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Teaching Fifth Graders Engineering 156

Jamie noticed a NYT story saying "To compete in a global economy, some school districts are offering engineering lessons to students in kindergarten. " The story is about 5th graders working on a new experimental curriculum that is well beyond the egg drop of old.
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Teaching Fifth Graders Engineering

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  • I remember the egg drop. We also built bridges out of popsicle sticks, and tested them to see which could hold the most weight. That was the most engineering related hands on project I think I had in all of elementary school.
  • by slifox ( 605302 ) * on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:18AM (#32564694)
    It's great that schools are doing this, but I think parents are the biggest factor. Parents have a strong influence on the toys kids get at an early age, and at that early age children can show an interest in almost anything.

    Want your kids to grow up with a healthy respect for / interest in engineering? Buy them Lego, Meccano (aka Erector Sets), K'Nex, etc... any toy that lets them play in a sandbox with minimal limitations, and particularly any toy that allows the creation of functioning mechanisms

    Supplement this with some old hardware that they can take apart with only a screwdriver (and do it with them if they're too young to do it safely).

    Computers and programming languages are also a great place to start, especially since the sandbox they provide allows easy experimentation (if you made an error, things don't blow up -- you can always reset and try again). However programming is arguably something that's best for slightly older children, whereas taking apart old mechanical/electrical hardware can be enjoyed by many children even as early as age 5 or before.

    Of course this won't necessarily result in an engineer -- after all a child's interests can be largely determined by their personality, their school, and their social environment. However, by setting the foundations with these types of toys, your kid will at least have an understanding of engineering, which can only be beneficial. The fundamental point, I think, is that you can't just rely on schools -- as a parent you have to lay the foundations for learning (of any field or subject) at home, by spending time with your child and guiding them towards productive fun activities (and no, using the TV as a babysitter all the time will not accomplish this goal).

    I'm not a parent yet, so I guess I'll see how well I do in this area when the time comes... However I do know what my parents did, and I think it worked pretty well
    • by NervousWreck ( 1399445 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:25AM (#32564786)
      Another thing parents can do to get their kids started on engineering: Science fiction. Thanks to science fiction I developed an interest in IT plus marketable skills in the same despite having little natural aptitude for it. Bruce Coville's AI gang trilogy led me to start learning Perl at age ten (admittedly it fell by the wayside until age 16, but still.)
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Barrinmw ( 1791848 )
        Yes, instead of Barbie, make sure every girl gets a Princess Leia Doll!
        • Yes, instead of Barbie, make sure every girl gets a Princess Leia Doll!

          He said science fiction, not space fantasies/westerns. Much of the fiction that gets labeled as "sci-fi" these days really isn't. True science fiction has an element of science in it, or at least technology. Something that plays a significant role in the story, rather than just being part of the setting.

          The only technology development that plays a role in Star Wars is the creation of the Death Star, and that's just a bigger spaceship with a bigger gun, and none of the engineering issues involved in sca

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:28AM (#32564814) Journal
      You could adopt the alternate strategy, of forcing them to play with a "Child's First Call Center Playset: Now with over 500 recordings of angry, clueless, customers and verbally abusive managers!" for 14 hours a day.

      This won't actually teach them anything; but it will fill them with a burning desire to acquire job skills.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        I always wondered what happened to the kids who played with those toy phones...

        "Yabba-Dabba Doo! My system won't power on"

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Amouth ( 879122 )

          one of my wife's friends has a 18 month old - her FAVORITE toy is a fake hot pink cell phone - she likes to follow her mom around the house pretending to talk on it - while her mother walks around talking on her's..

          It's so sad, yet funny to watch..

          • by mmkkbb ( 816035 )

            My kid likes to tap on my spare keyboard, or to hammer on the keys of my wife's netbook. I already have a list of Kid Stuff to install on a junky computer when it's time in two more years :)

            • hmmm I have a decoy keyboard for my 15 mo. old, but he only wants the one I'm typing on...

