A kindergartener rolls a toy car down a ramp with a slight incline. It crashes into a wooden block that moves about an inch. She rolls a larger car down a steeper slope, sending this block farther than the first. The girl may not yet understand, but she is demonstrating how weight affects momentum.
Years ago, many teachers didn’t realize that playing with cars could introduce engineering concepts. Today, however, educators all over the country are beginning to teach principles of engineering in all grades to prepare students to compete in the global economy.
“Engineering, design, and computational thinking will probably have the greatest impact on our society as a whole in the 21st century global economy,” says EDC’s Ilene Kantrov.
In the United States, a large percentage of the engineering workforce is already eligible for retirement. This, coupled with a projected growth in the number of engineering jobs over the next 10 to 15 years, will create a need for well-trained engineers. To meet that need, the federal government, engineering companies, and other organizations are funding engineering in schools to generate interest in the field.
“Nationally, we haven’t been producing enough college engineering graduates,” says EDC’s Kristen Bjork. “We haven’t been preparing young people for the industry.”
Schools receiving funds are purchasing engineering and design software, starting afterschool programs, and offering elective engineering courses. And the effort to strengthen the engineering workforce of tomorrow is being propelled by EDC, which supports several programs designed to cultivate future engineers.
For years, EDC has run the National Science Foundation’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) Learning Resource Center, assisting over 150 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related projects. EDC also helped develop the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies (Ford PAS) curriculum and program to similarly bring engineering into high school classrooms.
More recently, as the need for engineering jobs has increased, EDC has added a few smaller, innovative engineering projects to its repertoire. For one, the Real World Design Challenge (RWDC) offers an engineering design competition for high school students. And through another curriculum for elementary school students, called A World in Motion (AWIM), EDC proves that one can never be too young to think like an engineer.
The latest installment of AWIM engages K–3 students in everything from playing with toy cars to designing a pinball machine. The program, which began in 2008, teaches youngsters the building blocks of engineering as an extension of a similar engineering curriculum EDC developed for grades 4–8.
Created by Bjork and her team at EDC for SAE International with funding from Nissan North America, Inc., AWIM has reached over 4 million students in 20 years. Children’s author Stephen Krensky wrote a book to accompany each of the latest units, which help students learn about science, technology, engineering, and math habits of mind. That way, they will be ready for more complex engineering activities, such as RWDC.
The annual RWDC, run by EDC, Parametric Technology Corporation, and Cessna Aircraft Company, among others, has teams of high school students competing in engineering challenges that confront today’s leading industries.
For RWDC, EDC was instrumental in helping shape the evaluation used by the judging panels to score the teams, which were selected nationwide with the help of state governors. EDC designed the system that collects and stores the data for the challenge. EDC also served as a member of the MIT Consortium that developed the idea for the challenge.
This year’s student competitors tackled issues of fuel efficiency and aviation in their designs. In 2009, the first year of the competition, an all-girls team from Iolani School in Hawaii was one of 54 schools from 10 participating states to use design around aeronautics and energy use. They won the national competition, held annually in Washington, D.C., and $3,000 for their school’s science and technology department, as well as other prizes.
“Kids are entirely capable of understanding design principles, even when they haven’t had a background in engineering,” says Kantrov. “We’re learning that all students are better off understanding these principles, even if they don’t go into the engineering workforce—no matter what age they are.”
Originally published on October 18, 2010