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Thursday

August 2014

21

Engineering is Elementary at North Lake School

The third-grade students in Yancy Byrne's classroom met a boy named Paulo. Well, kind of.

Paulo doesn't exist, but the curriculum created by Engineering is Elementary (EiE) shows the students how to make a parachute that "Paulo" can use to get a piece of fruit from a tree.

"What I really like about it is at the end, you're actually building it. So as you're building it, you come up with all these questions that you have to ask," explained Bruce Budde.

Byrne and Budde are science and math teachers at North Lake Elementary School who were trained in EiE during last summer. This is the first year the program has been at North Lake, and, so far, it's been a great success.

EiE was developed by the Museum of Science in Boston and has recently been endorsed by Project Lead the Way for facilitating engineering and technological literacy among all school-aged children, specifically elementary-age children.

It's more than just a big boost for math and science programs.

The goal is to use something that students, at any age, are interested in - such as building a paper airplane or creating a parachute - to keep them engaged. It's cross-curriculum and can promote writing, social studies and art alongside math and science.

"There's a spark there in their eyes; they're listening better," Budde said.

It fosters problem-solving skills, including problem formulation, iteration, testing of alternative solutions and evaluation of data to guide decisions. It embraces project-based learning, encompasses hands-on construction and sharpens children's abilities to function in three dimensions - all skills that are important for prospering in the modern world.

"It's just neat to have them experiment their bad ideas, try their bad ideas, and say 'Wait. This didn't work at all. Let's try something different,' versus me telling them. They discover it on their own," Byrne said.

This is only the beginning for these little parachutes. The students are identifying a problem - is it too heavy? Would it bruise Paulo's fruit? - and are working collaboratively. They'll find solutions on their own, plan new designs, experiment some more and soon enough each child will have their own A+ parachute.

"One word I like is perseverance. Oh, it didn't work? Well, make it better. I like that perseverance is throughout the engineering experience. You're never done; you can always make it better," Byrne said.

They don't have unlimited supplies, either. When they run out of paper while making paper airplanes, for example, they can't grab more. Budde thinks this prevents them from rushing into things and forces them to plan more carefully and more collaboratively.

"Their planning time lasted so long (one time), they didn't have time for the building. Because they're planning and planning, and I got into their conversations … They really enjoyed the planning just as much as the creating because they're just so excited," Byrne added.

EiE gets students excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts by broadening the definitions for technology and engineering in surprising ways. Budde admitted that before his EiE training, he didn't initially think of the engineers who add color to fruit drinks or technology as simple as pens or rubber bands.

"But somebody had to design that. Somebody had to create that," he said.

Byrne hopes that it will dispel some myths about STEM-related careers, too.

"Engineering is fun. It's not boring. And there's a stigma here that it's only guys. It's only smart guys. But it's not … It's fun. It's not boring. Girls are just as excited about it. People that dub themselves as 'not good at math' can now think they can be engineers. It's for everybody," he said.

EiE is new to the Waukesha area. Few schools, like Lake Country School District, are using EiE, but some have expressed interest in it.

"(In high school), they'll be lucky to have a North Lake kid in their class. They'll remember 'When we were at North Lake, we went too fast and our boat sank or our building fell right away,' so they're going to feel pretty confident in their class," Budde said.

While it's difficult to measure or test for this kind of hands-on project, North Lake Elementary Curriculum Coordinator Liesl Ackley thinks these young engineers will do well.

"The new generation of standards will be asking kids to do performance-based tests, so this process will benefit them in those styled tests. We're getting away from just one right answer. … There can be multiple solutions to one problem. I think it's a cutting edge. It's 21st-century learning," she said.

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