            • by xaxa ( 988988 )

              Two more years?

              My dad had me using DrawMouse when I was 2 years old (I have a photograph). He'd draw something, and I'd use the fill tool to colour it in. A bit later I liked drawing clocks -- we have perhaps 100 printouts of clocks (some with 24-hour time, but some with a random number of numbers).

              I was using AutoSketch when I was five. Again, my parents have lots of plots from that, generally people made from hexagons, or random tessellations.

              There were two games I used around the age of five: Captain Com

              • by mmkkbb ( 816035 )

                Really? I didn't get into my old TI 99/4A until I was 3. Of course, I don't think we HAD it until I was 3.

                • by xaxa ( 988988 )

                  My parents didn't own a computer until I was five, but my dad borrowed one from work most weekends. (It was probably worth £3-5000 or something, back in the 1980s. Two hard disc drives, and it could run AutoCAD!)

            • by tom17 ( 659054 )
              For now, this is fun on said spare keyboad (if it's still plug-innable that is)...
          • My three year old daughter has a toy pink cellphone; she used to pretend to talk on it, now she's always using a screwdriver to take the battery cover off, take the batteries out, putting them back in, and re-attaching the cover. She doesn't always put the batteries back with the correct polarity, but I'm impressed that she likes to take the cover off.
    • by decipher_saint ( 72686 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:31AM (#32564860)

      I heartily agree.

      From my own history I see a direct result of this kind of early brain-building.

      My family purchased a computer (Commodore 64) when I was about 7, my mom sat down and showed me how to write basic code just by going through the examples in the book that came with it. At first it was just an endless print loop with my name in it, but soon it became little "20 questions" type games and then more and more.

      I have no doubt the reason I am a programmer today is because of the education and support from my family at an early age and also the encouragement to excel and keep exploring.

      I also learnt quite a bit about basic electronics from those old Radio Shack kits.

      • by Aladrin ( 926209 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @11:57AM (#32566008)

        I got my start programming in school in 4th grade, but my parents stood behind that when I showed a strong interest. They bought me a (and my sister, fat lot she used it) Sinclair 1000. Then a Commodore 16, then C64.

        Then I wanted a C128, but they refused. Somehow, despite knowing less about it than me, they realized that IBM-compatible was the future and forced me to pick out an IBM-compatible computer. They tell me I cried. lol But I did, and I made newbie mistakes, and I got better.

        It's thanks to my school starting me down the path and my parents being willing to invest the time and money into it that I'm the happy programmer that I am today. Otherwise, I'd probably be some manager somewhere and hating my job and not knowing why.

        I wish more schools would take the first step to introduce children to -all- the trades out there, including science, literature, music, computers and engineering. I firmly believe that more children would grow up with goals in life and be happier for it. If not goals, then at least skills they like and can turn into a career.

        • by antdude ( 79039 )

          So you were a C64 fanboy. :)

        • I got my start programming in school in 4th grade, but my parents stood behind that when I showed a strong interest. They bought me a (and my sister, fat lot she used it) Sinclair 1000. Then a Commodore 16, then C64.

          Oooh... You got the Commodore 16 before the C64? Ouch...

          I went down the C128 route - damn was that ever a waste of time. If I wanted to use Commodore I should've just stuck with the C64, or else gone Amiga. :)

          • by Aladrin ( 926209 )

            Hehe, I had a lot of fun with that C16 before my sister did something to it that overheated it and made the Q key stick. I was mighty pissed.

      • When I was six, my mother bought a new VCR one day. Insisting on watching a video, without her permission I opened the box, pulled out the manual, and figured out how to connect it to the TV. When I asked to watch a movie, she was mad about me opening the box and said, "wait for your father to get home to make sure it's connected properly." When my father came home he took a look and gave it a thumbs up.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You could also lock the child into a cage of puzzles he/she would need to deconstruct before being released. Although this may eventual lead to the crushing of all his/her hopes and then to severe anti-social activities, drug use and suicide the outcome of producing someone who has the ever-vaunted ENGINEERING skills would be worth it.

