January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

The E Word

Posted: Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

by Jill Grace

There’s so much excitement lately in the world of NGSS. There is an energy I haven’t felt since I was a new teacher. It’s palpable. Teachers are once again the learners, outside our comfort zones trekking along a new path, making new discoveries, trying new things. Some of these new experiences are fantastic and fill us with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. Some end up being things we profusely apologize to our students for, “Sorry guys, that pretty much didn’t work out at all, let’s try this instead”. No doubt this is an exhaustive process, mentally and even sometimes physically, and on some days we might wish we could crawl up on our couches under that super fluffy blanket (insert comforting beverage of your choice) and forget that change is upon us. But it’s also exhilarating. It makes you feel alive again.

Given all of the changes, I have been feeling pretty comfortable. I thrive in “big idea land” and love weaving multiple layers into my instruction, so the whole 3D aspect to NGSS is gratifying to me (3D = the blending of Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Cross Cutting Concepts). I love the challenge of getting my students to the point where they have their “ah ha!” moment and see it all come together. With my background in marine biology, a very “integrated” field, I’ve had an easier time wrapping my head around the middle school progressions and seeing the connections in a way that I can tell is harder for many of my colleagues. I’ve been feeling pretty great about it all. Except for one tiny little thing.

Engineering.

When I utter that word, I think I can feel the earth tremor. So, let’s avoid unpleasant feelings and call it “the E word”, shall we? The E word is my black hole. Anytime I think about it, I just see darkness. All of my thoughts get sucked into some vacuum of space and vanish from sight. I have no idea how to “do” the E word.

I’ve largely been ignoring the E word for some time now. Kind of like those cute little puppies that respond to a stressful situation by closing their eyes, thinking the problem will go away. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a raccoon do this once by hiding it’s head in a storm drain. Yep, that’s me!

On an intellectual basis, I understand the premise of the E word. We want students to engage in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems. I just have no idea how to do it or to teach it. I can envision it working well in a classroom where I want to teach engineering concepts, but how does one integrate it with science? I’ve been especially at a loss understanding how it relates to things in biology.

Last September I attended the STEM Symposium in San Diego as a part of the State’s Roll Out team. I only had a couple hours of free time when I wasn’t presenting, so I decided to attend sessions that would help me wrap my head around this. I also had a chance last month to attend the West Regional Stakeholder Meeting for the National Academy of Engineering where we were asked to give input on a very early alpha version of a website that will be a nifty resource to educators (it will be a while, but CSTA will share information when the full site is ready for beta testing). We also got to learn from a few experts. I’m starting to realize a few big things about the E word that I thought I’d share with you: it can help students develop problem solving skills, it can help students want to know science better and produce better writing, and it teaches students to overcome (and maybe even embrace) failure.

The E word can improve problem-solving skills. I know I’m not “just” a science teacher, I am a part of a big societal effort that teaches life skills. The science content I teach isn’t intended to make kids become scientists, it’s intended to enrich their lives (I could elaborate more, but that would be a separate article). Ironically, infusing engineering education into our science classes isn’t intended to create new engineers, it’s to help foster the ability to think critically and solve problems.

Think about it this way, let’s say that the knucklehead in my class with the messy binder he slams onto the ground each day with pages falling out all over the place, or the other knucklehead who needs to arrange 20 different colored pens and her hair before working, actually manage to survive their awkward adolescent phase and make it to adulthood in one piece. They will need to have skills to solve problems. Who is going to hire said knuckleheads or keep them on the company roster if they can’t think for themselves? It’s very likely that in the future one of them will be in a meeting with a difficult colleague and will need to diffuse the situation quickly so their group can reach consensus and meet their 5:00 PM deadline. The other will upgrade their computer software only to find there is a glitch that they need to troubleshoot and fix so they can print out that report that their client needs. Or, both develop a deep passion for marine biology, thanks to their ah-mazing 7th grade science teacher, and are out on a boat surveying a fish population and the boat engine won’t turn on. Shall I go on? There are countless situations in life where another person simply isn’t going to swoop in to save the day. Apparently, the E word isn’t just a vortex of despair – it can help with these dilemmas! I thought it was very interesting that a recent list by The Harvard Business Review identified the top 100 CEO’s on the planet, and whopping 24 of those individuals hold Bachelors or Masters degrees in engineering (article here).

