Engineering in Elementary STEM Education
reviewed by Melissa Parks - June 07, 2018
Engineering in Elementary STEM Education by Christine M. Cunningham is a multi-layered narrative focused on the importance of providing elementary students with the opportunity to engage in engineering. In just under 200 pages, the author presents three main components: introducing engineering to elementary education; considerations for curriculum design, instruction, and learning; and looking toward the future.
In Part One, Introducing Engineering to Elementary Education, the author makes the argument for why engineering should be part of the elementary school experience. Based on the core beliefs that engineering fosters problem-solving skills and can increase motivation, engagement, responsibility, and agency while promoting educational equity, Cunningham paints a convincing picture that will inspire educators to rethink their practice. While acknowledging the issues with an elementary school day that is packed full of existing obligations, Cunningham makes the argument that rethinking current practices and incorporating engineering (which she is quick to point out is not the same as science) is a much needed experience for students. She posits that if students have the opportunity to act as engineers from an early age, they will develop into creative, persistent problem solvers that are capable of handling more complex issues as they get older.
In Part Two, Consideration for Curriculum Design, Instruction, and Learning, Cunningham highlights what engineering looks like in the elementary classroom and addresses the realities of what is entailed in providing elementary students with engineering experiences. Using the frame of the Engineering Design Process, Cunningham describes how the process can be presented to a range of learners, including pre-k students. She also introduces student and teacher voices to illustrate points and provide examples. This section focuses on convincing the reader that engineering in the elementary classroom is feasible, fun, and fundamental for all students.
As Cunningham builds her case for the importance of engineering in the classroom, she spends considerable time addressing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). She takes great care to differentiate between science and engineering and emphasizes the importance of understanding the values of, and differences between, these core subjects. In this section, there is a particularly notable vignette that exemplifies students working through the engineering design cycle as they test, redesign, and ultimately celebrate success in developing a moving train (p. 71). The enthusiasm conveyed in this small vignette is a powerful tool that can serve as an impetus for teachers to rethink, and redesign, their classroom experiences.
Throughout the book, these vignettes offer glimpses into a wide range of classrooms. However, it should be noted that the author and her team collected these vignettes over the course of their time developing an elementary engineering program, Engineering is Elementary (EiE), with the Museum of Science, Boston, and she frequently directs the reader to the EiE site for videos referenced in the text.
After detailing how and why teachers should incorporate engineering experiences in the elementary classroom, Cunningham outlines six common concerns teachers express about implementing engineering opportunities: time, materials, behavior management, student buy-in, grading student work, and left-out students. For each concern, Cunningham provides realistic, simplistic, and manageable solutions. This section is filled with practical ideas that, when paired with the motivational vignettes presented in previous chapters, inspire the reader to take action.
In Part Three, Looking Toward the Future, Cunningham briefly shares the success stories of students by drawing from published studies from both inside and outside her team. She sums up the text by using the Engineering Design Cycle to recap the background of the EiE program, the success of its participants, and the ways in which she and her team hope to inspire educators to improve and expand the engineering experience for elementary students.
A strength of the text is the authors ability to break down a big idea or new curricular experience into small, manageable steps. Cunningham also expresses the belief that elementary engineering has multiple entry points and, because of the many roles students play, that it is accessible to students who might not yet see themselves as engineers.
Written in a first person, reflective, narrative style, the book presents Cunninghams personal journey to make the STEM experience more accessible to all students. A resounding theme of the book is a plea for educators to make learning, specifically engineering, a portion of the already packed school day, namely because it supports learning for all students including girls, students from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in STEM, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students receiving special education service, and English learners (p. 2). The book will appeal to preservice teachers who are just beginning to develop their teaching pedagogies and to those more veteran teachers who want to freshen their instructional methodology.