Monday, April 9, 2012

Engineering for Kindergartners

This morning I gave a presentation at the STEM conference in Stowe, Vermont sponsored by the Vermont Science Teachers Association and the Vermont Council of Teachers of Mathematics. My presentation on teaching math to children with Down Syndrome went well but what really caught my attention was the keynote address by Dr. Ioannis Miauilis, President and Director of the Boston Museum of Science. He had the group of science and math teachers riveted from the moment he said that engineering should be a part of the K - 12 curriculum and it should begin in kindergarten.

The most interesting  part of what he advocates for is the idea that we spend so much of our time in science education classes focusing on the natural world and so little time on the man-made world. We spend so much time teaching things that are so remote from students' lives, such as lessons about volcanoes and coral reefs to students in Vermont, and so little time on things that are part of children's lives such as how drinking a milk shake through a straw really works.

When I teach science education to my students I always try to make the distinction between science and design technology, which I think, is close to Dr. Miauilis' concept of engineering. In science the questions arise from the natural world whereas in design technology the questions arise from how we use science to deal with the natural world. In science we can study the properties of magnetism but in design technology we can use our knowledge of magnetism to solve problems. Even though there are standards for design technology in the Vermont Grade Level expectations I fear they are seldom addressed.

Perhaps it's time to implement, as Dr. Miauilis did when he was a professor at Tufts University, courses such as those on the science of cooking or the science of fishing. In other words, perhaps science needs to be more relevant to students' lives in a way that will attract more students into the formal study of the sciences and engineering. Such courses would have the same academic rigor as the pure science courses but would be much more relevant to students' lives and interests.

By the way, Dr. Miauilis is far more entertaining, engaging and humorous as a keynote speaker than he is in the YouTube video.

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