February 2014

Current Views

By Barry Sullivan, Program Director, ECEDHA

Engineering is Elementary

I did a double take when I read the headline on one of the news stories selected for this issue.  Did the article really describe an elementary school devoted to engineering?  Then I came across the editorial cited below
advocating STEM for preschoolers.

The closest things to engineering subjects available to me in high school—besides the standard math and science curriculum—were a couple classes in technical drawing.  I am glad to see students in high school and junior high enticed into learning basic engineering concepts through extracurricular activities in robotics and rocketry, not to mention the availability of complete high school engineering curricula such as the one developed by Project Lead the Way.

At first glance, the idea of teaching engineering at the elementary level or earlier may appear premature, however.  Having accepted the notion of introducing engineering prior to the onset of calculus in a student’s education, I think I’m ready to entertain the possibility of engaging an even younger audience.

Our culture encourages participation in organized athletics almost as soon as a child can walk.  As my own children embraced sports with enthusiasm, I tried to impress upon them the need to exercise the brain as well as the body. And just as different sports develop different muscle groups and physical skills, the brain needs the stimulation of a variety of mental activities—language and music, as well as mathematics and science—to fully develop its capabilities.

From this point of view, it would seem that an age-appropriate introduction to STEM topics is not only acceptable, but also essential to ensuring a child’s well-balanced intellectual development.  This is not to say every child should be placed on a path to a STEM career.  In a manner similar to athletics and music, early exposure would allow some children to discover an affinity for STEM topics while equipping all of them with the foundation for a better understanding of a technology-dependent world.

News stories like the ones cited here are encouraging, although the stories provide few details on how an elementary engineering curriculum is developed and what engineering professionals are consulted.  Whether or not ECE professors have been involved to date, the standing-room-only audience for the breakout session on STEM outreach at last year’s ECEDHA Annual Conference demonstrated a high level of interest within this community.

College-level engineering educators clearly have a vested interest in creating a cadre of well-prepared and inspired students to fill their first-year programs.  Attendees at this year’s conference will have the opportunity to discuss the potential of early engineering education when we revisit STEM outreach in Napa. Click here to register for the program.

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