When Engineering is Elementary, students can build bridges

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For most people, engineering seems like a complex and daunting scientific profession which takes years of training and challenging math classes. But for Nancy de Romero, a second grade teacher at Barbieri Elementary School, engineering is a tool for teaching science to her class and to introduce the idea of careers in STEM. The school is a bilingual school in Framingham, Mass., in which about 80 percent of Romero's class is Latino. Romero became a pilot teacher for the Engineering is Elementary program in 2003. In the program, schools can use any of the 20 units of curriculum to teach first through fifth-graders appropriate science concepts for their grade level while also incorporating engineering techniques and multicultural learning. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program is also a research organization and offers professional development for teachers and was started, in part, to get more girls and minorities interested in sciences. Romero uses a few different curriculum units in her class, which will make anyone who didn't do these activities in school marvel at what can be accomplished in an elementary school science lesson. "I wish I had done it when I was in school too," Romero said. In one project, her student design windmills as a way to incorporate mechanical engineering and talk about the power of wind and weather.   They also learn from a unit that allows them to design solar ovens to talk about how the sun gives life. They use a hand pollinator to learn about different types of insects. Students using the curriculum also do experiments relating to engineering design, such as designing bridges. All of the experiments give all levels of students a chance to understand the concepts in a more creative setting. "The kids that end up shining aren't always first in the class because of the level of creativity that is involved in the process," Romero said. "New rising stars are great, not only for the child's sense of self, but it also shows them that working together is the only way that they are going to succeed." She has also seen the benefits of being able to demonstrate the science concepts using the Engineering is Elementary curriculum. "Anytime you can see anything in action, you can make it more approachable," Romero said. The program also offers lessons in multicultural tolerance, as each unit has a story from a child in a different country that relate to the science concept. "Each story book has different types of characters so each opens their eyes to different sorts of people," Romero said. Since Romero teaches at a bilingual school, this feature is especially helpful in teaching within her classroom. "Most of my students are Latino, so that tends to be a big topic of discussion," Romero said. "So this way we get to talk about different languages, different foods and open up to even more other places than where students are from." She explained that she has also seen her use of the curriculum influence her students after they have left her classroom, with many pursuing a science track in college. "I can see the results of the program empirically," she said. "I talk to my old students, and they can remember the different activities that we did and they are in college, so I definitely think this influenced them to be open to science and to these types of ideas." Understandably, most elementary school students are not normally exposed to engineering and science concepts in science classes, which makes the possibilities for teaching much more exciting. "Engineering isn't something that they see every day as a second grader, so this helps them understand that there are different types of professions than a police officer, a fireman or a doctor," Romero said. "What great about EiE is that it opens up a lot of children's minds to other ideas that they might not see otherwise."