Children seem to be born with a creative urge to design and build things. Often it takes little more than the presence of raw materials to inspire children to imagine and create forts and dollhouses from cardboard boxes and sandcastles from moist sand near the water’s edge. The task for the primary school teacher is to channel this natural tendency by helping students recognize that creative energy can be a means to solve problems and achieve goals through a systematic process, commonly referred to as engineering design. Although engineering design is not a lock-step process, it is helpful to think of it in three stages—defining the problem, developing possible solutions, and determining which best solves the problem.
Defining the problem begins in kindergarten as students learn that a situation people want to change can be thought of as a problem that can be solved. By the time they leave second grade students should be able to ask questions and make observations to gather information about the problem to they can envision an object or a tool that would solve it.
Developing possible solutions naturally flows from the problem definition phase. One of the most challenging aspects of this phase is to keep students from immediately implementing the first solution they think of and to think it through before acting. Having students sketch their ideas or make a physical model is a good way to engage them in shaping their ideas to meet the requirements of the problem.
Comparing different solutions may involve testing each one to see how well it solves a problem or achieves a goal. Consumer product testing is a good model for this capability. Although students in the primary grades should not be held accountable for designing controlled experiments, they should be able to think of ways of comparing two products to determine which is better for a given purpose.
Connections with the other science disciplines help students develop these capabilities in various contexts. In kindergarten students are expected to design and build simple devices. In first grade students are expected to use tools and materials to solve a simple problem and test and compare different solutions. In second grade they are expected to define more complex problems then develop, test, and analyze data to compare different solutions.
By the time they leave second grade, students should be able to achieve all three performance expectations (K-2-ETS1-1, K-2-ETS1-2, and K-2-ETS1-3) related to a single problem in order to understand the interrelated processes of engineering design—defining a problem, developing solutions, and comparing solutions by testing them to see which best solves the problem.
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