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Forging the Missing Link: Engineering for Children

By Emilio Campos, CEI Intern. A proper understanding of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection allows one to see clearly the fallacy that one need provide a ‘missing link’ to prove the theory sound. However, due to the ongoing argument in evolutionary biology on how to classify our ancestor, Homo habilis, I believe that there is some credence to my highlighting this species as a significant stage in human evolution.  Some evolutionary biologists classify Homo habilis, or ‘skillful human’, as being of the genus Australopithecus, but, though there are other reasons why the Homo classification is more appropriate, I feel that this species being the first of our ancestors to employ technology in their struggle for survival marks them as a significant departure from their predecessors.  After all, what is a tool if not a primitive piece of technology?  Although the technology that we are used to in the 21st century is a significant improvement upon a sharpened stone (to put it mildly), we should never forget the great contributions of our ancestors, and that even the wheel was once a cutting edge piece of technology.

What is technology? Anyone living in the first world in the twenty first century can give you examples of technology; however, defining the essential properties of technology is more elusive; one must be able to identify this essence in order to distinguish examples of technology from examples of nontechnology.  In response, the Virginia Children’s Engineering Council (VCEC) website lists four definitions, each of which suggests that a fundamental characteristic of technology is that it ‘involves the process of applying human intelligence and creativity to nature through labor in order to produce tools that have the capacity to satisfy human needs and wants.’

The VCEC proposes creative methods of teaching children how to think about technology so that they can become masters of the technology of the present and creators of the technology of the future.  It is important to teach students both how to use technology and how to think about it; teachers are certainly familiar with the former as they implement the use of computers in the classroom, but the rudimentary engineering and technological advances that bridge the gap between the lever and the calculator are not insignificant.

VCEC holds an annual convention and also is a portal for STEM resources, offers professional development for schools, and produces a journal, the Children’s Engineering Journal.   The Children’s Engineering Convention includes staff development for K-5 teachers and teacher demonstrations of ways to infuse technology activities into the Standards of Learning. Technology-based educational resources are also showcased there. At this year’s convention, teachers were given experiences in building pop up dioramas (paper engineering), building and flying kites (aerospace engineering), designing and flying gliders, designing marble runs using slopes and bridges made of recycled materials, inventing and constructing a gadget that can help perform a household task, and, my personal favorite and a return to the theme of the natural process that produced our tool making ancestor homo habilis, creating ‘modified’ animals with adaptations that will help the animal survive in a hypothetical futuristic environment.

Two recent articles (summer 2013) in the Children’s Engineering Journal (CEJ), demonstrate the value of this resource for school principals. Suzanne Blevins, a principal at Henderson Elementary in Montclair, VA, described her school’s journey to becoming a children’s engineering school, including establishing the initial Engineering Team.  Also in that issue, Sarah Willey, a first grade teacher at the same school, described how she implemented STEM in her first grade class. Her first project was creation of a pop-up spider book. Next they built fairy tale houses’”this included drawing a design plan. Each house included a moving door, a pop up, and characters from their stories.

For those of you who haven’t yet established STEM in your schools, you may be missing an important opportunity to stimulate student engagement and learning. As Suzanne Blevins indicated in her article, becoming a STEM school doesn’t happen overnight.  Whether it is giving teachers engineering experiences or creating a STEM projects for students,  taking a few steps can help you evaluate how STEM could fit with your school.


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