What is "family night" like in your house? In many American households, it means nothing more than another evening of screen time.
But in school cafeterias and science museums across the country, family night is starting to look very different. Amid maelstroms of rubber bands, marking pens, and miniature motors, moms, dads, and their grade-schoolers are teaming up in a beat-the-clock quest to build an "Artistic Robot" with the odds-and-ends at their fingertips.
It's called "Family Engineering," a new national program that promotes awareness of engineering among elementary-aged kids and their parents. While families work together building makeshift catapults and rockets, they are also building the future of the engineering profession. The premise: young children's natural interests in science and engineering are best nurtured by parents and other caregivers who are also interested and have some first-hand experience with the topics.
A Shrinking Workforce, a Growing Need
Supported by the National Science Foundation, the Family Engineering initiative taps into the power of family learning with the goal of enlarging and diversifying the pool of engineering-focused students. It's one response to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing the demand for scientists and engineers will increase by 44% over the next decade, yet graduation rates are falling in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions.
Family Engineering taps into the power of family learning with the goal of enlarging and diversifying the pool of engineering-focused students.
Reversing that trend begins by boosting awareness of what engineering is and how if affects every day life, as early in the academic experience as possible. "In research with youth in grades K-8, they have a very limited and most often distorted picture of what engineers do," says Christine Schnittka, an assistant professor of science education at Auburn University and an experienced Family Engineering presenter.
"Most professions have the benefit of some general public understanding; engineering is not one of those professions," says Schnittka. "Some youth have the benefit of career guidance from an early age by well-informed parents, but that is not common in locations and cultures where engineering is not a dominant profession. The Family Engineering program exposes both parents and youth to the possibilities that exist in the fields of engineering. Parents and youth alike get to practice doing the work of creative, problem-solving, designing engineers," she adds.
Noted science author/educator David Heil, former host of the Emmy award-winning PBS kids' science series "Newton's Apple," cites numerous studies showing the critical role of parental involvement in a child's academic success and of their receptiveness to considering a career in a STEM field.
Heil and colleagues at the Foundation for Family Science and Engineering were instrumental in developing the Family Engineering program, in partnership with faculty from Michigan Technological University and the American Society for Engineering Education. A $2.5 million NSF grant helped the group create and field-test the hands-on activities featured in Family Engineering: An Activity and Event Planning Guide, published in 2011. The team is now working to disseminate the program nationally by offering training workshops through professional engineering organizations and their local chapters, as well as for formal and informal educators, college STEM students, youth leaders, and parents who want to introduce Family Engineering into their own communities.
Engineering a Successful Event
Just about anyone can run a Family Engineering event after some basic training. The "Family Engineering" book covers everything organizers need to know to structure and conduct an event. The Foundation for Family Science and Engineering has also created durable event signage, activity cards, program starter kits, and other event planning resources. All materials are available in English or Spanish and are sold through the program's website.
Family Engineering events give kids and their parents a fun and engaging reason to work together on problem-solving tasks while broadening their perspectives about engineering disciplines and careers. Engineering savvy is not a prerequisite: You don't need to know how to prime an engine to prime your kids for an appreciation of engineering. "The activities are perfectly structured to encourage an appreciation for math and science as they build, test, design, innovate, and create," says Schnittka.
The moment families arrive at a Family Engineering event, they are actively engaged in "opener" activities that demonstrate fundamental engineering principles. They may learn, for example, that two index cards glued together can support the weight of more metal washers than two unglued cards. Engineering message: through lamination, engineered products like plywood can be made into super-strong, super-light products such as skateboards.
After a simple icebreaker, the event culminates with families tackling an engineering design challenge or interactive activity that stimulates teamwork and problem-solving. Chocolate chip cookie mining? Artistic robots? Engineering charades? Whatever your pleasure, all activities are designed to drive home the five-step engineering design process: ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve.
Heil said that national field testing of the program showed participants gained awareness of what engineers do and how they impact daily life, as well as a greater interest in engineering and, among parents, a stronger likelihood that they would encourage their kids to consider it as a career.
Schnittka has seen those results first-hand. "At a recent Family Engineering event, children and parents alike were so deeply invested in their projects that some families were talking about stopping at Radio Shack on the way home to buy their own materials," she says. "The enthusiasm was palpable."
Michael McRae is an independent writer.
Most professions have the benefit of some general public understanding; engineering is not one of those professions.
Prof. Christine Schnittka, Auburn University
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