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How to build an engineer: Start young

Lesson materials from the Boston Museum of Science’s Engineering is Elementary curriculum cover the bulletin board in teacher Camille Jones’s Pioneer Elementary School classroom in Quincy, Washington.

Lesson materials from the Boston Museum of Science’s Engineering is Elementary curriculum cover the bulletin board in teacher Camille Jones’s Pioneer Elementary School classroom in Quincy, Washington.

Initial findings from the first study of how well the curriculum works show that students taught with Engineering is Elementary learn both science and engineering better than those taught the same subjects without the eight key elements included in the Museum’s curriculum. It turns out that explicitly teaching students about the connections between engineering, science and math, teaching the engineering design process rather than just posing an engineering challenge, and helping students gather information from failed attempts all make a difference to students’ ability to absorb and retain science and engineering concepts. Researchers also found that kids’ attitudes about girls in engineering were more positive for both boys and girls after being exposed to the Engineering is Elementary curriculum.

The Museum of Science, a nonprofit, makes an effort to ensure both children of color and girls have access to this hands-on curriculum and are represented in the stories used to kick off each unit. The curriculum is designed to fit into a teacher’s regular schedule. There are 20 units featuring engineering design projects that can be purchased independently and used alongside or in place of science units on the same topic, like electricity, water or insects. The teacher’s guide for one unit costs $55; an accompanying storybook is $9. Materials can be also purchased from the museum, but most materials needed to complete the experiments — like rope, pulleys and cardboard — can be borrowed from home or bought cheaply at grocery or hardware stores.

Teacher professional development options run the gamut from a one-day class for teachers new to the curriculum to a three-day session for teachers learning to train other teachers. Costs for whole-school training sessions range from $2,500 to $10,000 depending on location. Independent workshops at the museum can cost as little as $450.

Teachers whose students are mostly from low-income families are eligible for subsidized curriculum materials and professional development.

Camille Jones, a teacher at Pioneer Elementary School, discovered Engineering is Elementary in 2014 when she went online looking for ways to teach her students engineering concepts. Jones had just joined Pioneer as a STEAM enrichment teacher. (STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math.)

First-grade students at Pioneer Elementary School in Quincy, Washington, eager to try out the ramp their teacher is demonstrating during their STEAM enrichment class, raise their hands in hopes of getting a turn.

First-grade students at Pioneer Elementary School in Quincy, Washington, eager to try out the ramp their teacher is demonstrating during their STEAM enrichment class, raise their hands in hopes of getting a turn.

“I really loved what I saw,” Jones said of the stand-alone units. “I wanted a unit we could all do together [as a school]. I found a civil engineering unit on building bridges and thought that would be accessible to all.”

In one of her very first classes using the new-to-her curriculum, Jones said a struggling student blew her away with the model he built. She worked with his other teachers to pull him into the advanced STEAM class she taught despite his low grades in other subject areas.

“We talked so much about engineering and all the other fields and you could see him thinking, ‘Oh there is a future. I’m good at this and I want to live into that,’” said Jones, who was her state’s teacher of the year in 2017.

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