Monday, June 14, 2010

K-12 Engineering Education: Will it Help?

Poetry, it is said, is the clear expression of mixed emotions. I will forgo inflicting upon my readers an example of my poetic gifts, such as they are, but mixed emotions are definitely what I felt when I read a recent New York Times story about a school district in New Jersey that is teaching engineering to children in kindergarten. Or trying to, anyway.

At Clara E. Colemen Elementary in Glen Rock, New Jersey, all students from fifth graders right down to kindegarten are exposed to at least ten hours a year of something that can be optimistically described as engineering education. For the kindergarteners, who can't yet spell engineering (or anything else), this takes the form of imagining how they could make the three little pigs' house less vulnerable to high-velocity winds blown by the huffing puffing wolf. As a spokesman for the American Society of Engineering Education pointed out, this is not learning engineering so much as it is learning about engineering, but still, it's a move in the right direction. Assuming, that is, that you think the teaching of engineering belongs in elementary school at all.

And here's where the mixed emotions come in. Speaking for myself, I would have been thrilled if I had been given an opportunity to study anything related to engineering when I was that age. But as things were run in a medium-quality Texas school district in the 1960s, I had to make do with things like bringing samples of my self-assigned battery-powered electrical projects to show-and-tell, and reading the articles on oil refining in the encyclopedia during recess. The view then was that first we teach them how to read, write, and do elementary math, along with things like world history, art, and U. S. citizenship. There will be plenty of time for them to find out about professions like engineering, law, or medicine when they can at least have a basic understanding of how and why such things are done.

I personally disagreed with such an approach. Much later in life, I was told that one day I came home from my first day in fourth grade looking particularly disgusted. When my mother asked me what the problem was, I said, "When am I going to be able to take physics?" The reply was discouraging, to say the least.

So from a purely personal perspective, I am jealous of all those kids out there (and the Glen Rock school is by no means unique) who are getting to build paper-hedgehog levitators, hyperventilating-wolf safeguard mechanisms, and other things that pass under the label of engineering, broadly defined.

But here's where the mixed emotions come in. I was an unusual child, in the sense of being a statistical outlier. There are simply not that many fourth-graders hankering for a dose of Newton's Laws, or at least there weren't in my day. One can question the wisdom of taking a perceived national need for more engineers (which at some level or other is always a chronic problem, especially if you talk to industrial representatives at any time except during the depths of a recession) and thereby justifying the presentation of a particular singled-out profession to young children, most of whom will not become engineers. From the descriptions, it sounds like mathematics is not a prominent feature of most of these programs, at least at the lower levels. That may well be appropriate, since a lot of what engineers do is enabled by math, but not fundamentally based on it. People were building sheds and houses without benefit of anything beyond basic arithmetic for millennia, after all. But by the same token, it is a stretch to describe what they were doing as engineering.

How would it look if we had a shortage of lawyers, for example (I know that is hard to imagine, but bear with me), and set aside a week or two a year in every grade to make kids dress up in fancy suits and carry briefcases and hold mock trials? It begins to sound like debating teams, and in fact that is a good place for budding lawyers to start. But I'm not aware of any debating teams that have to interrupt their sessions for nap time, and that's because the intellectual equipment needed to conduct a meaningful debate, as opposed to a playground brawl, is simply not present in most kids before the age of twelve or so.

Is the same true of engineering? Yes and no. If you are talking about the instinct to build things, well, you can find that in toddlers who like to pile blocks together and then knock them down. And for decades, toymakers have profited from selling construction kits like Erector sets, Tinkertoys, and so on, without benefit of any subsidies from the National Science Foundation or the Department of Education. It is an empirical fact that boys tend to like those kinds of toys more than girls do, and I suspect one motive behind the engineering-for-everybody movement is to get more girls interested in the subject. And to the extent it works, I say fine, but at the same time I don't expect that ten years from now we'll see the percentage of women in engineering zoom up to the perpetually-hoped-for goal of 52%, or whatever statistical parity with respect to the general population would be.

And here is a caution: if these little engineering samples in elementary school are presented badly, or poorly equipped teachers have to do it under compulsion, the whole thing might backfire. Not everything kids do in school is to their liking. The few weirdos like me will like it, but they will probably go on to be engineers or scientists anyway. But for the great majority of children to whom most of what they do in school is at best a chore or a burden, they may learn to associate the word "engineering" with tedium, frustration, and failure, which would not be what we want at all.

Sources: The New York Times article "Studying Engineering Before They Can Spell It," appeared on June 13, 2010 at It cites curriculum material developed by the Boston Museum of Science, which has been a national leader in this area.

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