THE BLOG
01/30/2015 02:32 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

You Don't Need to be a Rocket Scientist to Teach the "E" in STEM

I received an S.O.S. from a courageous friend who teaches second grade in South Central Los Angeles where people tend to write off her students as having no future, including these young souls themselves. Her school has been targeted as a "STEM" elementary where she is suddenly required to teach the "E" of Engineering in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum.

There are no books or collateral materials to augment the bare-bones curriculum at my friend's school. There are no tablets, high-tech toys or Wi-Fi. She already buys basic supplies with her own salary. The biggest hurdle for her and many other teachers is that despite the STEM mandate, there is no funding for training that would enable her to confidently incorporate engineering as part of the new Next Generation Science Standards. My friend's lament is heard every day in elementary schools from coast-to-coast: "I am not a trained engineer."

Here are two realities that exacerbate bringing the "E" into K-6 foundational learning:

First, according to the American Association for Employment in Education, there is an abundance of people applying for elementary teaching positions, but a critical shortage of candidates with a foundation in math and science, let alone knowledge of concepts associated with engineering. Since certification in these areas require additional credit hours, many elementary and middle school teachers lack training necessary to work STEM into their curriculum.

Second, since the sixties, elementary school teachers have been predominantly women and disproportionate numbers continue today. The California Department of Education reports that in the 2013-14 school year, 72.7 percent of public school teachers were female; and since this statistic includes high school, the number of women teaching the foundational years of K-6 is even higher, roughly nine to one. Because engineering is perceived as a male profession, this bias has deprived many female teachers of formal and empirical knowledge about engineering, its practical applications in everyday life, and its nexus to the coursework they currently teach.

No wonder the current mandate to teach engineering is paralyzing.

So here is a simple message to K-8 teachers: engineering is completely miscast as a subject area that requires a left male brain and a triple degree in math and physics.

The word engineering is derived from two Latin words: ingenium, meaning "cleverness" and ingeniare, meaning "to contrive, devise." As noted in Foundations of Solid Mechanics, "scientists try to understand nature. Engineers try to make things that do not exist in nature...." The engineer puts an idea in concrete terms and designs something that people can use whether for work or play."

Dramatically increasing the number of children who can pursue challenging hands-on projects, with 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity requires experience with hands-on, project-based STEM activities that will enable them to design, create and build. When children build something of interest to them or integrated into a subject they are studying in school, they will develop these critical skills. Through the process of designing/making/testing, they are applying mathematics and physics, possibly chemistry, biology and mechanics and collaborating with other children, teachers and parents to 'engineer' something useful to them or to others.

A former third and fourth grade teacher and wife of a prominent engineer recently gave me a book called The Toothpick by Henry Petroski who writes "nothing can be more annoying than having a piece of food stuck in our teeth." Any problem, such as getting food stuck in teeth, can be the inspiration for a student to use engineering to invent something new and solve a problem by making something that doesn't exist in nature. A device that can go where our tongue and fingers cannot reach requires engineering: exploring structure and testing materials; using scientific and economic principles to determine what material will be flexible, not too abrasive and can be derived from a readily accessible, environmentally sustainable resource; applying math to measure and determine a size and shape that will easily slip in and out of the space between the teeth; and studying practical applications such as can the device be easily mass produced or washed if designed to be permanent. Lastly, there is the process of creating and testing a prototype. If it works - great; and if it doesn't, then it's necessary to create and test more prototypes to engineer a final product through the process of trial and error.

For elementary teachers like my friend, my favorite STEM resource is Science Buddies. Teachers, parents and students of all backgrounds can tap Science Buddies' user-friendly online questionnaire to access the age and subject matter-appropriate project tools needed to practice engineering with simple every day materials. This site enables teachers and students to learn to engineer in the classroom in a non-threatening, user-friendly way.

To put the "E" in STEM, teachers don't need to be rocket scientists -they just need to give kids classroom time and the opportunity to build things, take them apart and rebuild them. Give them a project to create something useful that they tackle with their heads and hands, and let them work in teams so they practice collaboration and communication. If at first they don't succeed, challenge and encourage them to try again. That's engineering!