Monday, December 8, 2014

Early Engineering Thinking

Julian engineers gravity (at Explora!)
There are few museum master planning or strategic planning projects I have been part of, national grant proposals I have seen, or exhibit projects I know of in which STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or STEAM (STEM + Arts) are not areas of focus. Given the national priority on STEM and the call to both businesses and educators from science and engineering industry leaders to help make the sectors more diverse, a focus on STEM is not surprising. Museums see themselves as integral to the national learning infrastructure with a valued role to play in STEM learning.

Of the 263 museum projects recently awarded support by IMLS, 25 explicitly mentioned STEM or STEAM in their summaries; many more implied a focus on science. Described as “engaging,” “dynamic and hands-on” and including computer science, proposals came from nearly every type of museum: aquarium, arboretum, children’s, cultural-ethnic, history, natural history, science, university, and zoo.

In spite of all this talk and IMLS project focus on STEM, engineering gets little actual attention in museums. I have yet to hear discussions among exhibit developers, designers, and educators about engineering thinking skills, optimizing solutions, and adjustments to subsystems as they plan experiences. Assumed to be as represented in STEM as science and technology, engineering’s actual presence in museums and science centers is light. For younger children, say 10 years and under, the absence of engineering experiences is especially noticeable. Yes, there are contraptions and roller coasters and exhibits with pulleys and other simple machines. In many of these experiences, children are trying, practicing, acquiring, and building on engineering thinking.

The Silent E in STEM
Engineering is the silent e in STEM. Confusion about engineering seems to be widespread. The head of the National Association of Engineering is keenly aware that the image of engineering is off in the US where more people associate “engineering” with “train operator” than with “invents” or “creative.” In museums, “engineering” is likely to refer to engineering education, a career, the end products of engineering, or a design process. In some cases engineering thinking is the focus.

Whether it is an image problem or simple confusion, engineering doesn’t seem to be well understood. Less about following blueprints (hardhats and operating trains), engineering is about transforming our world. It is solving real problems elegantly that satisfy constraints such as cost, weight, size, reliability, safety, ergonomics, repairability, etc. William A. Wulf of the National Association of Engineering defines engineering as, “design under constraint” where constraints are the laws of physics, materials, and physical space. 

Obviously we will not all become engineers, but we will all have to navigate an increasingly complex, dynamic world where engineering thinking is required. And like any type of thinking, engineering thinking does not occur as a by-product of teaching engineering content. Without understanding what engineering thinking is, we are unable to cultivate the essential 21st century mindset and we miss promising opportunities for encouraging it.

As much as I value doing (making, building, unbuilding, etc.), a focus on the engineering thinking that accompanies it is critical. We must start by recognizing the early engineering thinking in young children and not wait until elementary or middle school. Those coasters and contraptions we like to put in exhibits, however, are not the same as  experiences deliberately and intentionally planned to encourage and build on early engineering thinking and acting.

We don’t have explain to children how to build. We don’t need to add constraints because laws of physics, the properties of materials, and physical space are always constraints on designing, making, and building. Piaget noted that even infants have been observed to notice the governing principles related to shape, weight, and texture (friction). Children naturally investigate and modify the world around them to satisfy their needs and wants–as engineers do.

I am cautious, however, when we refer to children as “natural” or “little” engineers.” Typically that shifts credit from what children are doing competently as agents of their own learning to conferring legitimacy because they are like “real” engineers. We veer towards encouraging children to be more like engineers rather than seeing what they are doing and understanding how they readily make physical and conceptual connections all the time. This is rich information, indeed, for creating experiences that build on and encourage their engineering thinking and making it visible to them, educators, their parents and researchers.

Focusing on Early Engineering Thinking
Recently there has been interest in and activity related to early engineering in K-12 education, academia, and informal learning. A lack of learning standards for engineering prompted a 2009 study of K-12 engineering education efforts (see citations below) resulting in general principles for K-12 engineering education. The 2012 Next Generation Science Standards integrates engineering design throughout the science standards. These reports support a process-oriented, developmentally appropriate approach and consideration of engineering habits of mind that are consistent with 21st century skills and learning in museums and informal learning environments. Engineering design, an approach to identifying and solving problems that is highly iterative, is highlighted as a useful pedagogical strategy.
Approaching this area from another perspective are 4 studies (below) at the intersection of human developmental science and engineering education. Set in early childhood classrooms and museum settings, they explore engineering thinking among young children as young as 3 and 4 years to build consensus on "developmental engineering" and precursors of engineering behavior. 
Children’s engineering thinking and design is currently occurring spontaneously in many early childhood and museum classrooms and in museum exhibits through block structures, ball runs, and ramps. When they design and build intricate, complex structures or construct pathways and ramp systems, children are thinking about stability, balance, spatial reasoning, numeracy, and material properties. They are exploring force and motion and working with relationships among steepness and speed, weight of objects and distances rolled. Their explanations of ideas and predictions are reasoned and detailed. This is especially true in experiences in which parents scaffold and in which children engage in over time, experiences extended and repeated in camps, programs, and museum preschools.

