Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More artsy science and science appreciation, II

This time it's a movement to introduce engineering classes to elementary schools, as reported by an article in yesterday's New York Times entitled Studying Engineering Before They Can Spell It.

As The Times Reports:
Spurred by growing concerns that American students lack the skills to compete in a global economy, school districts nationwide are packing engineering lessons into already crowded schedules for even the youngest students, giving priority to a subject that was once left to after-school robotics clubs and summer camps, or else waited until college.
These priorities have trickled up to the federal government:
Congress is considering legislation, endorsed by more than 100 businesses and organizations like I.B.M. and Lockheed Martin, to promote engineering education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
And translate into yet more education spending:
In Manassas, Va., which has a thriving biotech industry, the local school district has spent $300,000 on a children's engineering program since 2008, equipping its six elementary schools with tool kits for projects like making musical instruments from odds and ends, building bridges with uncooked spaghetti and launching hot-air balloons made from trash bags and cups.
Who knew toolkits involving odds and ends, uncooked spaghetti, and trash bags could cost a local school district hundreds of thousands of dollars?

The article cites several other examples of elementary school engineering projects.  In Mary Morrow's classroom in Glen Rock, New Jersey:
First graders were recently challenged with helping a farmer keep rabbits out of his garden.

In teams of four, they brainstormed about building fences with difficult-to-scale ladders instead of doors and setting out food decoys for the rabbits. They drew up blueprints and then brought them to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.

Then they planned to test their ideas with pop-up plastic rabbits. If the fences were breached, they would be asked to improve the design.
And at the new Midway Elementary School of Science and Engineering in Anderson, South Carolina:
kindergartners celebrated Groundhog Day by stringing together a pulley system to lift a paper groundhog off the floor.
Not all are enthusiastic about this trend:
As these lessons have spread, some parents, teachers and engineers question how much children are really absorbing, and if schools should be expending limited resources on the subject.
William E. Kelly, a spokesman for the American Society for Engineering Education and former dean of the engineering school at Catholic University in Washington, cautioned that engineering lessons for youngsters should be kept in perspective.

"You're not really learning what I would call engineering fundamentals," he said of such programs. "You're really learning about engineering."
Learning about engineering.  Sound familiar?

Indeed, educators in Glen Rock invoke two other all-too-familiar educational priorities:  real life connections and social skills:
Here in Glen Rock, where students have long excelled at math and science, administrators and teachers decided to incorporate engineering into the elementary grades to connect classroom learning to real life, as well as to instill social skills like collaboration and cooperation that are valued in the work force, said Kathleen Regan, the curriculum director.

"They have to have the thinking skills of an engineer to keep up with all the innovation that's constantly coming into their world," Ms. Morrow said.
Ms. Morrow's enthusiasm is share by her students--at least those quoted:
"It gets your brain going," said Elizabeth Crowley, 7, who wants to be an engineer when she grows up. "And I actually learn something when I'm doing a project -- like you can work together to do something you couldn't do before."
But not all these students are sure what engineering is really about:
In the kindergarten class that was designing homes -- none out of hay, wood or brick -- for the three pigs, Ms. Morrow started the lesson by asking the 20 children sitting cross-legged on the carpet if they knew what engineers do.

"They can write poems?" one girl guessed.

"Well," Ms. Morrow allowed, "they could write a poem about something they build."
Again, building things--never mind writing poems about building things--does not entail learning engineering. As James writes at JoanneJacobs:
It’s great that these children enjoy their projects, but it’s a mistake to convince them that it’s engineering. At best it’s iterative problem solving, which any decent machinist, farmer, carpenter, parent, etc. should be expected to do. Engineering as a discipline specifically involves the application of scientific/mathematical principles to design or develop a product or a process. By the standards exhibited in the rabbit-proof garden project (e.g., setting out food decoys) the typical scarecrow could be considered a piece of engineering.

The irony is that some of the students who are most likely to be future engineers (predominately left-brained kids) will hate the the art-project portion of the project; i.e., bringing their project “to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.”
Another irony is that one of the experts quoted in the article as concerned about what students learn from these projects is the same person who is responsible for selecting the Investigations math curriculum for an Education School-School District partnership school in Philadelphia.  If you want to give students the math background they need to become engineers, Investigations, which earns an "F" from mathematicians and scientists who have reviewed it, is one of the worst programs you could possibly choose.

Combining Reform Math programs like Investigations with these kinds of hands-on engineering curricula turns some students off completely, while selling others yet another pipe dream--one that ends as soon as they try taking real math and engineering classes in college.


ChemProf said...

I worry about the "pipe dream" issue. I see so many students who have a goal that is impossible to them due to poor math preparation (mostly students who want to be doctors who can't handle chem or physics).

I see another related issue with this "engineering appreciation." A lot of my students describe their dream job, and it is as a docent, someone who helps others with science/engineering appreciation or (as they say) non-traditional education. The problem is that these are volunteer jobs, not a way to make a living! Somehow, these kinds of programs give them the sense that there is a future there, and I haven't figured out how to convince them otherwise.

LT said...

I have decided to homeschool my children because I feel that schools are failing miserably when it comes to giving students a strong foundation in math, writing, geography, languages and the sciences.

A child who builds a bridge out of spaghetti is learning nothing more than they would learn from building blocks or any of the other kinds of things children build as part of their play.

Play is a hugely valuable part of learning but my view is that my children can and will play at home. I want them to learn at school. Isn't that supposed to be the point of school?

People who design education programs need to understand that the years spent studying and working to gain expertise in some area means something. The idea that young children can solve problems that require vast amounts of knowledge and experience is ridiculous.

Schools should focus on giving children the basics they need, so that they can someday work up to that level of expertise. Teaching structural engineering to kindergartners is misguided. Give them a solid start in math, reading and some introductory science instead.

Anonymous said...

"to connect classroom learning to real life"

The rabbits problem is way beyond the capacity of elementary age children. In real life, if presented with a problem like this, you would need to consider economics.

How much produce is the farmer losing due to rabbits? How much can he afford to spend on the problem?

Also, how many acres are you trying to protect? Ignoring the fact that the rabbits would simply burrow under a wall, would it be practical to build a wall and ladder system around x number of acres? How much would it cost to maintain on an annual basis?

Young children have no real concept of size, financial or physical, so they would not be capable of dealing with these issues. They don't comprehend how much $100,000 is or how much 100 acres is.

Would elementary level children consider the possibility of somehow killing the rabbits as a solution? Is this something we even want young children to think about?

This rabbit problem would be great for high school students. But it is really age-inappropriate for young children. It simply gives kids a false sense of how the real world works.