      Or you could just chill out, let the kids play and see what happens. You might get an engineer, you might get a singer, you might get an accountant. It's a surprise in every b

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I'm an engineer, and I am a parent of a 4 year old (soon to be 5) and one that's about to be 2. The 2 year old is really comfortable with 'Duplo' (the double size lego sets) as he doesn't have the coordination to manage small parts yet, and there's a choke hazard. The other thing that fits the 2 year old well is the wooden Thomas the train sets. We spend hours building elaborate track sets.

      The 4 year old, on the other hand, is helping me to build a wooden spaceship for part of his space themed birthda
    • "Buy them Lego, Meccano (aka Erector Sets), K'Nex, etc... any toy that lets them play in a sandbox with minimal limitations, and particularly any toy that allows the creation of functioning mechanisms "

      Fuck yes! Toys that allow children to express themselves instead of "playing someone elses concept" are wonderful.

      I still remember the hardwood blocks (2x4"-based, various interesting shapes) I played with,let alone Lincoln Logs, Legos, etc.
      I've been a mechanic and techy since I was a young teen (I'm 50 now)

    • by tom17 ( 659054 )
      I utterly agree with this.

      I'm in IT but probably should have been an engineer (computers were the easy way out of doing any work at school, I kind of regret this now) and am a new parent. I think my parents did a good job in this area too, I like how my mind works when it comes to an engineering sense.

      My boy is 15months olf now and all I can think about with toys is making sure he gets stuff that will develop what is, to me, practical engineering common sense.

      So now I have my wee one and he already
    • by nbauman ( 624611 )

      Want your kids to grow up with a healthy respect for / interest in engineering? Buy them Lego, Meccano (aka Erector Sets),

      It is my sad duty to inform you that Meccano went into liquidation in 1971. Their trademark was passed around from manufacturer to manufacturer like a past-her-prime party girl, and they are now basically Lego kits. The Meccano sets of legend, which ingenious British engineers used to build prototypes in war-torn England, are gone forever. For that matter, the Erector sets are now basically Lego kits. And the Lego kits are now basically parts that you click together to make an unimaginative pre-formed stand

      • by tom17 ( 659054 )
        I've been worrying about where to get Meccano for my boy in a few years time and have seen it around. From briefly looking at it, it looked like normal Meccano to me - except they were socket-cap bolts rather than the old hex-cap bolts.

        Maybe I need to look closer?
        • by nbauman ( 624611 )

          I wouldn't want my rant to discourage anyone from getting a Meccano set if they're really available. I tried to buy one 2-3 years ago, and I found out the original company had gone into receivership, and nothing like the original Meccano sets were available *at that time.*

          Checking Wikipedia and the "official" Meccano web site, I see that there are kits available, but they're not like the original kits. I don't know if they're equivalent -- I have no objection to using plastic instead of metal when plastic w

    • There are some excellent add-on program to the middle school curriculum such as First Lego League. And it needs parents to volunteer after school to coach the kids and provide judges for the various competition levels, state, regional, national and world (in Sweden). []
    • Supplement this with some old hardware that they can take apart with only a screwdriver.

      As a kid, I disassembled our old CRT TV just to satisfy my intense curiosity on how our TV looks inside. The TV has been unplugged for some time, but it was still a very "shocking experience".

  • Nothing new (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:23AM (#32564748)

    Nothing really new here. "Primitive" societies have involved children in engineering -- boatbuilding, weapons tech, housing construction, medicine, agriculture -- for millenia.

    • "Primitive" societies have involved children in engineering -- boatbuilding, weapons tech, housing construction, medicine, agriculture -- for millenia.

      Good point. My brother the anthropologist (and parent of two boys) says much the same. He also says that what we call "multitasking" is not so different from what "primivitive" hunters do in the forest (keep alert to a million little details).

