Elementary School Engineering Answers the Bell

 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  used by permission

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, used by permission

Knock, Knock

Engineering isn’t getting into elementary school classrooms any time soon. It’s already there. Next Generation Science Standards include engineering as a core concept, and the inquiry-based learning central to engineering is everywhere in the standards’ framework and practices. But these standards are, if anything, a lagging indicator. Engineering has already staked a great claim on space in elementary school classrooms across the country.

It Just Works

Research has clearly established engineering as a subject fit for elementary school learning. Engineering lessons, designed well and presented effectively, can enhance student learning in science and math, when integrated into existing lessons in both areas. And as a stand-alone topic, it captures attention, too. After bringing engineering into a 2nd-grade classroom, one Ohio teacher reported that her kids kept asking, “When are we going to able to be engineers again?”

Research into engineering as an elementary school subject keeps finding similar results – K-12 students and teachers alike show greater content knowledge and interest in engineering, as well as in science, technology, and math, more broadly, after they’ve encountered engineering through high-quality classroom instruction and curriculum materials. Cutting-edge work is going on all across the country:

Engineering can be academic glue, binding complex math and science concepts to students’ real-world experiences, leading to learning that sticks.

Engineering Curriculum Efforts

Forward-thinking people in engineering education have been long at work on making engineering a viable part of elementary school curricula.

  • TeachEngineering is a digital library of K-12 engineering lessons, started over 15 years ago by a team of engineering faculty from five schools. It offers over 200 lessons suitable for elementary school use, keyed to state and national standards, with ample resources to support teachers’ implementation of the content.
  • Around for over 10 years, Engineering is Elementary offers 20 units that enable teachers to integrate standards-based engineering content into their science teaching. Educators inside and outside the programs use it to prepare teachers to deliver engineering lessons, and it’s in over 3,000 schools, touching over 45,000 teachers.
  • Just published, The Go-To Guide for Engineering Curricula, PreK-5 provides an authoritative guide to understanding and identifying the key issues and core concepts at work in making engineering content a useful part of elementary school curricula.

Helping Teachers Teach

Curriculum does not stand on its own, of course. You need qualified, confident teachers to make it work in the classroom. Here, too, substantive work has been long in gear.

  • The NSF GK-12 Program, started in 1999, sends engineering students in K-12 classrooms to help teach engineering, provide role models to students, and build K-12 teachers’ content knowledge in all STEM fields. It has funded over 200 projects at more than 140 different universities throughout the country.
  • Project ATOMS, housed at North Carolina State University, works to give teachers in training new kinds of tools to make them effective in STEM areas. The engineering piece has struck chords. One teaching candidate, among many who became engineering fans, wanted, “More STEM classes … We had that one engineering STEM class. I would have liked more than just one.”
  • In our survey of K-12 engineering outreach programs at colleges and universities, over 60 percent of responding schools (47 out of 77) were providing teacher professional development of some kind. Among the highlights is James Madison University’s nearly famous ISAT 501 Workshop in Technology: Children’s Engineering, which many teachers in Virginia reference as pivotal in their training as educators.

Engineering a Whole School

 MA Education,  used by permission

MA Education, used by permission

All of this activity has shown up in actual elementary schools. STEM Academies are rife on the ground, as any parent of school-aged children knows. But specifically engineering-denominated elementary schools are popping up across the country, too, in Illinois, Connecticut, Texas, and Minnesota, to name just a few places.

A clutch of such schools has formed in North and South Carolina, not coincidentally situated within range of NCSU’s The Engineering Place, led by the tireless Liz Parry and Laura Bottomley. Two signal examples are Rachel Freeman School of Engineering and Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering. The Engineering Place teamed has trained teachers in about half of the 100 counties in North Carolina and even reached north into Pennsylvania and south to Georgia.

It's Everywhere

We’ve seen nationwide breadth in elementary school engineering activities through sales of our elementary school book, Dream, Invent, Create. Teachers from California to Connecticut, Minnesota to Georgia have used it to make engineering accessible and interesting to their students.

From our view, engineering in elementary schools will only grow and evolve. Forces inside and outside elementary education are working together on this matter. What’s your view? Have you seen engineering at work in elementary schools? How does it work or not? Let us know in the comments or directly. Love to hear about it.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com