An innovative elementary school finds that even six-year-olds can become problem-solving critical thinkers.
Workforce Blog: Teaching Engineering to First Graders
Feb 2, 2021
by Kalan Guiley
The first graders at Brentwood Magnet Elementary in Raleigh, N.C., have a process for working it all out: Ask a lot of questions. Imagine possible answers. Plan your approach. Create a solution. And then look for ways to improve it.
Once you’ve done all that, if you are lucky, you get to eat the results.
Problem-solving isn’t a one-off lesson at North Carolina’s (and possibly the world’s) only engineering school for six-year-olds. It is the core curriculum in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Engineering is infused into everything we do,” said Kaitlyn Womack, a first-grade teacher at Brentwood. “Critical thinking, problem-solving, reflection—we don’t expect all of our students to become engineers, but we do teach them to think like one.”
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Womack teaches every subject with the same basic “ask-imagine-plan-create-improve” approach, whether it is writing a story, learning about weather, or housing and transporting a ginger-based humanoid. “We teach collaboration and creative problem-solving, ways to work as a team,” she said. “The point is to think outside the classroom.”
While the choice to attend Brentwood Magnet Elementary belongs to the children's parents, by all appearances the kids embrace the school’s engineering-inspired pedagogy. “We have the hardest time with the high-flyers,” Womack said, “the ‘gifted ones,’ who tend to have a more difficult time with the creativity and freedom that comes with engineering.” Interestingly, the ordered, disciplined precision many associate with the engineering mindset is more the product of a free-wheeling imagination than rote learning.
Womack would disagree with those who say engineers are born and not made. “You can train your brain to think differently,” she said. “It’s all about how you choose to think, the thought process” applied to any given problem.
Though she is relatively new to teaching—just four years in the classroom after earning a master’s degree in education—Womack believes the Brentwood Magnet model can work anywhere. Brentwood, for example, is a Title 1 school, meaning that more than 40 percent of its students are from low-income households. And it is diverse, with kids from a wide range of ethnic, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds—an ideal student population for evaluating a novel approach to elementary education.
While the core instructional program at Brentwood aligns with national and statewide standards, Womack and her colleagues are responsible for creating their own lesson plans. But just as they ask their students to work in teams, so do Brentwood’s teachers, collaborating on curriculum development to ensure that students are able to perform on standardized tests and move seamlessly up through grade levels.
In fashioning the curriculum and crafting lesson plans, the teachers at Brentwood tap an array of resources, like those provided through ASME’s INSPIRE K-12 STEM Readiness program. To date, that program has reached more than 365,000 students, the vast majority from Title 1 schools.
Learn more about Classroom-Based ASME INSPIRE
Last summer, ASME announced a new collaboration with Discovery Education, the leading provider of digital curriculum resources for K-12 classrooms. ASME is the engineering content collaborator to Discovery Education’s STEM Careers Coalition, a group of industry partners who are joining forces “to empower educators to teach STEM effectively in the classroom, foster equity and access to quality education, and build the next generation of solution-seekers,” according to Discovery Education’s mission statement. STEM resources and experiences available on the coalition website reached over half a million students in 2020.
Of course, Womack’s first graders aren’t aware of all the thought that goes into their daily classroom experience. They are focused on the problems they’re challenged to solve. Take that gingerbread man, for instance. What if the power goes out? What if there’s a snowstorm? These are the kinds of questions they are tasked with asking and answering, applying all the imagination and problem-solving skills they can muster.
“There is no wrong answer,” Womack assured them, “as long as you approach the problem creatively. Sometimes my entire lesson is one question, and I just sit back and watch the kids go.”
Kalan Guiley is senior manager for global system safety at Boeing Commercial Airplanes and ASME’s senior vice president for Public Affairs and Outreach. For more information about ASME INSPIRE, the ASME Foundation’s work, and how you can help empower next-generation engineers, please visit www.asmefoundation.org.