This article discusses features of various engineering programs developed for children to nourish them with engineering know-how from their childhood. Scientists believe that to encourage children to grow up wanting to be scientists or engineers it is necessary to have a culture that visibly values such professions and emphasizes their excitement. Reaching children early and giving them the tools they need is characteristic of the FIRST Robotics Competitions, which have been a major force in reviving children’s interest in hands-on mechanical activity in recent years. As a direct result of FIRST, there are thousands of teams of young people building robots that perform specified tasks. SAM Animation, built by Tufts professor Chris Rogers, is a stop-action program that helps kids visualize sequenced events and scientific concepts. The program combines the hands-on animation program with other communal aspects of learning to introduce hard-to-grasp concepts to students. This mingling of techniques helps all types of learners grasp the concept.
Maybe you’re an engineer thanks to your childhood. Experiences, interests, and the cultural milieu of childhood help set the stage for one's adult occupation and interests. But in this online age of electronic gadgets and diversions, some observers wonder if today's children will naturally be led to mechanical engineering and design.
They’re also curious about the role that cultural upbringing has to play in creating tomorrow's engineers and about what can be done to foster a love of engineering. And they’re making moves now to ensure children learn to build by hand and are introduced to engineering in the intuitive ways that interest them best.
“Video games have replaced hands-on tinkering,” said Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “No one tinkers with bikes, cars, or radios anymore. I learned engineering because I built ham radios, but my kids aren’t interested.”
Changes to the way cars and everyday devices like radios and clocks are made inhibit mechanical exploration, according to Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009), which argues for the value of manual labor.
“If you can’t even get the cover off the thing because there's no screws holding it on, then you can’t tinker,” Crawford said. “And tinkering is important because that's one way a young person begins to make their world intelligible. If you don’t feel you can have an effect on the world, you’re not likely to feel responsible for it.”
The culture a child is raised in also plays a role in whether he or she will turn to a science or engineering profession as an adult, said N.J. Slabbert, a researcher on the evolution of the technological professions.
“To encourage children to grow up wanting to be scientists or engineers it's necessary to have a culture that visibly values such professions and emphasizes their excitement,” he said. “Much evidence exists to show that we have been failing to create this kind of culture.”
Slabbert is co-author, with engineer Aris Melissaratos, of the book Innovation, The Key To Prosperity: Technology and America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (Montagu House, 2009).
Genetics also affect our occupational choices, but only up to a point, Slabbert said.
“If your inborn skills and interests are predominantly verbal you might go into politics, law, or show business,” Slabbert said. “Your choice will also depend on factors including the household you grew up in and the overall values of your society.”
Andanastuti Muchtar, an engineering and materials science professor at the National University of Malaysia, became particularly interested in ways society and culture nurture future engineers when she began a one-year exchange program at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. Her family, including her three young children, accompanied her.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime for the kids and I to experience living in Germany for a year,” she said. “I saw how my own kids develop and recognized a difference. They became very creative after their stint in the German school and kindergarten.”
Because Muchtar's undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering, she was particularly aware of differences between her home country and Germany when it came to children's play. She became the lead author of a paper about her experience, which appeared in the May 2009 issue of European Journal of Social Sciences.
One of Muchtar and her children's first impressions of Germany was the playgrounds: They were exceptionally different from those in Malaysia, Muchtar wrote in the paper, “Nurturing Creativity in Young Children for Heightened Engineering Prowess.”
“In many parks and children's play areas in Germany, the play equipment and play structures are made from wood and metals. They’re sturdy and last a lifetime,” she wrote. “Interestingly, these come equipped with miniature engineering accessories or gadgets such as shovels, mini transporters, pumps, cranes, pulleys, ropes, drum pipes, etc. The setup encourages inquisitive young minds to explore, feel, touch, and get their hands really dirty.
“The children learned quickly to not just play with sand and make sand castles; for instance, they also figured out how to use proper equipment to shovel, collect, and trans-port sand. Or to pump water and create irrigation canals in the sand,” Muchtar wrote. “The children had to think in order to be able to play, but because it was such fun thinking, the children were not burdened with the effort. On their own, the children smartly guessed that it was all engineering work, and they loved playing. It was an early development for love of engineering and technology.”
This is an early imprint in engineering education among the German children, she added.
Malaysian playgrounds, on the other hand, are some-what too safe and too easy, Muchtar said.
“Children are only expected to climb, slide, jump, swing, and crawl or balance themselves on the play equipment,” she wrote. “This play equipment offers less maneuverability for children to explore their creative senses. There is also less emphasis on problem solving. Most of the time children do not need to actively figure out how to make certain play equipment work.”
Muchtar also brought her materials science background to bear on her observations.
“In Malaysia, the play structures are almost entirely made from brightly colored polymeric materials which, after a while, sadly die a natural death out of lack of maintenance,” she wrote.
As another introduction to engineering at a young age, German children routinely build structures from Lego blocks. In fact, Legos are almost a national pastime of German children, Muchtar said.
“In Germany, almost every child plays with Lego bricks, and they’re not simply for making simple miniature houses and trucks,” she wrote. “The Lego bricks come in various shapes and sizes, from the basic Lego building bricks to very complex engineering structures and designs.
“Children participate in Lego workshops that engage them in design classes. On their own, children also learn to design and build the fastest car in order to win in car races,” she added. “Thus, manipulating the Lego set in the workshops leads children to exercise their divergent thinking skills, which become the basis for the ability to think ‘outside the box’ or to think creatively.”
