Academic journal article Science and Children

Engineer It, Learn It: Science and Engineering Practices in Action: Step into an Elementary Classroom to See What Next Generation Science Standards Practices Look Like

Academic journal article Science and Children

Engineer It, Learn It: Science and Engineering Practices in Action: Step into an Elementary Classroom to See What Next Generation Science Standards Practices Look Like

Article excerpt

Children in America today spend most of their time in human-built spaces: home and school, playgrounds and city streets, public parks and even farms. Children also spend most of their time interacting with technologies, from the banal (pencils and desks) to the new and flashy (iPads and cell phones). To succeed as citizens in the modern world, children need to know how such things come to be. When they understand that engineers design technologies--and when they understand the wide range of challenges that engineers address--children open their minds to new career possibilities.

Engineering is prominently included in the Next Generation Science Standards (Achieve Inc. 2013), as it was in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012). The National Research Council, authors of the Framework, write, "Engineering and technology are featured alongside the natural sciences (physical sciences, life sciences, and Earth and space sciences) for two critical reasons: (1) to reflect the importance of understanding the human-built world and (2) to recognize the value of better integrating the teaching and learning of science, engineering, and technology" (p. 2).

For nine years, our team has been developing and testing engineering curricula for elementary students. We're engaged in this endeavor because, like the National Research Council, we recognize the importance of technological literacy. In this article, we'll show how science and engineering practices can be integrated into the elementary classroom by providing snapshots of activities from one of our STEM curriculum units. The unit, focused on aerospace engineering, challenges students to design parachutes for a spacecraft that will land on a planet with an atmosphere thinner than Earth's.

Science and Engineering Practices

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) specifies that children should engage in eight science and engineering practices. In the following sections, we present scenes from an elementary school classroom that show children engaging in all eight engineering and science practices while they work on engineering parachutes. The activities we describe have been done successfully with students who are both experienced and not experienced with these practices. We also present examples in which these children, as they are engaged in engineering design, apply their scientific and mathematical knowledge and skills. We do this to illustrate how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be integrated, as the NGSS advocates.

Asking Questions and Defining Problems

The Framework notes that science and engineering have different goals. The goal of science is to create theories that explain how the world works, so scientists begin with questions related to this topic. The goal of engineering is to find a solution to a need or want, and so engineers begin with questions that define the problem, describe what success will look like, and identify constraints on how the problem can be solved (NRC 2012, p. 56). The NGSS states that elementary students are expected to ask both kinds of questions (disciplinary core idea ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems) (Achieve Inc. 2013, NGSS, p. 53; Achieve Inc. 2013, Appendix F, p.51).

In the "Designing Parachutes" unit, students ask both science and engineering questions. They ask about scientific phenomena related to parachutes, and they also ask about the criteria for (and constraints on) their parachute designs (performance expectation 3-5-ETS1-1: Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost) (Achieve Inc. 2013, p. 53). Now, let's go into the classroom and see what actually happens.

Mrs. A asks her third-grade students, "What information do you need to make sure that your team's parachute design is 'missionready'?" The students ponder this question. …

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