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Our students are currently benefiting from a partnership with the SUNYSB Department of Biomedical Engineering whereby a team of PHD students are teaching engineering to our K-7 classes.
The article below, written by the director of the program (a parent in our school) describes what 'engineering' looks like in an Elementary/Middle School environment looks like, and why, in today's day and age, engineering is a vital component in education.
by Dr. Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi, Ph.D.
Director, Laboratory for Computational Neurodiagnostics (LCNeuro) and Associate Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering and Stony Brook University School of Medicine
The JA is fortunate to have weekly visits of bio-engineering students from SUNYSB in order to allocate to engineering the same level of seriousness that the best educational efforts in elementary school education have traditionally allocated to reading, writing, and mathematics. That is, it is not a "special" or novelty item, but a subject that can and should be taught starting in Grade 1.
Why? Because we believe that since the world (and the U.S. economy, in particular) have changed over the past 40 years, our country's greatest asset--its greatest exportable good—is technology and innovation. And while technological innovation may have been home-grown at one point this has fundamentally shifted, to the point at which American technology innovation no longer has a sufficient pool of qualified American-trained engineers upon which to draw. This means U.S. technology R&D, which is currently being held afloat by immigrants from countries (like China and India) where engineering education is taken very seriously, will inevitably move abroad regardless of disparities in labor prices.
From the perspective of pedagogy, it makes sense to start early--for two reasons. First, children arenatural engineers, and much of their unstructured play naturally revolves around building and designing. So it's an easy sell in the classroom at that age. Second, engineering is very content-driven, in a manner that is explicitly cumulative. So learning the fundamental prerequisites skills (electronics, programming etc.) early has disproportionate gains in terms of attaining expertise.
There's really no fundamental cognitive reason why biology should be taught in junior high school but electronics and programming must wait until college, except that the vast majority of elementary school teachers don't themselves know anything about electronics and programming.
The curriculum at the JA tries to address this issue by getting into the classroom from Grade 1 (that is,early!), and by recruiting actual engineers to train the teachers in its implementation. The ultimate aim is to get to the point at which the native teachers are 100% self-sufficient in teaching the engineering curriculum.
This is not a JA curriculum. It is part of curriculum-development, funded by the National Science Foundation, being grown and tested within a laboratory that is the JA, with the eventual goal of dissemination to the public school system.
Why the JA? It is a private school, which therefore has greater discretion in terms of its curriculum, and because the school administration has been (in my opinion) truly visionary in their support of it. Meaning: they "got it"...right from the start. And, just as importantly, they were willing to take the steps
As for the content, it includes Grades 1-6, with two Ph.D. students in Biomedical Engineering assigned to each grade. The curriculum includes six 5 month Design Challenges, one for each grade:
*Apollo-Drop and Sound-Proofing (Materials Science) for First-graders,
*Bridges and Tunnels (Mechanical Engineering) for Second-graders,
*Electronics and Robotics (Electronics) for Third-graders,
*Manufacturing Catapults and Self-Propelled Vehicles (Manufacturing using CAD and 3-D Printing) for Fourth graders
*Programming with Python (Computer Programming) for Fifth graders
*Microcontrollers for Sixth-graders.
The development of the curriculum will iterate over three years 2013-2015, at which point we expect it to stabilize. Manuals for each project for each grade are written, with the aim of making a self-standing program that combines three components: Content, Innovation, and Effort.
The combination of these three seems obvious, but it's actually what distinguishes the program. First, it isn't just a fun, exploratory activity; it involves actually learning physics, engineering, math, and second, it isn't just learning material; kids are expected to come up with new ideas and problem-solve. Third, it isn't cosmetic; by providing a structure and year-long curriculum, students learn how to stick with problems that aren't neatly solvable by the end of a 45 minute period (or even a week)--that's an important life-lesson in persistence that will serve them well regardless of their eventual career goals.
After all, engineering, and learning, are all about living a better life!