I have been in education for many years and I have watched several educational trends come and go (or at least be relegated to the back burner). One of the latest buzz topics is STEM education. In dealing with STEM, many people insist the arts should not be ignored (I am one of them) and therefore the acronym should be STEAM to make sure the arts are present. However, one could argue that every classroom should be a STEAM classroom. Whether you follow STEM or STEAM, attention to the engineering portion is essential.
Having said that, I have been doing a few workshops on the “E” part of STEM/STEAM. There are many professional development activities headlining science, technology and math, but not too many for engineering. Some may think that engineering is reserved for the older children, but the very foundation of engineering thinking skills (critical thinking skills) must begin with the young child. Good early childhood teachers already do many engineering activities, but perhaps don’t support those activities with solid words that encourage critical thinking.
Critical thinking and engineering skills can begin when we encourage the child to build something. Blocks, sand, dough, and other building materials can be used to encourage this type of development. I love to use building materials with children because there isn't a correct answer. I use materials that are as open-ended as possible and I stay away from block sets where the child can only build one thing. Through the use of these materials, a child should be able to hypothesize, plan, organize, make discoveries, and come to a conclusion about the project. An additional element that is often missed is the opportunity for the child the actually play with her project after it is built. Adults may think the experience is complete when the project is built, but playing with the objects offers even more skills development. This is a critical element for the child to develop skills on how to reinforce, reinvent, and think beyond what she created.
Make the most of engineering opportunities by using all of the building materials that are available to you. Keep your eyes open for new blocks and building materials that come on the market, as they may provide an extra challenge. If they are truly open-ended, the possibilities for critical thinking (engineering thinking) are infinite.