, but taking them step by step through a process of testing and redesign that is rich with opportunities to read, write, share ideas, and use math. Nice introduction to Common Core State Standards as well

The curriculum they were using is called, Engineering is Elementary and the unit was To Get to the Other Side: Designing Bridges.  All of the units begin with the story of a child who has an engineering challenge they are trying to solve. The teachers and students have already done the Catching the Wind: Designing Windmills unit and plan to try to do A Work in Progress: Improving the Playdough Process before the year is out.

Sails that were built as part of the Windmills engineering unit.

Sails that were built as part of the Windmills engineering unit.

More bridge testing.
More bridge testing.

Meanwhile, Kurt Slieldge was working with third graders on building structures to survive earthquakes – a pertinent lesson in a school just five miles from the San Andreas Fault and built on loose sediment. Again students went through a process to test the strength of different shapes of folded paper to learn lessons to be applied in final design. Each team was given paper, straws, modeling clay, paperclips, and tape and challenged to build a tower to survive an earthquake. The structures were tested on a Pitsco programmable shake table for 50 seconds of hard shaking.

These lessons show that engineering is accessible and engaging to elementary school students. Teachers will need training and well-designed units to be successful, but it seems clear that the addition of engineering practices to elementary school will be less daunting than some fear. Be sure to come to the California Science Education Conference October 25-27 in Palm Springs to learn more about engineering and the rest of NGSS!

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

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For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

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