Giving students multiple opportunities throughout their adolescence to work as a team, solve problems, experience failure and get back up and figure out a way around it, will not just make their experiences on their first job or in college less shocking, but might just develop habits of mind that will prepare them for the future, while also improving their ability to do science in my class. Better thinkers, better science. This catches my interest.

I was also reminded of something that I’ve known for a long time. You can sneak the learning in. Have a student with writing-phobia? Give them an exciting science activity and the writing will happen. It’s like ninja writing. Before they realize it, they have produced written work because they are excited about what they are doing. Imagine now adding an engineering twist on to that – an engaging engineering challenge where students are motivated to find out the underlying science to help them understand the problem (a shift from “making kids learn” to the kids “wanting to know”) and the writing that is produced is of such quality that teachers everywhere shed tears of pride. Laura Bottomley of North Carolina State University spoke at that NAE meeting that I attended and mentioned that, “engineering encourages prolific vocabulary-rich writing because students are excited to share their experiences”. I can totally see this happening.

It’s okay to fail. IT’S OK TO FAIL. The E word expects that failure will happen and is used as a motivator to try again. It helps students understand that they haven’t failed, their design did. Ever had a kid cry or think they did everything “bad” or “wrong” because their data doesn’t support their hypothesis? Imagine a world where this isn’t a defeating result, but an empowering one.

The E word can help students develop problem solving skills, help students want to know science better and produce better writing, and teaches students to overcome failure. I really wasn’t expecting that. After some time to simmer on this, something strange happened, I started seeing the E word all around me.

I notice my student drinking water out of a very loud water bottle. Someone re-engineered those water bottles to use less plastic (which means thinner but noisier, more crinkly walls).   The coffee house across the street from me now uses unusual coffee cups made of corrugated paper – an engineering success that eliminated the need for a wasteful coffee sleeve.   Then there was a news story on Ebola that mentioned hospitals with isolation wards were purchasing motion sensor soap dispensers for hand washing by medical personnel. No one likes contaminated soap, right?   And don’t even get me started on the stinking adorable penguin rover that is helping scientists gather valuable data without making penguins want to close their eyes to make the problem go away.

The E word is all around us, and we have the fun challenge of bringing some of it into our classrooms to help our students become learners with rich experiences. I’m pretty sure I would hear squealing if I used the penguin rover idea and asked my students to create a rover that could help monitor how a population of “name your token charismatic macrofauna”, is handling the persistent drought conditions in a native habitat near the school site. I would then  throw in some interesting challenges that will force them to solve problems similar to what the original penguin research team faced.

So enough of my babble, here are some resources I’ve recently learned about that might help you move away from the E word, and embrace Engineering.

Chen, Moore, & Wang (2014). Construct, Critique, and Connect: Using Engineering as a Vehicle to Learn Science. Science Scope 38 (3),58-69

Engineering is Elementary

Engineer Girl

NASA Engineering Design

National Academy of Engineering’s K-12 Engineering Education

NGSS Appendix I: Engineering Design in the NGSS

PBS Design Squad Nation

Project Lead the Way

Teach Engineering

Teaching NGSS Engineering Design Through Media

TryEngineering

University of Newcastle Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment What is Engineering” video

Thanks to my colleagues on the California Middle School Science Teacher Facebook group to for giving input on this list. I’m curious to know how other teachers are envisioning engineering in your science class and what other resources have helped you. Join us on our California Middle School Science Teacher Facebook group to continue the conversation.

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is the President-elect for CSTA.

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