Friday, November 8, 2013

Engineering at All Ages

By Ranada Robinson.

Although my son is only one year old, I find myself thinking about his educational options at least once a day. And not just where he will go for pre-K, but for elementary, middle, and high school as well. I can’t help it. When I purchased my house years ago, I wasn’t thinking anything about public school districts, and now that I have a child, I’m wondering if I will need to cross my fingers and toes that we will win a charter school lottery or if I should take out a loan so that I can afford private school. I am a data wonk and look at school performance for clients on a regular basis, so of course, I took a look at the statistics for the schools we’re zoned for, and frankly, they appear scary.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, with my colleague Christa Tinsley Spaht for a familiarization tour. There are several gems in this charming city, including their NEXT program (and its NEXT Innovation Center), the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (ICAR), and a bustling downtown full of yummy restaurants and activities for all ages. But what caught my eye was the AJ Whittenberg Elementary School. This “School of Engineering” opened in Fall 2010 and has a school-wide engineering curriculum and has engineering labs throughout – even the structure itself will be used to teach students about the importance of conservation and recycling. The students – who range from four-year-old Kindergarten to fifth grade – participate in regular hands-on experiential learning and engineering and science are incorporated across all subjects. It’s a former scientist’s dream! Best of all, it’s part of the downtown redevelopment effort and is a public school – not a magnet or charter school. The school is open to anyone in Greenville County on a first-come, first-served basis, and students do not have to meet any special criteria or win any lotteries to attend. I was in awe and left wondering if I can find a reason for Market Street to open an office in Greenville so that I can enroll my son there.

I’ve seen several examples of career academies as alternative high school models across the country, especially in communities that have clearly identified their targets and want to make sure they’re preparing homegrown talent for future jobs. I’ve also seen examples of middle school specializations. However, it’s not every day that we see communities start so early in the talent pipeline exposing children to STEM – engineering in particular – so wholly. So of course when I got back to our office, I did a little research to find out who else is engaging their elementary students at this level. Here is a sample of what I found:

The Sioux Falls School District, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has its Lowell Math, Science, and Technology Elementary School; Rosa Parks Global Studies/World Language Elementary School; and Eugene Field A+, which integrates fine arts into all instruction.

In Hartford, Connecticut, Capitol Regional Education Council Schools has its Academy of Aerospace and Engineering Elementary, which starts at the Pre-K level. The curriculum provides children with opportunities to conduct investigations, use the scientific method to solve problems, and gather information.

The Martha and Josh Morriss Mathematics and Engineering Elementary in Texarkana, Texas, works with Texas A&M University’s Texarkana College of Arts and Sciences and Education and College of Engineering. The facility is an important part of this school’s educational experience as well. Within their STEM learning pipeline, which includes middle school and high school, they offer a robotics program and there is a robotic competition at each educational level, including the FIRST LEGO League for grades 4 through 8.

The New York Times featured this article, “Studying Engineering before They Can Spell It,” in 2010, and the description of first grade students in New Jersey figuring out how to help a farmer keep rabbits out of his garden excited me. It is easy to see how this foundation can be built upon throughout their educational journeys and transformed into tangible careers that the kids can visualize and feel confident about. There are many organizations out there designing curricula, such as the Museum of Science in Boston and their Engineering is Elementary (EiE) program and partners of the National Science Foundation, and wanting to work with districts to develop engineering elementary schools, such as the American Society for Engineering Education.

I would love to talk to my son in a couple of years over dinner about his latest experiment. It’s never too early to expose kids to problem solving and critical thinking and even social skills including collaboration. Communities who embrace curricula that include such interactive and practical learning will surely reap the benefits in the long run.