Engaging Elementary Students: Two Examples of Integrating Science and Engineering in the Classroom

By Morgan, Elise; Sargianis, Kristin et al. | Children's Technology and Engineering, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Engaging Elementary Students: Two Examples of Integrating Science and Engineering in the Classroom


Morgan, Elise, Sargianis, Kristin, Skophammer, Roger, Cunningham, Christine M., de Romero, Nancy Yocom, Murphy-Garcia, Kathleen, Children's Technology and Engineering


The Committee on Conceptual Framework for the New K-12 Science Standards states in the opening paragraph of its publication:

Science, engineering, and technology permeate nearly every facet of modem fife, and they also hold the key to Meeting many of humanity's most pressing current and future challenges. Yet too U.S. workers have strong backgrounds in these fields, and many people lack even fundamental knowledge of them. This national trend has created a widespread call for a new approach to K-12 science education in the United States. (p. 1)

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Included in this "new approach" is an explicit understanding of the relationship between science and engineering. This relationship provides important opportunities for greater learning about both subjects when engineering activities are integrated with science content in the classroom. Engineers rely on their understanding of mathematic and scientific concepts, materials, and their creativity in order to design the human-made world around us. Modeling this relationship is essential when facilitating engineering activities in the classroom. In turn, these engineering activities can serve to reinforce students' understanding of science concepts and skills. The Framework for New K-12 Science Engineering, which provides the basis for the Next Generation Science Standards, still under development, recommends the practice of using engineering to teach science. Schools and teachers across the United States are just beginning to tackle this challenge.

In this article, we present two examples of teachers utilizing engineering design challenges to help students apply their science knowledge to solve problems and design technologies. Students also practice a number of 21st century skills, including collaboration, creativity, and problem solving, as they work through these challenges.

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engineering windmills in second grade

Nancy Yocom de Romero, a second grade teacher at Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham, MA, has been integrating engineering into her science curriculum for over eight years. "It's like putting icing on the cake," she explains, "In science lessons, there are a lot of wonderful opportunities for hands-on learning, but engineering is where students get to make the learning their own. It takes them beyond basic comprehension and forces them to do higher-order thinking, like applying their science knowledge, analyzing data, and evaluating their designs."

The second graders in Nancy's classroom are completing a science unit on air and weather, in which students focus on the concepts that (1) wind is moving air, and (2) wind pushes on and interacts with different objects in different ways.

After engaging students in a number of hands-on science activities and discussions around these topics, including creating, using, and observing windmills and anemometers to discover ways that wind interacts with different objects, Nancy presents her students with an engineering design challenge: they will design blades for a windmill that catch the wind, spin when placed in front of a fan, and allow the windmill to lift weights (small washers).

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To give students some additional knowledge and experience with materials before designing their windmill blades, Nancy has students first build sails for a miniature sailboat, located on a track in front of a fan. She asks students to predict what materials, shapes, and sizes they think would work well for catching the wind, and encourages them to utilize their prior knowledge from earlier science activities.

Students then use a variety of materials, such as felt, aluminum foil, and wax paper, to create sails of a wide range of shapes and sizes. During testing, they tap into their observation skills as they notice how each sail catches the wind by measuring how far the sail moves along the track when the wind from the fan blows on it. …

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