Elementary Children Learn About Engineering By Building Their Own Playground

Categories: Education

At Charles R. Drew Charter School, elementary students learn complex engineering skills and concepts, helping to build lifelong critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Here’s how they do it.

This is a great attempt to inspire children into learning not only skills but also learn to love the language of math and engineering.

How It's Done

Navigate the Challenges of Teaching High-Level Concepts to Elementary Students

Teaching engineering concepts to elementary students can be a challenge. The staff at Charles R. Drew begins with using age-appropriate vocabulary, scaffolded learning, and kinesthetic learning.

"I think about teaching these concepts as though the students and I speak two different languages, and I must translate," says Courtney Bryant, Charles R. Drew's engineering design teacher. "I start by sharing very basic information on a topic in rather simplistic language, and then I let them experience it on their own to learn more. . . I introduce more complicated language as they navigate through the learning process."

To better teach these complicated concepts, Bryant has her students act out the movements of simple machines. "When elementary-age students understand a concept through the use of their body, they rarely forget it," notes Bryant. "I am able to introduce physics, advanced math, and visual representation skills that are typically beyond elementary level as a result of this hands-on or full-body approach."

Create an Engineering Curriculum Using Backward Design

Bryant's elementary engineering curriculum flows from a backward design approach. She starts with the results that she wants her students to achieve, and then designs the instructional methods to meet those goals.

"There isn’t a statewide curriculum for elementary school engineering design," explains Bryant, "but looking at the standards for where they need to be in middle school and in high school, I’m able to backward design for what should be happening at the elementary level."

There are three stages to backward design.

Stage 1: Identify Learning Objectives

This first stage focuses on what big ideas and skills you want your students to learn. "I think about problems our school or community face and what standards I need the students to master," says Bryant. Her specific learning objectives for K-2 students are:

  • A basic understanding of the design process
  • Understanding the value of brainstorming and teamwork
  • Experience thinking through all aspects of a problem when considering a decision
  • Experiencing the value of success after many failures

With younger students, she also introduces career and college opportunities as part of how they might apply these skills to real-world contexts.

Stage 2: Define Assessment Strategy

When designing a project, Bryant considers what will be evidence of mastery, and what assessment methods she can use. "Rubrics are a big part of the assessment strategy for engineering design," she says. She also considers how the evidence might be authentic and solve a real-life problem.

Stage 3: Identify Teaching Methods, Resources, and Materials

The final stage focuses on the skills and knowledge that students will need to achieve the goals you're setting for them, as well as the teaching methods, lessons, and resources that you'll use to help them reach those goals. "I think about what scaffolding, resources, and materials might be necessary for an elementary student to solve what could potentially be an adult-like problem," elaborates Bryant. "The last step is key when working with younger populations. Often they are able to do amazing things with the right amount of support and proper choices in materials or resources."

Use Design Thinking Process

Design thinking is a process that allows people to come up with ideas and solve problems in a creative and engaging way, honing their collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills. Empathy -- understanding who you are designing for -- is a key element of design thinking, as well as collaboration -- working with others to build on your ideas, gaining feedback, and learning how to make iterations on your ideas from that feedback.

Charles R. Drew Charter School follows the stages outlined in the James Dyson design thinking process -- brief, research, idea generation/development, 3D prototyping, testing, and evaluation and modification. The staff relies on the Nueva School's design thinking model to make the process more robust. "The idea of empathy is a big part of their structure," says Bryant about that model.

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