Across the country, educators are striving to embed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education into their middle and high school programming. Everything from robotics, coding, and engineering design are finally beginning to emerge as a critical component of the 21st-century classroom. The rationale for doing so is sound: the demand for STEM-related jobs continues to grow and employers place a high value on STEM skills.
Science, technology, and mathematics have been a part of the curriculum at both the elementary and secondary level for decades; however, it is only recently that we are beginning to see a spotlight on the "E" of STEM. Largely through robotics and coding, we have begun exposing students to the engineering design process at the middle and high school level.
But, what if we didn't wait so long to teach our students about engineering? What if we taught engineering very early on — as early as kindergarten?
STEM education gives our students an opportunity to develop 21st-century skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity.
Children are innately fascinated with building. Walk into any kindergarten class and you will undoubtedly observe little explorers taking things apart, tinkering, constructing, and creating. As an educator, this is an exciting process to observe. However, most parents and educators rarely refer to this child's play as engineering.
But, we really should.
The benefits of explicitly teaching engineering in kindergarten classes go beyond the countless math and science curriculum connections. STEM education gives our students an opportunity to develop 21st-century skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity. However, as a parent and educator, I would argue that the most valuable benefit of teaching engineering is that it changes the way children think about the world and the way they think about themselves.
Watch: Become a child genius with this engineering kit. Blog continues below.
Stanford psychologist, Dr. Carol Dweck, has spent decades researching the way in which people perceive their own abilities. She is responsible for coining the terms "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset" that have become ubiquitous in psychology and education. A fixed mindset refers to the notion that one's intelligence, character, and creative ability are unchangeable, whereas a growth mindset is the contrary. An individual with a growth mindset persists in the face of setbacks, sees effort and hard work as a path to mastery, and embraces challenges.
The engineering process removes the stigma from failure because failure is seen as a natural step in the learning process. A pivotal part of the engineering design process is testing. A nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat moment of truth: Will your bridge hold the weight of the load? Will the robot go through the maze? Will the straw house withstand the wolf's huffing and puffing?
The bridge collapsed.
The robot is stuck in a corner.
The house has toppled over.
A child familiar with the engineering design process knows this not a moment of failure at all; rather, it is a critical part of the testing phase. Because of the lack of success in the testing phase, we are able to evaluate, make improvements where needed, and redesign. We critically assess problem areas in our initial design, we research, we problem solve, we collaborate and then we iterate.
We test again. And, again. And, again.
And, finally, when the bridge holds the load, the robot completes the maze, and the house withstands the applied force, we learn. We learn crucial lessons in structural stability, programming, and material strength. We learn problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. Most importantly, we learn the path to success is paved with failures. This firsthand experience is an extremely powerful one for a young, impressionable mind.
By introducing the engineering design process in the early years, our youngest students begin their academic careers understanding and internalizing that failure is a natural step in the learning process. These experiences will undoubtedly shape the way they view the world and the way in which they view themselves. Regardless of the path they choose to pursue in adulthood, we will be arming future generations with a resilient mindset that will stay with them long after they leave our classrooms.
Anjali Joshi is a passionate science educator and author. Follow her on Twitter: @Anjali_Joshi_
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