Brains on fire
One of my favorite moments in the classroom came when another faculty member turned to me and said, Their brains are on fire.
He was referring to forty third grade students participating in an engineering design challenge. He looked out into the room and noticed that every single student was fully engaged as they feverishly constructed a simulated earthquake-resistant building using drinking straws, pipe cleaners, and paper clips. He knew (as did the rest of the faculty) that we were witnessing a significant teaching moment - complete and total focus from every student.
As an educator, I know that level of focus means a child is learning. As a mom, I know it means a child must must love what they are doing.
Since Charlotte was forced to reinvent itself in 2007, weve heard a lot about the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). My friend who is an art teacher says, Enough already! Art teachers have been doing STEM for years now! She is right. Art teachers have been doing STEM all these years. So what does it mean to do STEM?
STEM learning is not just the acquisition of factual knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math. Its about the willingness to be creative and learn through exploration. It is the journey that a student goes through when engaged in the process of learning.
This summer, NC State University is bringing its youth engineering summer program to Charlotte, Engineering Camp Charlotte. This program has existed in Raleigh since 1999 and is sold out every summer. In fact, the program is so competitive that NCSU asks families to apply, even third graders!
The programs curriculum is centered around the five steps of the engineering design process. Children are given a challenge (i.e. build a building that can withstand an earthquake). They must walk through the engineering design process to complete the challenge.
In the first step of the engineering design process, students are presented with a problem and constraints. Build a tower that can withstand a simulated earthquake while supporting the weight of a bag of sand for at least 30 seconds. Students are asked to consider the question and review their available materials.
In the second step, students have to take time to imagine and brainstorm various solutions to the problem. They collaborate with their teammates to envision a design that will accommodate the constraints. Sometimes, in this second step, students collaborate well. Other times, they learn how to listen and accept other ideas.
In the third step of the engineering design process, students plan their solution by drawing their design or drafting their ideas. Constraints often allow students to integrate their knowledge of science and math.
The next step of the engineering design process (and sometimes the most critical) is when students create and test their design. Often, this is the step that exposes students to the immense benefit of failure.
Imagine the childs disappointment as their carefully constructed tower implodes on itself. Inevitably, the team is frustrated.
Teacher/coach says, Do you know what didnt work in your design? Student says, Yes. Teacher/coach says, Do you know what you would change? Student says, YES! and student scampers away to complete the fifth and final step in the engineering design process. REBUILD!
Sometimes life is an engineering design process. We face a problem. We make decisions. Sometimes we fail. We learn from our mistakes. We start over and rebuild.
Educators and parents can do STEM in every aspect of their day.
Allow your child to learn through creativity, exploration and yes, even failure. When a child is fully committed and engaged, they are doing STEM. Look closely, their brains are probably on fire.
Margaret Carr Hughes is an informal educator, Founder of Cynosure Learning and Site Director for North Carolina State Universitys Engineering Camp Charlotte.
To learn more about the Engineering Camp Charlotte, click here.
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