An inclination to conflate content with learning lures us into thinking that if we simply put out blocks, contraptions, and ball runs we will meet our engineering learning goals for children. Their natural aptitude for engineering thinking, however, is just a starting place, and fortunately a very strong one. The four studies suggest where museum educators, developers, and designers, and floor staff will find direction and cues to shape activities, add materials, extend explorations and optimize what young children are already doing through their explorations. They provide insights and guidance into how we might get beyond over-used questions such as, “Can you do that another way?” Or invite us to think about how me might encourage children to pay attention to the points of failure in their structures because we ourselves are paying attention to them. In short, these studies point the way to making children’s engineering thinking visible to them, educators, their parents and researchers. Four insights seem particularly helpful in sharpening our understanding of children's engineering thinking.

Children’s engineering behavior can look different from adults’. Adults, for instance, identify engineering design steps (i.e. ask, imagine, plan, create, improve) and are inclined to follow them sequentially. Children, however, don’t necessarily explore them in sequence. Rather they are likely to merge steps and enact them simultaneously and are especially likely to create as they imagine and to revise as they design.

Early engineering is fueled by children’s self-motivation and interests. Children are motivated to satisfy their needs and wants in modifying their world–perhaps more than youth and adults. Compelled to investigate their own questions, they are likely to discover other interesting questions to explore along the way. Children set self-imposed challenges and incorporate additional goals to accomplish, such as using all the blocks. They add additional context to their activity such as naming or labeling their structures.

Developmental factors inform children’s engineering thinking and acting. Evidence of developmental forces at play is strong and pervasive. The closely related domains that are characteristic of early childhood are apparent in the importance of first-hand experiences and manipulative objects and artifacts as vehicles of active engineering thinking and activity as well as in the natural interdisciplinary nature of children’s questions, strategies, and the addition of context. Children also readily embrace the social domain to enlist the help of others in getting their designs to work. Through collaboration they invite others’ ideas, knowledge, and capabilities, offer advice, and give encouragement.  

Engineering thinking occurs through play. Children engage with engineering ideas and engineering activities through both child-directed and curriculum-structured play. Through play, they develop an understanding of material properties and the laws of physics that govern them, the constraints Wulf highlights. Often children engage in creative problem solving that involves balancing multiple constraints to achieve an appropriate solution in their play, whether they are constructing a bridge, building a ball run, investigating spatial relationships, or transforming an object into another.  
When we focus so intently on what engineering looks like as a career or in teaching older students, we miss everything that is happening prior to grades 10 or 12. We even miss what is meaningful to children at 7 or 8. We certainly miss the interests, skills, and dispositions that children at 3, 4 and 5 years old already have and eagerly bring to engineering activities.

Engineering Education

Studies on Early Engineering Thinking

Engineering Museums, Centers, Exhibits, and Programs
  • The Works Museum in Bloomington (MN) whose mission is, “to inspire the next generation of innovators, engineers, and creative problem solvers 

  • Spark!Lab at Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History,  Institution

  • Be A Scientist, a program to connect underserved families directly with scientists and engineers with the aim of inspiring participants to see themselves as innovators and inventors
Related Museum Notes Posts


  1. I highly recommend Spark!Lab Smithsonian as a successful model. Spark!Lab focuses on the invention process, which parallels the engineering process nicely without boxing itself in to learners' preconceived ideas of what "engineering" is. Much can be learned there by visitors, by parents about their children, and by museum professionals.

  2. Steven, thank you for mentioning Spark!Lab. It sounds like some place worth checking out. In the mean time, I have added it to the list of museums, exhibits, programs and centers on the blog post.

  3. Children, however, don’t necessarily explore them in sequence. Rather they are likely to merge steps and enact them simultaneously and are especially likely to create as they imagine and to revise as they design.

    Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times, yes. Object manipulation is part of how children (and especially young children) plan. I call it "Planning with your fingers."

  4. Planning with your fingers...thinking with your hands...children do it all the time and, most likely, adults do too. We make split-second adjustments based on what we sense. Thank you, Peter!