Early Elementary Engineers — Adapting the Design Process for the Youngest Students

Implementing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) instruction with early elementary students can be challenging for multiple reasons. From finding materials to squeezing instruction into an already full schedule, the barriers to implementation can be overwhelming. However, the benefits certainly outweigh the challenges!

I introduced STEM instruction at my previous elementary school by engaging my students in “STEM Fridays”. During this time, we tinkered with manipulatives that we may not have had time for in other classes, and we designed and built lots of things. The “STEM Fridays” became rather popular with my students — if we missed a Friday for some reason, the first thing out of their mouths on Monday morning was “Are we doing STEM Friday today?!?” I quickly realized that my students were enjoying learning again, and they were excited to see what challenge I had for them each week.

After a few weeks, I decided that I needed to make my STEM lesson reproducible in some way. Other teachers had noticed our constructions and my students’ enthusiasm and had asked me, “How do you do STEM?” I did not know — I just did it. Actually, my students just did it!

So I set about figuring out how I would write a lesson plan for STEM Fridays. My lessons always began with a challenge. I selected a theme for 3–4 weeks and then changed. So, to really provide a guideline for STEM, I turned to the Engineering Design Cycle. I googled it, I read about it, and I was not happy with what I found. None of the models ‘fit’ my lessons. So I did what any good teacher would do — I made my own!

This is how it works:

  • First, we Think about a problem or challenge.
  • Then, my students work to develop two Plans for how to solve the problem or challenge. The reason to have two plans is simple: The first plan may not work!
  • After students select which plan they want to try first, they Invent their solution.
  • Fourth, they Evaluate how well the solution worked. Depending on the success or failure, they may return to the planning or inventing stage!
  • Finally, they Communicate their findings in two different ways. Usually, one way is verbal to encourage speaking and listening skills, and one way is using technology, such as posting on Padlet or using FlipCams to record each other explaining the solution. During the next lesson, we may begin the cycle again with a related challenge or move on to a different theme.

I found that when I used my own design cycle with my students, it really challenged them to not start inventing right away! They had to think critically, constructing diagrams and drawings of their ideas before actually building it. They had to talk with each other about their ideas and then present their findings, which ultimately kept everybody on task because they wanted to sound like an expert on the camera! They had to evaluate their work instead of building something and not really checking if it solved the problem. We went from simply creating random buildings and objects to having a purpose with a method for achieving our results. And the students loved it even more!

Now that I have done STEM lessons in multiple grade levels at two schools, conducted workshops with teachers, and done lots of research on best-practices, I feel satisfied with my design cycle. However, it is imperative for any teacher implementing STEM to really consider if there is a better way for them to adjust the cycle to meet their own needs and constraints.

To check out more ideas, simply type “engineering design cycle” into Google Images and you will get a plethora of ideas. If you try one, and it does not fit your teaching style or your students’ learning styles — change it!

Tips for implementing STEM lessons with the design cycle:

  • Teach the design cycle as a lesson first! It is helpful when students know what to expect before they begin a lesson, so spend time teaching the routine of STEM lessons. Check out my Introduction to STEM lesson for ideas.
  • Set up STEM journals before you start! This way, students have a place to keep their plans and can revisit the ideas in future lessons. Here are some lessons about setting up journals.
  • Start simple! Before challenging students to build a tower, start with challenging students to make paper stand up off the table. Then switch to objects that they are already familiar with, like pattern blocks and dice. With some experience behind them, challenge them to make a tower — but limit how many items they can use so that it is manageable for them. Then, in a subsequent lesson, increase the number of objects they must use.
  • Probably the most important tip of all: Let the students do the thinking and the building. This is truly the time for the teacher to facilitate. It is okay if their plans do not work — they will learn a lesson from that as much as they would following your directions and having one that does work! Watch your students as they think and work together, and provide assistance only when asked. Even then, sometimes say, “Hmm..I don’t know. What do you think?” and turn it back to them. Perseverance is a taught by persevering!

Dr. Caroline Courter is an AIG (Academically and Intellectually Gifted) specialist for K-5 students at the New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina. She holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction Supervision, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. A veteran teacher, Caroline has brought her passion for STEM to North Carolina students in Kindergarten, first, second, and fifth grades.

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