EiE staff often ask elementary teachers what they think about the prospect of teaching their students engineering. The word “terrified” turns up in a striking number of answers. But with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards, and with new science standards being implemented in many states, more teachers are finding they have to confront the terror. And they’re discovering that engineering is a very friendly monster.
Tina Garrett, the elementary science coordinator for the Garland Independent School District in Texas saw this happy ending recently, when she conducted an EiE professional development workshop for teachers in her district. “I agree that many teachers don’t feel prepared to teach engineering—they think it’s far beyond their capacity,” she says. “When our teachers went into the training, I could see their nervousness. They weren’t really sure they could do it.”
But Garrett says, teachers left the workshop “pumped up”—confident that they could do engineering with their students. “Obviously engineering is complex,” Thomas says. “But at the elementary level, it’s all about engaging the students in critical thinking, collaborating, following the steps of the Engineering Design Process, and having a student-centered classroom, where the teacher is a facilitator. Once teachers see this, they say, ‘Oh! I can do this!’”
As we’ve developed EiE workshops for teachers, we’ve been able to identify the elements that make an effective engineering professional development workshop for elementary teachers. “Many people—not just teachers—don’t have a good understanding of the concepts or skills involved in engineering is, or what engineers do in their jobs,” says Kristin Sargianis, EiE’s director of professional development. “So one important element is promoting content knowledge.”
Another important component is sharing effective teaching strategies. “In the real world, engineering is a highly collaborative, open-ended problem-solving process,” Sargianis says. “So effective classroom engineering should be student-centered and inquiry-based, with students working in teams. In our PD workshops, we model for teachers how to support students as they work in teams, and how to ask good questions that guide students’ learning. ”
Finally, if hands-on learning is effective for students, it’s also great for teachers. An effective engineering workshop lets teachers try their hands at the very same engineering design challenges their students will tackle. “Completing the hands-on training from the units gives you a feel for what the students will have to take on during class,” agrees Carolann Pfeiffer, a teacher at McKinley Avenue Elementary School in Manahawkin, NJ who recently attended an EiE workshop.
The Obama administration’s Educate to Innovate initiative makes teacher professional development in STEM subjects a priority. So we’ll continue to take the terror out of elementary engineering—and we’re also addressing some of the other letters in “STEM” with new workshops—like one that integrates engineering with Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.