  • Firecrackers (Score:4, Interesting)

    by srussia ( 884021 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:33AM (#32564886)
    Obviously not something that would be done in school, but playing with firecrackers and other incendiary devices provided me with some engineering insights early on.

    Sample objective: achieving maximum height of a projectile using an explosive propellant.

    Lessons learned: 1) Use a seamless can (such as an empty butane canister), as normal cans would just blow apart. 2) Set canister in a basin of water to minimize energy loss, with firecracker suspended by the wick through a hole on top.

    Results: A couple hundred meters altitude, incredibly low deviation from vertical.
    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      (such as an empty butane canister)

      Best way to empty them is to demonstrate PV=nRT.

  • (Damnit, what is slashdot coming to?)

    Anyways.... fifth graders are not in kindergarten (or at least, they damn well shouldn't be!)

    At least the article was a lot less confusing by saying they are teaching it to levels from kindergarten through grade 5.

  • I like the overall idea, but I think they could introduce some "Mythbuster"-type experimentation. First it helps understand the "Hypothesis-Methodology-Test-Conclusion" scientific approach and it also encourages them to be critical of pre-conceived ideas.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Plus, explosions keep the kid's interest really effectively.

    • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:48AM (#32565064)

      also encourages them to be critical of pre-conceived ideas.

      That is not going to fly in the bible belt.

      Locally they call it the "Science Technology Engineering Math curriculum", often referred to locally as "The jobs that have gone to India curriculum" or the "future downsized/unemployed of America curriculum".

      It seems like a cargo cult, perhaps if we just tried harder to indoctrinate our youth into textile work or manufacturing, then those jobs would have magically stayed onshore ... because, uh ... because we wished really hard.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    In the old days, you went to university at what - 14? However, very few went there.
    The "problem" with this is that modern schooling of the social-democratic form has emphasised equality and coherence - hence, the class largely progresses for the first 10 years, up until you can get some differentiation, at the learning speed of the moderate-to-slow student. This is a conscious choice. Not to intentionally "keep people stupid", but because childhood is seen by many as a period to mess around and have fun an

    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      Not to mention, this caused a level of boredom and anguish at times which was a bit like getting stabbed in the eye and suffering literally a brain implosion

      A little juvenile delinquency made things almost bearable, for me anyway. I spent many an hour in class playing battleship on gridded math paper, and of course many an hour skipping out of school. I quietly read the newspaper and magazines in my high school calculus class. Since the district wanted to graduate kids on time whom failed a couple classes (to save money, I suppose) and I never failed a class, I took quite a few study halls.

      Will you separate out the brighest students, give them more attention and better tutoring, with the hopes that they do great things for your nation?

      Our local district cut all the funding for the "gifted and talented"

    • You're not paying for individual tutoring in public schools. You're paying for a system which provides a basic skill set which allows a majority of people to attain employment which is sufficient to keep them from delinquency and crime. That's the public benefit - fewer people with so few skills that larceny is the prime means of support.

      Generally, the middle 80% do okay in the schools. The bottom 15% are pretty much hopeless, and tend to drag down the middle, so by middle school they weed them out to the s

  • by AmazinglySmooth ( 1668735 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:40AM (#32564976)
    Many people consider design of a one-off prototype as engineering, but often real engineering means creating something that can be manufactured, or creating something that can be very reliable, or creating something that can be made cheaply. I have met many PhD's in engineering that only prefer to make a single working prototype just like they did to get their "engineering" PhD. Sure, the technology is cool, but if the target application requires more than one, what good is it?
    • by natehoy ( 1608657 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @11:08AM (#32565376) Journal

      Sure, but one-off prototypes are what get kids fascinated in engineering.

