If you were to peek through the door of most preschool classrooms or observe young children playing at home, you would likely find kids creating, tinkering, inventing and imagining. Their hands would be busy and their minds would be racing a hundred miles a minute with all different types of creative possibilities: A rollercoaster using foam pipe insulation! A rocket from a plastic water bottle! A bridge from paper and tape! These kids are engineers. Most just don’t know it. Yet.
I began my career as a high school technology and engineering teacher. During that time, I witnessed amazing ideas high school students developed and implemented around engineering-related challenges. I saw firsthand how students could begin to address real-world problems with their innovation. My own son, who was 6 at the time, became very interested in the students’ projects. Upon searching for an after-school STEM program for him, I realized such a thing did not exist. So, I began to dream of a program that would introduce STEM concepts to young children. In 2009, I founded Engineering for Kids, which brings science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to kids ages 4 through 14 in a fun and challenging way.
A recent study conducted by Intel Corporation revealed that 63 percent of teens have never considered a field in engineering. Additionally, 44 percent said they would consider engineering as a career if they knew more about it. Bingo. By exposing children to STEM-related classes beginning at age 4, we can help inspire them to consider engineering as a career. Many of our youngest students at Engineering for Kids are females. This is not statistically true in most fields of engineering. We need to catch girls while they are still young have not yet received gender stereotypes that may lead them away from an interest in engineering. I hope that through the classes, camps and parties we offer, both boys and girls will realize that the majority of engineers in the world — the ones who solve big-deal problems and invent all kinds of helpful gadgets and gizmos — do not wear blue and white striped hats and red bandanas around their necks. I hope they realize that they have already been in training as engineers as they have created, tinkered, invented and imagined.
Engineers use science, technology, engineering and math to change the world in both small and big ways. Though engineering education has been virtually absent from most elementary schools, plenty of classrooms around the United States teach science and math in a fun way. Many teachers are innovative and inspiring. What is different, then, about STEM education and its importance to the future success of our workforce?
• Integrated: For starters, it is an integrated approach to presenting and solving real-world problems. Students may work to design a bridge using a limited number of index cards to support a specific amount of weight. For a project like this, students need to consider mathematical concepts such as geometry and measurement in addition to scientific principles such as stress, tension and shear.
• Cooperative: STEM education mimics professions in the real world because of its collaborative nature. Students are encouraged to bounce ideas off one another and learn from each other’s mistakes and successes.
• Applauds failure as a step toward learning: One of the most important elements in a successful STEM program is what the students learn when their projects, plans and ideas fail. Many classrooms in the United States frown upon failure and are shamed when their less-than-superior standardized test scores are printed in the local paper. Many teachers do not feel like they have the time that is necessary for their students to learn from their mistakes. They must keep moving forward. STEM education applauds failure because it means that the learning is not finished yet. It means there is more problem solving to be done. It means that students get more time to create, tinker, invent and imagine. Something in which they excelled during their preschool years.
The total number of jobs in the United States is projected to grow by 10 percent between 2008 and 2018. The total number of STEM-related jobs is projected to grow by 17 percent during the same period of time, leaving 2.4 million job openings in STEM fields by 2018. If we can introduce children to STEM-related fields at a young age and encourage them that an integrated, cooperative approach to learning from our failures is vitally important to their education and the future success of our nation, we will have done our job. We will have inspired the next generation of engineers.