A Head Start in Engineering Can Begin at Home

Homemade catapults can be a great launching pad for at-home engineering activities.

Homemade catapults can be a great launching pad for at-home engineering activities.

Wait, what?

Could we be doing engineering outreach all wrong? Or more specifically, doing it in all the wrong places?

Engineering outreach happens all over the place, of course – school and afterschool, college campuses, company workplaces, and elsewhere. We did a whole report on exactly this topic.

But kids spend most of their time, up to 80 percent of their waking hours, at none of these places. Mostly they’re at home.

Bringing it home

For engineering to become a meaningful part of kids’ current and future lives, it needs to be part of their home lives. “Sure, that’s easy, because we have lots of time and energy to make engineering part of our family time,” said no parents ever.

But engineering at home doesn’t have to be difficult. Below are some great, simple ideas for how to get started.

First, though, let’s think about why it even matters.

Parents wield great influence on kids’ attitudes and ideas about work, and lessons from the early years often persist for years to come.

Parents wield great influence on kids’ attitudes and ideas about work, and lessons from the early years often persist for years to come.

How kids decide things

For all that teachers, role models, guidance counselors, and other adults in their lives shape kids’ future study and work choices, the most important voice in their heads is still their parents. This phenomenon seems especially pronounced in engineering, where having a family member in the field particularly influences kids to enter the field.

At about 1.6 million strong, though, engineers make up only one percent of the entire U.S. workforce of almost 160 million people. Such small percentages severely limit the number of kids who will organically gain exposure to the field in their home environments.

For engineering at home to take place at scale, a lot of non-engineering parents are going to have to start grappling with how to make engineering part of what they talk about and do with their kids.

Worth it, though

The effort promises real benefits:

  • Engineering activities at home show the kids’ most influential role models – their parents – exemplifying critical cognitive skills: learning, testing, failing, improving, communicating, among others.
  • Using the word “engineering” in the context of shared, creative, home-based activities makes it a comfortable term for kids. As they encounter “engineering” later on, they will see it at least as familiar, and perhaps even appealing and appropriate for them to choose as a major or career.
  • Using the engineering design process to create new “technologies” turns kids into producers, not just consumers, of technology. In our technology-saturated lives, comfort with or even command over technology is vital to citizenship.
The Curiosity Machine provides a rich, online environment for families interested in bringing engineering into their home lives.

The Curiosity Machine provides a rich, online environment for families interested in bringing engineering into their home lives.

How it can work

Several programs explicitly focus on helping families making engineering part of their home lives.

  • The Curiosity Machine is an online, video-based tool that guides families in home-based, STEM-oriented projects. It details the materials required, provides video inspiration and instruction, and connects families with mentors in technical fields able to help with questions and problems. Challenges are almost all engineering-based and require little or no previous knowledge.
  • Family Engineering starts with a book of activities and planning guidance to help families get started with at-home engineering activities. Resource kits are also available, and the organization offers “Family Engineering Nights” for interested schools or organizations.
  • The Issaquah School District in Washington state shows how educators can work to engage families in school-supported engineering activities that can translate into home activities, as well.

Still easier ways to get started

Even without the guidance that such (possibly costly) programs might offer, though, families can do engineering projects on their own. Some simple guidelines will help make the activities described below into real engineering experiences for kids:

  • Use the words “engineering” and “technology.” These words describe, first, the process and, second, the outcome of what they do. Attaching these words to the fun and creativity of the project gives them a friendly inflection for kids.
  • Make the process a simple, explicit part of the activity. The engineering design process can be as simple as, “imagine, make and break, make it better.” But naming it as a process and guiding kids through it, step by step, is key.
  • Do it together, as parents and kids. Engineering is fundamentally collaborative, and the resulting “technology” is always better as a result of shared effort. But kids should drive the process, and adults provide the guardrails needed to reach some kind of finished product.
Cardboard boxes can be the raw materials for a full urban planning project, in which kids design, map, develop, and maintain their own invented city.

Cardboard boxes can be the raw materials for a full urban planning project, in which kids design, map, develop, and maintain their own invented city.

Awesome at-home engineering activities

With the home engineering environment properly prepared, take a look at some of our favorite ideas for getting started below. These activities all provide ample opportunity to apply simple engineering approaches and terms to projects that are also super fun and easy to do.

Try one or two of these and just see how great fun and real learning will follow! Then try the rest. We’ll be eager to hear which ones you like the most.

And please share any other home engineering activities you know of and like. Once you start seeing things around the house with your engineering-trained eye, almost any activity can fit the bill. We know you have friends and colleagues who’d be interested in this kind of thing, too, so feel free to pass this along to them, too.


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

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

The updated version of our Start Engineering Career Guide is an all-in-one resource for getting middle and high school kids excited about engineering.

We’ve also got great new posters.

And remember, our books cover the entire PreK-12 range. Get the one that’s right for you at our online shop.


Photos: The Curiosity Machine banner, courtesy of The Curiosity Machine; cardboard city, courtesy of Lemon Lime Adventures.