#104 – Engineering Student Agency and Opportunity

Unpacking Education August 10, 2022 35 min

The world needs problem solvers, and providing students with intentional opportunities to engineer solutions to authentic problems in our classrooms is a powerful way to develop these skills. In many cases, young students are already naturally creative problem solvers. They engineer the world around them every day. If we can foster and encourage this practice in them at a young age, they will not only be more apt to continue being confident in solving problems, they will also develop many transferable skills and be exposed to many potential careers.

Dr. Christine Cunningham, a Professor of Practice in Education and Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, has launched Youth Engineering Solutions (YES) to develop curricula to help the next generation of innovators and problem solvers become excited about learning. She joins us on this podcast episode to unpack the topic of integrating engineering into K–12 classrooms.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.

C.S. Lewis, Author

Integrating Engineering Into Classrooms

Engineering has not traditionally been integrated into K–12 classrooms on a consistent basis, but this trend is changing. Through programs like Youth Engineering Solutions (YES), K–12 students are increasingly being exposed to engineering experiences. Through these opportunities, students develop life-long, transferable skills like problem-solving, creativity, and communication as they work to solve authentic problems collaboratively. Here are a few highlights from our conversation with Dr. Christine Cunningham. Be sure to listen to the podcast for the full content.

  • Natural problem solvers: Students come to schools naturally creative, but they often leave our system less creative than when they arrived. Christine explains, “[Students] are natural problem solvers, and they engineer their environment all the time from block towers to forts to ski jumps.” As a school system, we can explore using engineering experiences as a way to foster and build upon this early inclination to create and solve problems.
  • The importance of equity and voice: To enhance problem solving, we should be seeking a robust group of people with a variety of skills, attitudes, knowledge, strengths, and ideas to a problem. To make this happen, schools must create learning environments that are “equity-oriented, that invite and welcome the perspective of many different people.” Engineering is an excellent opportunity to facilitate this type of experience.
  • Beyond natural sciences: While schools often focus on teaching the natural sciences, students can benefit from also studying the human-made world. Christine points out, “Engineering problem solving is responsible for most of the human-made world that we live in.” Through engineering, we can “bring that natural creativity [that students have] to a problem, and then we help them engage in thinking through a scaffolded problem-solving approach.”
  • Considering multiple perspectives: Students are often naturally motivated by engineering challenges, and these experiences are a great platform to help them develop transferable skills and engineering practices. Engineering requires students to “think about a problem in a larger context.” To solve problems effectively, students must consider their proposed solutions’ political, environmental, economic, and social impacts. Exposure to multiple perspectives “is a critical feature of engineering projects that is very real to the world.”
  • Problem-solving skills: One key to quality engineering opportunities is to introduce a problem with multiple potential solutions. Christine states, “We only design challenges that can be solved in a wide variety of ways. We are not interested in pushing kids into a singular example or a singular solution.” These challenges push students to use their imaginations and problem-solving skills to develop original solutions to problems.
  • Communication skills: Engineering provides powerful opportunities to develop and strengthen other core skills such as communication and collaboration. The YES program provides opportunities for students to share what they’ve learned and developed in multiple ways, drawing upon their interests and skill sets. Christine talks about the importance of communication, saying, “You might have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t convince people who have power to listen to it or to fund it or to adopt it, it doesn’t get taken up and implemented.”
  • Start young: By introducing engineering challenges at a young age, we can instill confidence and ownership in engineering skills. Christine shares, “We can foster engineering practices and mindsets in students from very young ages as a way to give them a toolset so they can start to think about solving problems systematically.” She talks about the lasting impacts of early success in, and exposure to, engineering: “Starting with those young kids and getting them engaged and being engineers–you can’t take that identity away from them later on.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How would you describe the current engineering and problem-solving opportunities of students in your school or district?
  • Where might additional engineering opportunities be provided?
  • What skills might students gain from engineering experiences?
  • Why is it important to introduce engineering at an early age?
  • In what ways are equity and diversity important to the engineering and problem-solving process?
  • How can you draw upon student assets through the engineering process?
  • What steps might you take to increase exposure and opportunity to engineering in your school or district?

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