down arrowMenu

Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education

Designing Elementary Engineering Education from the Perspective of the Young Child

Researcher: Beth Dykstra Van Meeteren, Ed. D., University of Northern Iowa

As we were developing the Ramps and Pathways curriculum with 3 to 8-year-old children, we were fascinated with how engaged the children were year after year with Ramps and Pathways. They never seemed to tire of it. Were they that intrigued with force and motion? As I read the National Research Council's publication, Engineering in K-12 Education, it appeared to me that children may not have just been fascinated with opportunities to engage in rudimentary physics, it may have been the appeal of designing and engineering that was so engaging for the children.

Research Questions

A small research study observed and analyzed the actions of first-grade children in a constructivist classroom as they engaged in Ramps and Pathways. The study focused on the children's actions as they constructed their own technology of marble runs. The constant comparative method was used to (a) describe and catalog children's actions; (b) describe and categorize the different design process tools young children independently used; and (c) identify children's behaviors that potentially represented precursors to engineering habits of mind. The following research questions were used to guide the investigation:

1. What engineering habits of mind do young children engage with as they design and build structures during independent open-ended explorations that can lead to investigations?

2. What design process tools do primary grade students employ to construct structures used in Ramps and Pathways systems?

3. Is it essential for children to follow a linear design model to engage in the design process?

4. What kinds of problems can young children pose to themselves as they design and build?

Findings

Comparing Definitions for Engineering Habits of Mind

Term

NRC (2008) Definition of Engineering Habits of Mind

Operational Definitions of Engineering Habits of Mind in Young Children

Systems Thinking

Equips students to recognize essential interconnections in the technological world

Appreciate that systems may have unexpected effects that cannot be predicted from the behavior of individual subsystems

Adjusts both ends of a track

After adjusting one component, coordinates positions of other components before testing

Creativity

Inherent (part of the very nature of something, and therefore permanently characteristic of it or necessarily involved in it)

Generates own design

Flips, rotates, or repurposes materials

Considers different ways of arranging supports, tracks, barriers

Resists premature closure by continuing to add to complexity even after a successful test

Optimism

A world view in which possibilities and opportunities can be found in every challenge

An understanding that every technology can be improved

Does not abandon structure after a failed test

Uses failed tests as opportunities to find solutions

Tries again after multiple failed tests

Collaboration

Leverages the perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities of team members to address a design challenge

Asks for help from a peer

Considers suggestions of a peer

Asks to test a peer’s system

Uses peer’s system as a model

Provides encouragement and/or advice to a peer

Communication

Essential to effective collaboration,

Essential to understanding the particular wants of a customer

Essential to explain and justify the final design solution

Shares success of structure with peer

Explains success of structure with a peer

Asks for help and discusses problem with peer

Offers advice to a peer

Volunteers to build for another and asks what the peer wants in a design

Writes or draws about system

Attention to ethical considerations

Draws attention to the impacts of engineering on people

Draws attention to the Impact of engineering on the environment

Considers possible unintended consequences of technology

Considers the potential disproportionate advantages of disadvantages of technology for certain groups or individuals

Coordinates use of space with peers

Coordinates use of materials with peers

Takes responsibility for knock downs

Considers safety

Kinds of Problems Children Pose or Encounter

Macro Problem

How will I make the marble move using the materials provided?

Meso-Design Problems

Type of Problem

Description

Straight pathways

Making objects move on single section ramps of any length

Making objects continue to move on a series of tracks on a straight pathway

Making objects continue to move on a series of tracks on a straight pathway with target at end

Making objects continue to move on a pathway with hills

Making objects continue to move on a pathway with a drop

Making objects continue to move on a pathway with a jump

Changing Directions

Making objects turn a corner

Making objects continue to move on a pathway with angles not requiring a banking system

Making objects continue to move on a pathway with angles requiring a banking system

Making objects reverse direction (switchbacks)

More than one moving part

Making objects continue to move on a pathway with fulcrums

Targets

Making objects move (roll, fall, fly, etc.) into a containers

Making objects knock down or crash into a target (blocks, domino, animals, cars, etc.)

Micro-Problems

Category of Problem

Description

Slope

Movement or non-movement of an object (getting an object to move or stay)

Moving objects farther

Moving object faster and slower (to negotiate corners, switchbacks, drops, jumps, and hills)

Objects

Categorizing characteristics of objects according to how they move on an incline

Categorizing characteristics of objects according to how far they move

Categorizing characteristics of objects according to their speed or how fast they move

Categorizing characteristics of objects according to difficulty in changing its direction

Supports

Centering on one end of a supported ramp section and not the other end

Constructing a stable support (solid foundation, tall narrow blocks as opposed to a stable stack of blocks, etc.)

Placement of support to hold up ramp section

Placement of support to control degree of slope

Efficient placement of supports to build economically

Method of Connecting

Making objects move over a butted connection

Making objects move over an overlapping connection

Making objects continue to move along a pathway with a drop connection

Making objects continue to move along a pathway with a jump connection

Making objects continue to move along a pathway with a variety of angled connections