A sudden hush comes over the Thomas Hart Benton Elementary School every morning as the principal reads a riddle over the public-address system.
“With ‘ro,’ it’s gone, you’ve nothing, all right,” he says slowly, as little hands write down the clue with pencils on wide-lined paper. “With ‘bra,’ a black horse, with stripes of white.”
All day long, children who spot him will come up to principal Troy Hogg with the answer: “ze.” For their trouble, each will get a tiny plastic “brag tag” that looks like a light bulb to hang like a charm around his or her neck.
Sharing word riddles with elementary-school kids may not immediately seem likely to increase the supply of engineers in America. But it’s a revolutionary departure from an education system that relies heavily on rote learning, not curiosity and reasoning.
And this public elementary school in Columbia, Missouri is one of a growing handful that are focusing on such inquiry-based learning to teach engineering, along with science, technology, and math—the so-called STEM skills—as early as kindergarten and grades one through three to channel more children into those fields in their far-off adulthoods.
“We really wanted to give them a head start, to set the stage for them to understand that they can do that,” Hogg says. “Every kid, the younger the better, is just naturally curious, and sometimes as educators we tend to stifle that without meaning to.”
Fully a third of students lose interest in science by the third grade, and nearly half by the eighth grade, according to the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University. This at a time when the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that the nation will be short 2.7 million engineers and other science workers by 2018.
Teaching engineering in elementary school is one way to eventually fill that gap, says Anthony Murphy, the founding director of St. Catherine’s STEM elementary education center. “We need to start earlier in engaging kids in science,” he says.
Calls from employers to produce more engineers have prompted four states—Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon—to add engineering to their science standards beginning in kindergarten. A handful of public-school districts in Missouri, Ohio, and Washington are experimenting with elementary engineering, too.
While engineering programs in the elementary grades may not be filled with six-year-olds in lab coats doing calculus and physics, they’re not all that far removed from this image.
The high-tech Cedar Park Elementary STEM School in Apple Valley, Wisconsin, has a full-time engineering specialist and an engineering lab equipped with carpentry tools and electrical and mechanical materials where first-graders studying animal habitats design and build birdhouses, for example. The classrooms have SMART boards, LCD projectors, document cameras, and wireless microphones, and there are computer and tablet labs, GPS devices, digital cameras, and videoconferencing facilities, and the students keep their notes in science journals.
“Of course, they won’t be designing buildings or building rockets, but what you want them to do is learn the process and understand that prototyping and redesign is all part of that,” says Murphy, who now heads up a hands-on environmental education program called Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, or GLOBE.
“It might, in the lower grades, be something simple like building something using toilet-paper rolls,” Murphy says. “You might even start exposing the youngest kids to materials they might not normally be exposed to—for example, having them count gear wheels instead of beans when they’re learning how to count. They’re touching these things and being exposed to them early on.”
The momentum for teaching engineering in the lower grades is building, according to Murphy.
“There certainly is a trend starting for STEM to be incorporated into even kindergarten,” Murphy says. “Some of what’s driving that is that business is worried about the workforce issue. But there’s also a recognition that science has been left out in many schools—that there’s been so much focus on literacy and math that science was excluded from that.”
Children in almost every state spend less time studying science in elementary school today than they did 15 years ago, the advocacy group Change the Equation reported in September.
It’s too early to judge how effective engineering education in the lowest grades will be in reversing this decline; the Benton School, for instance—like many of the new STEM schools—opened only last year.
But Hogg, the principal, says he and his staff already see a difference.
“Kids are asking questions—kids who would normally just sit there,” he says. “They’ll ask more questions when they don’t understand something. They’re more inquisitive. That natural curiosity that wasn’t fostered at home, or even by us—we’re starting to see that spark come back.”
Photo courtesy of Thomas Hart Benton Elementary School