To answer these questions, we ran a 100-hour long Curiosity in Nature Summer Camp, looking at nature from an engineer's point of view. We opened the camp to a wide range of ages -- all the way from three to ten. Each child was paired with an adult or a high school explainer.
The main barriers for the littlest ones were those of motor control and verbalization of ideas. The former was addressed by the high school explainer or adult serving as the "hands." Over time, as the little ones got used to the environment and people, they became more comfortable with expressing their ideas and goals.
* A sandbox to start and explore without fear of failure.
* Showing the real world and exciting applications to learning (or "why" is this important).
* Providing "just-in-time" knowledge.
* Giving each student choice and ownership of their learning. Students can apply their learning to design and build models of their own choosing.
Here is a progression of skills that the students gained over 100 hours:
25-50 hours -- Gaining Observation Skills, Familiarity with Materials, Asking questions that can be investigated
Notice features, patterns, or contradictions in one's world -- For instance, instead of differentiating birds on the basis of color, students started to notice differences in wing beat frequencies, wing tip shapes, types of beak etc.
Ask questions about the phenomena being observed -- Why do millipedes move slowly, but centipedes can move fast? Why do leaves on different plants and trees have different types of edges?
Becoming familiar with materials and how they behave -- We use very simple, low-cost materials to lower the cost of failure. It is not a very big problem if a child broke a few popsicle sticks while trying an idea, but the same tolerance is not there if the materials or equipment is very expensive or single-use only. With practice, students learn to predict how different materials behave under varying forces, and conditions such as temperature, light, pressure and mediums such as air, water, oil. The most direct application of this was when the students designed and built self-ventilating animal homes using mud, sticks, leaves and water.
Learn to use instruments to measure variables -- Students were exposed to a wide range of simple and exotic measuring instruments from the humble ruler and magnifying glasses to microscopes and boroscopes.
Develop an investigation plan:
For instance, for the cardboard automaton week, we showed the students various videos of automatons to inspire them. After the videos, we worked on drawing our own designs. At first the students thought that the project was easy and came up with very elaborate designs. Once they started executing, they realized that they needed simpler designs -- and went back to the drawing board.
A surprising finding was the value of kits such as "Snap Circuits." These type of kits usually are not at all open-ended and don't give the learner any choice. However, they were valuable for the younger students to experience early success, reinforce learning and motivate them to explore using other materials (such as squishy circuits) to build designs of their own choice.
Students use diagrams, maps,drawing, photographs, 3D models as tools to elaborate on and present their ideas -- We invited a scientific illustrator and artist to teach the students about picking key features and representing them in 2D. Students learned to look at a bird and represent it as a few ovals of various sizes.
50-100 hours Being able to apply the Engineering Design Process and gaining in persistence:
The biggest learning gain for students at this level of practice was being able to say, "Lets try again," when something didn't work. Most students get very frustrated when their model doesn't work on the first try. It takes repeated reinforcement of the message -- "Its ok! Lets try again. Now what should we change this time to try and make it work?" to develop persistence.
Make and use a model to test a design and to compare the effectiveness of different solutions
Students persist through failing designs and models:
Students compare designs through repeated testing, troubleshooting, recording and analyzing results and finally identifying the best.
Students went through all stages of the engineering design process each day while exploring different questions regarding bird flight, beaks, animal locomotion, tree stability and structures etc.
After repeated development and testing, students invent a totally new design based on the characteristics of the best design.
The summer camp provided 100 contact hours to students who came for the full 4 weeks. Due to the young age and lack of similar, prior experiences, the students didn't get to the Inventor stage. Based on the programs we run at our studios in N.Y.C. and L.A., we have seen that it takes about 500-700 hours of practice for students to be completely familiar with observing, framing the right investigation questions and persisting through the engineering design process to get to the Inventor level.
This is where parents can play such a crucial support role in helping continue the practice of scientific exploration and discovery at home.