(McGowan & Bell, 2020, p. 981)
Welcome to the Engineering for Equity blog series. In the previous post, we reflected with our colleague and guest contributor, Dr. Gina Svarovsky, on how we have been thinking differently about not only how we engage families with engineering but also how we conceptualize the discipline. Our collaboration with families is helping us co-create a more expansive definition of engineering that we then are iterating on and sharing back with new families as a way of developing a learning space that recognizes multiple ways of knowing and doing.
In today’s post, we outline three areas that have emerged in our recent studies: (1) appreciating that engagement in the engineering process is not always linear or complete, (2) acknowledging the productive connections families make between engineering and everyday problem solving, and (3) seeing children’s imaginative play as a space for supporting a rich and more expansive view of engineering learning.
In K-12 settings, engaging in engineering often involves learning about a multi-step engineering design process (EDP), which always begins with an exploratory phase of identifying and further defining the problem. Learners then typically move through the entire design process, building, testing, and revising. Although there are many of ways to represent this process and the nuanced ways that professional engineers commonly engage in it, there are now several well-known versions for young students, including the five-step EDP developed for the Engineering is Elementary curriculum: Ask-Imagine-Plan-Create-Improve (Cunningham, 2018).
However, this often may not be the approach taken by children and families with engineering activities outside the classroom or in their everyday design and problem solving. For example, during an interview with one mother about her experience as a parent in the Head Start on Engineering program, she talked about how the engineering design process is relevant to many of the things she does with her child. She also noted that her family often paid less attention to the planning step and instead just started to create, which would often “lead to more questions and talking more together.” Like when they recently worked to rearrange her daughter’s room, she said they had “eliminated the planning part because we just jump right in there.”
In truth, this more complex, organic depiction of the engineering process may be more accurate to the work of professional engineers. Our studies have shown that within family-focused informal learning environments, the EDP does not tend to unfold in a linear manner. Instead, different aspects of the EDP can be more emphasized than others, and there is often movement back and forth and around the different steps as families seek to better understand the design challenges they are solving, the materials they are working with, and the constraints they are facing. For example, families may “skip” the problem-scoping phase and instead incorporate goal discussion and materials exploration as an ongoing part of their design and building.
Letting go of a more rigid and narrow definition of the engineering design process is promising in a variety of ways. First, it allows us as educators and researchers to fully acknowledge and appreciate the diverse design and problem-solving strategies that families use in their daily lives, whether or not these adhere to our own frameworks. Second, going beyond the typical engineering design process allows us to appreciate the value of experiences or resources that highlight one or two aspects of engineering design but don’t take families through an entire design cycle. Finally, broadening our ideas about the process suggests approaches for connecting with how families and young children naturally learn and developing engineering experiences that are tailored to the abilities of young learners.
In our collaborations with families, we have seen over and over the important connections that families make between the engineering ideas as we present them and the problem solving that they do every day at home and at work. For example, one mother shared these reflections during a recent conversation:
“It’s just extra activities to have you and your child come together. It’s so important to watch and allow their minds to work on how to solve a problem. That’s the main thing in life. That’s the main skill in life, problem solving. Life always has problems. How do you go about fixing problems. That’s what the engineering process is about. Making things work. That’s so important. When I thought about engineering before, I thought, oh whatever. But we are all engineers. It was enlightening for me.”
— Program participant
For this mother and many other families, the connection between engineering and everyday problem solving seems to be a primary driver for ongoing engineering engagement and learning (Pattison et al., 2020). The connection creates a strong value for the topic, since problem solving is often a primary skill families hope to develop in their children. It also highlights the way they are already using engineering skills and helps them bring their own knowledge and expertise to the program experience, including the resourcefulness and inventiveness that is often a way of life with the low-income and immigrant communities we work with. As one mother described while reflecting on her program experience:
“Siempre estamos haciendo ingeniería, siempre. Eso se me ha quedado en la mente siempre y podemos lograr hacer ingeniería.” [We are always doing engineering. This has always stuck in my mind, and that we can do engineering ourselves.]
These connections also create a powerful motivation for ongoing engagement and interest development. For example, families find ways to incorporate the engineering design process into their learning interactions with their children or they seek out new opportunities to practice engineering design and problem solving as a family (Pattison et al., 2021).
We believe that supporting these connections with everyday engineering can help make the engineering content of our programs relevant and engaging for families. More importantly, however, it is an opportunity for us to learn from families and expand our own ideas about the discipline. How engineering is defined is often based not just on the content or practices but also on where it happens and who is doing it (Pawley, 2009). These perspectives have led to historical biases in what is and isn’t considered engineering (McGowan & Bell, 2020; Mejia et al., 2018; Pawley, 2012). One family from our program shared the conversations they themselves had been having about what counts as engineering after playing with an activity connecting taco making with process engineering:
"Well, when you think about engineering you think about building things and with the tacos you built things, but you built food. Did that count as engineering? Does that mean chefs are food engineers? Those are the kind of conversations we had in our home. Like the other night, my daughter asked my husband, ‘Daddy, are you engineering some food?’"
— Program participant
In our work, we have increasingly tried to learn from families about their everyday problem-solving practices and then use these examples to inform ongoing changes to the way we frame engineering for other participants. For example, one common scenario we present to families as engineering is trying to figure out the most effective and efficient morning routine for a busy household, with multiple people needing to get ready, eat breakfast, and head out the door to different locations at different times. Thinking through this process, understanding the many constraints, complexities, and interdependencies, developing a plan, iterating on it, and optimizing it over time can certainly be considered engaging in an engineering design process. But all too often, this work is not “legitimized” by traditional engineers or those who hold narrow definitions of engineering. In our work, we have tried to better highlight these examples, and invite project team members and families to share their stories as a central part of our collaborative programs.