      The article talks of fifth-graders (in public school in the US, that translates to about 10-11 years old), at that age you're doing well to keep them interested long enough to complete a one-off and demonstrate that it works, especially in the modern world of passive consumption (TV, video games, etc) calling to them. Having them build a one-off out of Popsicle sticks, string, and duct tape that can lift a 2-pound brick will teach them a lot about material tensile strengths, reinforcement, planning, angles, etc. Most of all, it will teach them that this stuff is way cool, and they'll start experimenting. The ones who start experimenting and remain interested are the ones you choose for an engineering track.

      I agree that any applied engineering track should include things like reusing available components whenever possible, emphasizing durability, thinking carefully about ongoing maintenance (eg. don't put consumable or frequently-replaced parts in inaccessible places or make them too hard to remove/repair/replace). I've purchased enough stupid shitty designs (proprietary connectors on digital cameras? In 2010? Really? Seriously?) to agree that you are correct - we need people thinking about cheap mass production, maintainability, and durability.

      But an 11-year-old will be fully engaged when he/she has to build something to meet a specific goal. And that usually means a one-off. It's certainly appropriate to emphasize use of standard components (make them available) and to encourage durability in design (make it part of the goal).

      By the time you reach a PHD, hopefully you've learned to make and refine designs that are reliable and based on cheaply-available components whenever possible. It's certainly a valid point, and the PHDs that stick purely to one-offs have either slept through some of the most important lessons or they were never offered by their classrooms. But for a 5th grader, you just want to get them thinking about engineering principles, and offer them enough information to explore and want to learn more.

      "The mind is not a vessel to be filled. It is a fire to be kindled."
        - Plutarch

      At 11 years old, we don't want an engineer. We want someone who is excited about engineering and wants to learn more. We want that kid who sets the butter on fire because he just knew he could fix that radio and didn't get the whole AC/DC thing. (OK, that was me, but you get the point, and I was about 12 at the time).

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Nebulious ( 1241096 )
      By your definition, CERN is not a feat of engineering. Engineering, to me, is about systems. It's about taking many separate things making them function together to create something new. The purpose or application is moot. The real challenge of engineering is to account for the endless variables that can affect your product/system, from material properties to failure points. Engineering is the ability to weave the things and information you have to work with as seamlessly as possible. Yes, engineers m
    • by paanta ( 640245 )
      Engineering is about taking old solutions to problems and tailoring them to fit a unique case. The best part of engineering is, at least in my mind, about finding the most direct route to a sufficiently robust solution. Sometimes you need a mass-producible widget that works 99.999% of the time, sells for $500 and only costs $1.25 to make. Sometimes all you want is a collection of stick and twine that will hold together long enough to let you climb over those pesky prison walls.
  • LEGO League (Score:4, Informative)

    by ezratrumpet ( 937206 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @10:41AM (#32564982) Journal
    A particularly effective LEGO League coach, when handed a robot by erstwhile middle schoolers, proceeded to pull the robot horizonally. If it came apart, he handed the 'bot back to the team with two words: "Horizontal stresses."

    If it held together, he nodded, then pulled the robot up and down. If it came apart, he handed the 'bot back to the team with two words: "Vertical stresses."

    If the robot could handle stress, he asked to see what it could do on the scoring table.

    He also made sure that there were cookies, sometimes, and drinks.

    Good times, those.
  • When I was in grade 5, which was in the late 80ies, we were building lego technics robots and connecting them to Apple IIgs computers and controlling the motors with Apple Logo.

  • Being a technical person, I'm happy to see any attempt at showing students that science and engineering are interesting.

    However, the reality is that there are only a few "growth" professions left on our side of the world:

    • Law
    • Medicine (debatable now, but the professional organizations should keep things stable for a while)
    • Executive management
    • Investment banking
    • To a lesser extent, project management and "consulting"
    • Entertainment and sports

    Until "someine" stems the tide of outsourcing, and actually gets people t

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by vlm ( 69642 )

      All tertiary sector jobs, and all of them go away, eventually, after the primary and secondary sector go away. So, since we've destroyed the primary and secondary sectors, tertiary should be going away shortly.

