THE BLOG
08/29/2013 12:56 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

3 Challenges for Engineering in K-12

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

Last June, I had the privilege to work with one of my mentors, Dr. Christina White, co-teaching design and engineering. The program, High School Teacher Engineering Awareness Program (HSTEAP), brought math and science teacher pairs to Louisiana State University, where we held a week-long workshop on ways to integrate engineering into math and science curriculum.

These teachers had the same needs as the teachers I had met back in Texas. They have no time. They have no money. They [think they] don't have the skills.

Here are three ways to get creative and fight back these challenges:

No Time

An engineering curriculum is often thought of as a separate subject, but it doesn't have to be. The reality is that engineers may need psychologists, artists and writers to complement their skills and deliver a project. There are so many engineering fields that with a little research, you might be able to find a project fit for your class.

One recommendation is to create projects that can bridge several subjects. Help students not only see the application of what they are learning, but the power of engineering. For one of the teacher pairs we were working with, it meant joining their biology and geometry courses to work on a prosthetics project (bioengineering). For another chemistry and algebra pair, it meant having a project around water quality and accessibility in their city (civil/environmental engineering). Their plan was to test the water in their chemistry course and analyze their city's demographics and water access through census data in the algebra course. They got brownie points for planning to bring the government teacher into the project.

You can find simple ways to understand engineering fields at Engineering Girl.

No Money

Engineering projects don't always need a thousand dollar investment. A few weeks ago, a non-profit contacted me about advice on starting a STEM program. Their first thought was to invest in lego mindstorms, where a single kit can cost hundreds of dollars, but when money is short you need to look around and use what you have available! You can teach a child more practical STEM skills with other low-cost hands-on activities. Have them bring in old electronics and break them apart or recycle materials around your school.

For our teachers, that meant teaching them about rapid prototyping with basic everyday materials. I showed them how to make moving machines with cardboard, rubber bands and marbles. They prototyped a whole city using construction paper, cardboard and popsicle sticks. Point is, you do not need fancy materials or machines, just the basics to be able to present your idea to others. Challenge your students to pick up a water bottle on the side of the road and find 100 different uses for it.

A good starting point for trying out rapid prototyping and design is the Smithsonian Design Challenge.

No Skills

For the many teachers who have had no formal engineering training, implementing engineering curriculum can be daunting. Some did not feel they could assign engineering projects to their students when they couldn't do the work themselves. They just didn't feel confident with their own skills. Something as simple as drawing a line with a pen scared the math teachers we were working with.

In one day, I walked them through the basics of my undergraduate degree, providing them with everything from basic drawing skills to brainstorming and interviewing techniques to rapid prototyping with basic materials. For those that thought they couldn't do it, they now had the confidence to design, create and convey the ideas on their mind. It really took a lot to get them comfortable with making mistakes, but that is the beauty of engineering and prototyping. You get it wrong, you do it again.

You can learn more about design and engineering by trying out Stanford's D.School Bootcamp Bootleg.

If you are an educator looking for more ideas on how to address these challenges, feel free to reach out to me or post your comments below.