Teaching Kids to Think Like Engineers

Engineering instruction should build on young students' natural problem-solving skills to prepare a future generation of critical thinkers.

When Christine Cunningham, an education researcher and vice president at the Museum of Science in Boston, prompts elementary school students to draw an engineer at work, the pictures they hand in never surprise her. In fact, for the thousands of students Cunningham has polled around the country in recent years, childhood perceptions of engineers have been strikingly consistent — and consistently inaccurate.

“Children think engineers drive trains,” she says. Some sketch construction workers assembling buildings, bridges or roads. “The kids think engineers build these structures, not design them,” Cunningham explains. While not altogether unexpected, Cunningham says such childhood misconceptions are troubling. “If you have no idea what engineers do, then it’s not very likely that you’ll think about this as a career path,” she says.

Kids learn about the natural world in science classes, but what about the human-made world built on top of it — the buildings and vehicles and screens where they spend the vast majority of their time? This world, constructed by engineers, rarely appears in the curriculum until college, and even then, as little as 8 percent of incoming freshmen choose to pursue an engineering major, says Leigh Abts, a research associate at the University of Maryland’s School of Engineering and College of Education. Only half of those students will actually earn a degree in the field.

Repairing the Pipeline

The deficit is clear. Our society depends upon engineers to design every aspect of our lives — where we live, what we drive, how we communicate and even what we eat — but America’s primary and secondary education systems aren’t producing enough critical thinkers to keep up with the demand. This is according to a national initiative aimed at identifying and fixing the U.S. education system’s “leaky engineering talent pipeline,” led by the National Academy of Sciences, Achieve, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association. 

The group recently released Next Generation Science Standards based on research from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The standards raise the bar for integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics content — collectively, STEM — into elementary and high school classrooms.

“We are focusing on the E in STEM,” says Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director of the NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources. Engineering provides an overlooked opportunity to teach kids how to work together and solve problems at a very young age, Ferrini-Mundy says. Such experiences can empower them to do so later in life, when the stakes are higher.