      Law is not so healthy, no way for recent grads to be hired or pay off their loans. A dying industry.

      Medicine will collapse once no one can afford it anymore. We are in in that process, right now.

      Exec management is a great solution for approx 0.001% of the population, the other 99.999% can starve, I

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @11:08AM (#32565362) Homepage Journal

    Fifth graders are far too soft and slippy to make anything useful out of.

  • This is where BP's ideas are coming from
  • My Dad had a sign on his desk that said, "Siks munths ago I coodnt even spel injuneer. Now I are one."
  • Start with teachers playing the role of overpaid coke-addicted managers & sales people with no ethics telling them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it (despite knowing less than the 5th graders). Move on to telling them to steal designs and cut corners on safety in order to meet a deadline for the quarterly numbers. Weather they pull it off or not then becomes irrelevant. Tell them they cost too much and that Chinese and Indian 5th graders can do better work for 1/10th of the cost. Send them
  • I co-ordinate (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Monday June 14, 2010 @12:59PM (#32566930)
    An after-school program at my local elementary school where volunteers present on various topics. The presentations are less than an hour long and many have a big hands-on component. The kids clearly enjoy them as do the adults (presenters and attendees) and attendance climbed throughout the series and was pretty even among all grade levels K through 5. The minimum turnout was about 60 children and the maximum was over 90 (out of 380). They were held in the evenings after school. The presentations we started with were
    • The chemical history of a candle (Faraday's lecture)
    • Earthquakes (And what they do to buildings)
    • Your insides (the function of the heart, liver and kidneys with hands-on animal organs)
    • Nature (photos by a local naturalist)
    • Bio-mechanics (examples of levers in animal joints)
    • Scratch programming (inspired by an "ask slashdot" answer)

    . There was a write up in the local paper and lots of enthusiasm. I would say that the goals of the program were not so much education as...

    • To involve the community in the school
    • To spark interest in the subjects - each speaker was talking about their passion and that did come across
    • To emphasis that there are many things to engage in locally
    • To emphasis the idea that great results can come from finding something you love to do and working hard at it, genius is not a requirement to do good things

    It was a lot of fun and well received. The next batch of sessions will cover:

    • Nothing (The quantum vacuum and symmetry)
    • karate
    • Money
    • Reptile and amphibian diversity
    • 3d computer graphics
    • Astronomy
    • Battle of Gettysburg
    • Chemistry
    • DNA
    • Relativity


    So far it has not been too hard to avoid the conversation becoming religious, thankfully it has not become a big issue. I think the after school nature of the program and the fact that it covers things that are outside the curriculum releases a lot of pressure. I had intended that the presenters "aim high" with the subject matter and leave the kids that are interested to use their own initiative to find out more; and there is plenty of evidence that this is happening based on reports of classroom discussions and students telling me about the scratch programs they have created. It really is not an intent to directly teach anything, but I have come to believe that there are many subjects that seem unsuitable (such as relativity) but in fact are more hard to believe than hard to understand. I have also come to believe that the single biggest barrier to the schools working well is lack of parental involvement. Getting some parents to come to the school and join in any event is a huge undertaking and I think is the biggest potential benefit of a program like this.

    Perhaps we should just get the PTA to open a bar at the school


    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      Nature (photos by a local naturalist)

      Last time I tried that at the local elementary school, they put me on the sex offenders list.
  • Now I understand the new policy's 12:00pm to 12:30pm "lunch" 12:30pm - 2:00pm "Nap Time"
  • Textbook writers and professors knew all along that this stuff was elementary.

    May I recommend a book for this class?

    Elementary Differential Equations and Boundary Value Problems, 6th Edition []

  • by massive inflation. Weak dollar keep jobs inside USA, and that includes Engineering. No more excuses to outsource or to hire H1-Bs.

Nondeterminism means never having to say you are wrong.