Germany's widely acknowledged engineering prowess may perhaps be the result of this early engineering exposure, Muchtar said.
Joy of Building
To help students become future engineers, Chris Rogers of Tufts has long been interested in the best way to teach engineering to elementary, secondary, and college students. Engineering needs to be part of the curriculum from a young age, he said. And it should be introduced to kids in ways that interest them and taught in a manner consistent with how children learn, he said.
Lego, for instance, has found a way to reach kids who have left off tinkering with their hands in favor of playing video games and toying around on the computer, Rogers said.
The Danish toy company now sells a series of video games that have the same story lines as some of its building sets. The games use the same mini figures. The company will release Lego Universe in October, a multi-player video game environment, to allow kids to build virtually as well, Rogers pointed out. (A pre-release preview of the game is online at universe.lego.com.)
As Rogers sees it, kids who are led to Lego bricks discover the joy of building, and the place to begin engineering training is in kindergarten and elementary school. But today's children, surrounded by a more electronic and less mechanical environment, will need new learning tools if they’re to be enamored of engineering and design.
Reaching children early and giving them the tools they need is chartacteristic of the FIRST Robotics Competitions, which have been a major force in reviving children's interest in hands-on mechanical activity in recent years. As a direct result of FIRST, there are thousands of teams of young people building robots that perform specified tasks.
FIRST turns to Lego bricks to engage its young competitors. There is a Lego League for children in grades four through eight. The Junior FIRST Lego League is for youngsters in kindergarten through third grade.
Rogers has a long background in creatively teaching engineering principles to children. He spent his first sabbatical at Harvard University and at a kindergarten in a Boston suburb to study the best ways to teach engineering. At Tufts, he's started a number of new programs, including teaching elementary and secondary students robotics with Lego bricks and introducing engineering principles through building and playing musical instruments. He's also director of Tuft's Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, or CEEO, which focuses on introducing engineering principles into elementary and high school curricula.
The center's instructors believe through engineering they help students develop the skills that can aid in transforming the physical world into a world with improved excitement for learning, higher quality of life, better health, and greater environmental responsibility and awareness, according to the organization.
Rogers has also worked with Lego to develop Robolab, a robotic approach to learning science and math now used in more than 50,000 elementary and high schools around the world, he said.
Robolab marries the physical with the digital. A hands-on approach helps kids take in concepts central to engineering better than if they interacted with only their computers, Rogers said.
“The problem I have in the classroom is that it's one child per mouse,” he said. “I wanted to ask: How can you use computer as a tool but not as a central teaching tool? How can you have kids working together to solve engineering problems?
“So robotic stuff is huge because you can argue with friends about where to place the eyeballs, but you also have to go to the computer and give your robot its behavior,” he said. “There's all this interaction, discussion, and argument about what's physically going on in front of the kids.”
A project he worked on with his son inspired him to bring stop-action movie making into the classroom.
“When he was in fourth grade, my son decided he didn’t want to write a report; he’d rather make a movie, but there was no easy software so it took him forever,” Rogers said. “There's a number of people like my son who, if you ask them to write about a subject, you might get the impression they don’t understand it, but if they can tell you about that subject in a different way, you’ll find they know it better than you thought. Students need multiple ways to represent what's in their minds.”
That insight got Rogers thinking. Shortly thereafter he received a National Science Foundation grant to create SAM Animation, a stop-action animation program designed for students and teachers that Rogers now uses at the CEEO. It is available for download at SAManimation.com.
The stop-action program is certainly more hands-on than watching a video or even playing a video game, because students animate objects themselves, almost as though they’re working with Gumby and Pokey. The students animate a sequence of events, which Rogers said helps bring an aspect of before-and-after and cause-and-effect—vital to engineering—to the project.
Rogers combines the hands-on animation program with other communal aspects of learning to introduce hard-to-grasp concepts to students. This mingling of techniques helps all types of learners grasp the concept. For example, take the particulate nature of matter, a particularly hard-to-understand abstraction for most children.
“You can model air as a bunch of molecules moving around, but showing them there's objects bouncing around in the air between here and the wall is quite a jump,” Rogers said. “They start off trying to show in SAM what's going on. They argue amongst themselves to get a consensus about what's going on, and then they look at other movies. The teacher also asks questions to show flaws in the current model until students reach true consensus. Eventually they find the accepted solution.”
The students are also working in teams, arguing with each other, and failing with their initial designs and prototypes, Rogers said. All these skills and lessons are vital to the budding engineer.
“We want you moving around and arguing and failing,” he said. “Elementary students, if they have success right away, they don’t learn that failure is okay, and that tends to reduce creativity, which, like skiing, is about failing lots of times before succeeding.”
For her part, Muchtar is again teaching at the National University of Malayasia. But she hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned during her family's German sojourn. She's now part of a research group on the development of playgrounds for children in Malaysia. She plans to contribute what she learned from studying German playgrounds in the hope of improving the learning experience of Malaysia's children through their play.
During her year abroad, Muchtar found that the German culture emphasizes creative development in young children.
“Inadvertently, inherent creativity that may prove useful later as an engineer is developed and secured in young children as they have fun playing in the playground or even at school,” she said.
The physicality of play and the way it caters to all types of learners is also successful in the elementary-school classroom where budding engineers are made, Rogers added. The more hands-on instruction, the more arguing and brainstorming allowed, the more you’ll find kids are excited to learn, he said. And the same is true of kids in the home.
“It know it's easier to say to your kids, ‘Go play your video games,’ ” Rogers said, “but think about saying, ‘Let's go outside and build something.’ ”