Starting engineering early sets young learners up for success in school and life. But before asking a preschooler to engage in an engineering activity, it’s important to have a reasonable expectation of what that looks like and what an age-appropriate challenge for a young child to tackle might be. To design Wee Engineer, our preschool/Pre-K engineering curriculum that will launch Fall 2018, we first broke down the practices (or habits of mind) that define engineering and asked ourselves a simple question, “What does it look like when a preschooler engineers?” After hours of observing preschoolers in various settings, reviewing literature on child development, talking with preschool educators, and testing our own preschool engineering activities, here’s what we learned about engineering practices for this young age group.
Thinking about a problem and its context
All engineering design challenges need a narrative context, but how you present that narrative context should change based on the child’s age. Setting the context for the problem in an age-appropriate way is a very important step. Children need to understand what the problem is and why it’s important before they figure how to solve the problem. When designing Wee Engineer, we noticed that children are more motivated to engage with something that’s right in front of them. They like to solve a problem that’s relevant to their lives and/or that allows them to help a friend. Instead of presenting the narrative context through a storybook, as we do in Engineering is Elementary, in Wee Engineer the problem is introduced by a puppet.
Watch in the clip below how children respond to the puppet and their eagerness to solve the problem for their friend.
Using an Engineering Design Process to Solve a Problem
An engineering design process is central to engineering. Working engineers use many different kinds of engineering design processes. For our flagship curriculum, Engineering is Elementary, we developed an EDP that has five steps because the elementary teachers we consulted told us elementary students can easily remember as many steps as there are fingers on one hand. But for preschoolers, we thought it was better to make this even simpler-- research shows that preschoolers are better at remembering things that come in threes, so our preschool EDP has three steps. At this age level, the most important thing is to provide learners with a structured process that can help them slow down their thinking. We even created a song to help our youngest learners remember the steps.
Working effectively in teams
Collaboration looks very different for children who are three or four. Children at this age are actively developing their awareness of the world around them. They’re still learning how to share and compromise with each other. We knew that asking children to dive into working into teams would be a tall order and not fair to the child (or educator!). It’s important to scaffold activities to build an appropriate foundation for collaboration. In Wee Engineer, children work alone or alongside each other in freely formed groups. Everyone designs their own “technology,” and the teacher praises successful moments where children are working effectively near each other. While this may not look like collaborating as we understand it as adults, encouraging children to be aware of their space (and the others are around them) and supporting young learners during tricky moments where they might be imposing their opinions onto others is a necessary step towards becoming a great collaborator!
It’s important for young engineers to explore materials to see how those materials can be used to solve a problem. Some things that seem obvious to adults, for example, pom poms are soft , are really not yet understood by young children! We develop such knowledge through interactions with the world around us. As preschoolers explore materials, it’s important to introduce them to language they can use to describe them: “Is it hard?” “Is it soft” “Is it light” “Is it heavy?” Watch how this teacher supports her young learners as they explore materials.
Applying Scientific Thinking
Even with very young children, educators can build a foundation for scientific thinking by encouraging them to practice age-appropriate science practices that will set them up for success. Preschoolers can ask questions, explore materials, and try out different ideas. For example, we noticed that when young children engaged with our Wrecking Balls unit, they were unlikely to describe their wrecking balls using scientific terms like “mass” and “acceleration” but they were very eager to share their ideas about why certain materials work better than others to knock down a tower of blocks.
This willingness to propose ideas is an important step along the path to deeper scientific understanding and should be encouraged. If young children are engaged in what they are doing, even if it looks like play, they are creating a foundation for science understanding based on wonder and curiosity.
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