Design the Future: Engineering Resources for K-12 Students
There’s a drought sighting on the horizon of STEM education and careers, and it’s got many people worried. The number of U.S. college students obtaining engineering degrees is dwindling at alarming rates, with one science writer citing that in 2006, only 4.5% of American college degrees were in engineering, compared to 33.3% in China.
A study conducted by Pratt School of Engineering found that, in 2004, the U.S. graduated 140,000 engineers (many of whom were foreign students who returned to their native countries), while China produced 517,225 and India 120,000. Experts worry that, while the latter countries actively encourage students to enroll in engineering programs, they see comparatively little promotion of engineering fields by U.S. schools. The dearth of U.S. engineering graduates recently attracted the notice of the U.S. government, in which the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness bemoaned the decline in numbers of U.S. engineers.
In a way, it’s surprising that so few U.S. students choose to study engineering in college. The desire to design and build appears to be hard-wired into humans: building blocks and Legos remain a perennial favorite toy of children everywhere. Older kids use tape, string, and glue to construct elaborate weapons, bridges, and other structures out of paper and cardboard, and many eventually progress to simple carpentry and electronics. In this era of uncertain job security and fluid career fields, the demand for qualified engineers remains strong worldwide. Yet according to studies, 85% of American students between the ages of 13-18 don’t consider engineering as a career option. The field isn’t even on their radar. What’s even more puzzling is that engineering apparently isn’t on parents’ radar either. The American Society for Quality published a report that found that, in addition to most kids not being interested in engineering, American girls aged 8-17 were more frequently encouraged to become actresses by their parents than to become engineers. I hope that finding causes you as much angst as it does me. Ultimately, the engineering profession is perceived as too difficult, too much work, and too boring by both kids and their parents.
So, in a nutshell, engineering has a PR problem. In actuality, engineers are the unsung heroes of modern design and construction. Their work makes our lives immeasurably better in countless ways, from the toys we play with, to the highways we use, to the plumbing and electricity that we enjoy, and so forth. Engineering isn’t simply a science, but an art as well. It’s incredibly creative, and requires boundless ingenuity and complex problem-solving skills. Engineering is an extremely diverse field, but at the heart of it, all engineers work to solve problems by designing efficient and elegant solutions and systems – form, function, and design. Engineering principles and concepts can be taught in classes dealing with science, math, economics, and social studies. So please – slip some engineering concepts into your classes, highlight the cool aspects of the profession to your students, and do your part to combat the inane Kardashianization of the nation. Someday, your students (and your country) will thank you for it.
This week I’ve selected three fun, cross-curricular hands-on lessons where students must use engineering principles to solve problems. We’ll also be featuring many more K-12 engineering resources throughout the week on our Gateway Twitter and Facebook pages, so be sure to check those out. Also, please read my colleague Peggy’s companion column (linked below), as she discusses ways to add engineering activities and lessons to your classroom.
Rain Machine (Solar Still)
Subjects: Engineering, Physical Sciences
Working in groups, students build simple solar stills filled with salt water and observe what happens when the stills are placed in the sun. The students then taste the water they have collected and discuss what has happened in their stills. One of the things that I like so much about this lesson is that students not only get to experience the hands-on design and construction of their stills, but also get to observe how they work, and how their stills can benefit humankind. This lesson was produced by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Education and Workforce Development site, which offers a host of lesson plans and activities for K-12 students.
Boxed In and Wrapped Up
Subjects: Geometry, Engineering
Students find the volume and surface area of a rectangular box (e.g., a cereal box), and then figure out how to convert that box into a new, cubical box having the same volume as the original. I like how this lesson uses a real-world problem and context: this lesson presents exactly what consumer packaging experts deal with on a daily basis. This lesson plan was developed by TeachEngineering, a collaborative project between faculty, students and teachers associated with five universities and the American Society for Engineering Education. TeachEngineering offers standards-based engineering curricula for K-12 teachers and engineering faculty to make applied science and math (engineering) come alive in K-12 settings.
Adaptive Device Design
Subjects: Engineering, Language Arts
This lesson focuses on the engineering of adaptive or assistive devices, such as prosthetic devices, wheelchairs, eyeglasses, grab bars, hearing aids, lifts, or braces. Students learn about the engineering process to solve problems, and work in teams to improve the design of a current or proposed adaptive device. I love how this lesson gets to the heart of what engineers do: design, build, and refine products to make our lives better. This lesson was produced by TryEngineering, a portal about engineering and engineering careers that offers K-12 lessons, activities, games, an Ask an Expert service, and other resources for students, teachers, counselors, and parents.