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It will come as no surprise that the team here at Meet Edison love seeing the many great ways technology is used to support education. That’s why we were pleased to guest host the popular Twitter chat #PrimarySTEMChat on 7 November 2019. This weekly chat is a fantastic opportunity for educators (primary, middle school, high school and beyond) to get together as a PLN (professional learning network). Each week looks at a different STEM or STEAM related topic, offering a platform for discussion and idea sharing.

With our second annual design challenge in full swing, we had engineering on the mind here at Edison HQ. Our topic for the night? “Beyond the egg-drop: the ‘E’ in STEAM.”

Check out our top take-aways from the chat below and, if you are keen to see more, you can read the full chat saved as a Wakelet story.

Not 100% sure what the ‘E’ in STEM should look like in the classroom? You aren’t alone.

Even before the chat happened, this topic got people talking on Twitter. Read one popular tweet:

“Ah, engineering… the usually overlooked letter in the #STEM acronym. So many teachers don’t know what engineers really do (they design & refine things).” 

The general vibe of the chat echoed this air of confusion. While lots of the educators stated that they include ‘engineering’ elements in their projects and lessons, they often don’t see themselves as teaching ‘engineering’ as a subject. Little wonder too, given that engineering is very rarely a stand-alone subject in primary school (although it’s more common in middle school and high school, where it can often be found as an elective subject).

For most teachers, engineering makes appearances inside other classes, especially tech classes (including digital tech). As these are subjects that are often taught by specialist teachers, the question of ‘what is engineering?’ still lingers for many.

Two teachers dug into this question during the chat:

C: “It was always part of technology subjects, we did a bunch of constructing, like building hydroponics set ups or a chicken coop, or a pizza oven or the organic garden. But I’m not sure it was proper engineering.”

R: “What do you think ‘proper engineering’ looks like? I think we mostly do design thinking… but isn’t that engineering? So many questions!”

C: “hmm so in my head ‘proper’ engineering involves more maths! And maybe building things in not just wood or in digital spaces? But maybe I’m biased?”

There was consensus about two things that engineering lessons (digital, physical and otherwise) should include: design thinking, including prototyping and iteration, and opportunities for problem solving. One teacher wrote:

“I’d suggest that E comes from Design and Technologies – a dedicated Descriptor for each strand. Not necessarily E as we thought we knew it! More problem solving than anything!”

Shared another:

“Primary engineering is about prototyping, refining and reinventing. That’s my current view but I’m sure that’ll change as I learn!”

In the same vein, the general consensus was that in integrated lessons, context is key and authentic connections are preferable to make the learning more tangible. A sound approach, especially given that engineering offers plenty of chances to tackle real-world problems and bring in applied connections for math and science.

Many teachers don’t explicitly point out ‘engineering’ in the classroom. (But you should.)

One of the topic questions of the night asked educators how they introduce lessons that feature engineering. Is there an explicit introduction that ‘this is engineering’ to the students?

The overwhelming response? No. Engineering isn’t often pointed out.

Given that engineering is usually integrated into another subject, this makes sense. But the consensus was that this a missed opportunity, especially for the girls in the classroom. As a female in the industry pointed out:

“I feel the female students would really benefit from Engineering being made explicit. We would have more of them enter the field and maybe less boys saying it was a male field.”

Some teachers are pointing out the engineering that is happening in their classrooms, often doing so after the fact. Making the connection explicit at the end of a lesson gives context to what students have just achieved without putting pressure on them initially (as some have pre-set notions about engineering). This also lets the task be framed around the all-important central point of problem-solving. Explained one educator

“I don’t introduce it explicitly as it can be overwhelming for students. I focus on the prototyping and problem-solving aspect. Essentially tricking my students into it and then revealing that they dabbled in some engineering.”

Another teacher shared:

“I tend to lead with ‘we have a problem to solve using X Y Z’ in a certain timeframe. As the students go about solving it, I then bring in real world stories about the challenge for context and then at the end point out the type engineering they were doing.”

Pointing out the learning that’s occurred once it’s already done also opens up the start of the lesson for other things, such as introducing the problem in a broader context, or with a bit of fun, including kicking off a lesson with a related-but-interesting video clip.

We can’t get to Mars on cardboard alone.

When it comes to ‘engineering projects at school,’ especially at primary school, there’s a common perception that the best tools are the simplest: think popsicle sticks, glue and cardboard. What about technology? Is there a place for tech when teaching engineering?

The majority of educators felt the answer was yes, tech has a place, but only so long as the tools make sense to the lesson. Quipped one teacher:

“Tech has to have a place at the engineering table, of course. I love paper and hands-on design. But 3-d modelling, virtual, AR, video expressions of data… so much can be created digitally also. I mean, go to Mars with cardboard? Um, no.”

The importance of tech for integrated and STEM lessons was also noted:

“If you’re doing STEM, then T ought to have a place. That could be either subject from the Technologies Learning area – but I’d guess mainly Design and Technologies.”

Squishing in technology just for the sake of including it in a lesson was a big no-no, however. After all, it’s not about the tools; it’s about the learning, as this teacher pointed out:

“Engineering projects at any age are good!  No matter what tools you have.  Have kids take stuff apart, see if they can find other uses for whatever they find.”

The most important thing? Give engineering a try in your classroom.

The key takeaway of the night was that engineering isn’t a black-and-white subject that can only be taught by a select few. Quite the opposite: it’s a fantastic platform for empowered, authentic learning in just about any classroom. You don’t need to be perfect to start teaching engineering and your students will benefit from the lessons you teach, failures (I mean, iterations!) and all!

Ready to give engineering a try? You can see some of the top projects that got shared on the night (plus some of our other favourites) at https://www.pinterest.co.uk/meetedison/engineering-ideas-for-kids/

What does engineering look like in your classroom? We’d love to hear your thoughts. You can send us your comments at social@microbric.com. Are you using Edison robots to teach engineering? We’d love to see! Add your pictures and videos to the online community of Edison awesomeness on PinterestFacebookTwitterInstagram or YouTube.

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