As a final example, our recent work with families and their preschool-age children has opened our eyes to the rich engineering that can happen during children’s playful, imagination-driven learning experiences—and how these moments can again help broaden our ideas about engineering as researchers and educators.
Take for example the video that a family recently sent to us of the mother and four-year-old daughter playing at home with a “Pollitos Dicen” activity that we had shared. The stated goal of the activity, based on the popular Spanish children’s song, Pollitos Dicen, was for families to work together to build a structure to protect a group of small chicks from the sun, rain, and hungry foxes. The families were provided with a one-page bilingual activity guide, a set of wooden blocks and stiff boards, and small wind-up chicks.
In the video, the mother began by reading through the guide and then singing the song with her child while the daughter played excitedly with the chicks. The pair then talked about the activity goal and what the chicks might need to feel safe and protected. The daughter started to build, while the mother watched and offered encouragement. As they worked, the daughter continued to play with the chicks and to bring more imaginative elements into the design. First the structure was a chicken coop, but then it became a castle with all the chicks as princes and princesses. When they had a few levels built, they talked about rain, and the daughter decided they needed a roof for the top level. She also wanted a place for the chicks to sleep when they were tired and experimented with how much room they would need to fit on each level. To the mom’s apparent surprise, the daughter then started talking about the monsters that were coming to get the chicks and thinking about the walls and traps that they would need for protection. She asked the mom if monsters could climb and started adding different blocks and boards to make the structure safer.
On the surface, this interaction challenges many of our ideas about engineering. It was certainly not a linear or complete engineering design process, as traditionally depicted. On the other hand, the interaction also highlighted the deep engagement and rich engineering design practices that are possible in these types of playful, family-based learning moments. Throughout the building process, the daughter and mother were continuously engaging in conversation and reflective decision making (Wendell et al., 2017). And perhaps more importantly, they were doing this using a user-centered lens, motivated by their focus on the needs of the “cute” chicks that were both pre-defined by the activity and emergent as part of the family’s imaginative play (e.g., monsters). The daughter was also empowered to take charge of the design, using her imagination to have ownership over all aspects of the design process. Without being constrained by pre-determined design goals or physical design constraints, which can sometimes be a barrier for young children that are still developing their fine motor skills, she was able to engage deeply in many aspects of the engineering design process, including problem scoping, building, evaluation, and revision.
The ideas above represent just a few of the many ways that our collaborations with families have helped us expand and enrich our understanding of what counts as engineering, where, and for whom. However, all these reflections raise a critical question: If we work with families to create a broader vision of engineering, do we do them a disservice when then encounter traditional perspectives in school? This we believe is a challenging issue, especially since it is impossible to expect that educational systems and institutions will change overnight. As Megan Bang and colleagues aptly phrased it in regards to their collaboration with Native communities, “our work did not proceed from a romanticized view that ignored the demands for Native children to achieve in school/Western forms of knowing” (Bang et al., 2016, p. 4).
Our current thinking is that this tension raises a new challenge for us as educators and researchers—we cannot be content to merely study and support families and children. Instead, our efforts must simultaneously be aimed at dismantling and reshaping education systems. As Gutiérrez wrote, we must collaborate with families to both “play the game and change the game” (Gutiérrez, 2009). In this way, we distance ourselves from the traditional notion of education research as separate, objective, and aloof and instead take full responsibility for our roles in shaping both the equities and inequities in our education systems (Aguirre et al., 2017; Philip et al., 2018; Vossoughi et al., 2016).
We also acknowledge that through engaging families in engineering, our highest aim is not necessarily to build deep fluency with engineering design practices, but rather, to cultivate a sense of empowerment and agency within young children and their families. While yes, we believe that early engineering activities can plant the seeds of early interest in and understanding of engineering practices, we also strongly believe that engineering activities provide meaningful opportunities for families to develop their skills and identities as creative problem solvers who can be innovative and responsive—which may ultimately help young people and their families engage as changemakers in their everyday lives and communities. Positioning learners in new ways relative to engineering and engineering education can generate exciting new pathways to engagement and participation, and it has been a remarkable gift to be walking with and learning from families as they forge these new perspectives.
Scott Pattison, PhD, is a Research Scientist at TERC. He has been studying and supporting STEM education and learning since 2003, as an educator, program and exhibit developer, evaluator, and researcher. His current work focuses on engagement, learning, and interest and identity development in free-choice and out-of-school environments, including museums, community-based organizations, and everyday settings. He has led numerous informal STEM education research projects and initiatives, including Head Start on Engineering, Storybook STEM, Math in Making, and REVEAL.
Smirla Ramos Montañez, PhD, is a bilingual (Spanish/English) and bicultural (Puerto Rican/American) Family STEM Learning Researcher at TERC. She has led and supported a variety of projects, including program and exhibit evaluation as well as STEM education research designed to provide accessible, culturally relevant, and engaging experiences for diverse audiences. She is currently the PI of the Diálogos project, which will engage parents as research partners to explore how we can leverage informal family engineering activities to support the development of executive function skills for preschool-age children from Latinx families.
Gina Svarovsky, PhD, is an Associate Professor of the Practice at the University of Notre Dame Center for STEM Education. For nearly two decades, she has been interested in how young people learn science and engineering in both formal and informal learning environments. Specifically, her research interests are focused on exploring how youth from traditionally minoritized and non-dominant populations in engineering are able to develop engineering skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking as a result of participating in a variety of learning experiences. In addition to helping to collaborate with the other authors on the leadership of Head Start on Engineering and Storybook STEM, she currently leads the REACH-ECE project, which focuses on exploring how the different elements of engineering activity kits can catalyze engineering engagement for young children and their families.
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