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Engineering a New Kind of Curriculum

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

Washington state’s standards for education changed in 2013, but most schools are still altering their curricula trying to catch up.

One year after the state adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) aimed at making STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education more accessible and applicable for modern students, the STEM-focused network 100K in 10 offered announced a grant to award education groups with new ideas on how to improve STEM learning to meet the new standards.

In response, the similarly-focused organizations Washington STEM and Washington MESA teamed with the University of Washington (UW) to develop a better way of teaching the most underserved subject within STEM—engineering.

There’s not a lot of elementary-level engineering curriculum out there yet,” says Douglas Ferguson, a former fifth-grade teacher and current STEM integration specialist at Martin Sortun Elementary in the Kent School District.

Ferguson participated in the inaugural year of the Engineering Fellowship Program—the product of a whole summer’s work conducted by Washington STEM and MESA to interview students, teachers, and engineers on how best to cover the subject for elementary students.

The idea that emerged from these months of research was, essentially, to create a program by which school teachers could connect with engineering professionals and together design hands-on challenges to implement in class. Then, findings on the program’s overall impact could be assessed and compiled into a Playbook that other teachers and districts could draw from in bolstering their engineering curriculum.

Our goal was never to be proprietary about the program,” says Jesse Gilliam, communications director at Washington STEM. “So the playbook is our guide that people across the state can use to start something similar in their community.”

In 2016, Ferguson was one of thirty teachers working in Seattle, South King County, or Yakima who attended the Engineering Fellowship Program’s first summer institute at UW, where they spent five days collaborating with five engineering professionals and ten university students majoring in engineering in the hope that collaboration across their various disciplines would yield workable lessons to teach engineering.

Having the grad-students there was interesting because they had just come through school, so they have to be reminded that the 10-year-old version of them didn’t really have a good perception of how a classroom works,” says Ferguson. “Getting the groups to come together took some time, but when they did, the projects turned out much better than if anyone one group had tried something on their own.”

The training program included a review of the NGSS and equity issues facing schools in impoverished areas, as well as visits to some of UW’s most ambitious engineering projects. Based on these presentations and extensive discussion in groups, the teachers, engineers and students developed and test-ran four hands-on engineering challenges that would be simple, and inexpensive, enough to suit a fifth-grade public school classroom.

We had to do what I call cardboard engineering,” says Ferguson, “where you’re basically taking whatever you can find in the staff supply room and trying to design an engineering challenge around it.”

Teachers implemented the design challenges throughout the following school year, so for one week each time, their fifth-graders devoted roughly 40 minutes of class time to overcoming specific engineering challenges with real-world implications, like creating working trebuchets from popsicle sticks or designing their own solar-powered cars.

Ferguson, for example, had his students tackle a series of three closely-related challenges that together lent themselves to a natural learning progression—first, they were tasked with building a structure up to a certain height with only paper, popsicle sticks, and tape. Next, they were asked to make their structure stable earthquake-resistant; then finally, to turn it into a multi-story platform capable of functioning as a vertical garden. Ferguson is already planning to carry over the three-part project to teach his students in subsequent years.

Since engineering is, at its core, about problem-solving, the challenges implemented as part of the Engineering Fellowship Program are for students an unusual form of classwork that values experimentation and even failure as essential parts of the learning process. The engineers and university students continued to meet with teachers for monthly feedback sessions throughout the school year, and made occasional in-class visits to answer questions about their fields of expertise.

After the success of the first year’s Engineering Fellowship Program, Washington STEM and MESA had considerably less work to do in recruiting participants for the second. Ferguson did his part in spreading the word, so this year’s Fellowship now includes seven teachers from his district. He’s also continued his own involvement in something of a mentor role for teachers enrolled in the 2017-18 program.

This year’s program may be roughly the same size as last year’s, but Washington STEM and MESA are already looking at ways, beyond the Playbook, to scale up their efforts to improve engineering education for students who might otherwise be unprepared for the challenges of an increasingly technological employment landscape.

Right now we still have just 30 teachers engaged in the program,” says Gilliam, “but there’s room for a lot more.”