Engineering is Elementary Founder Christine Cunningham Speaks on K-12 Engineering Curriculum, Equal Access to STEM Education
In 2003, engineering for elementary education was a radical concept.
But Christine Cunningham, an expert in engineering education, knew that the fundamentals of engineering can be taught at an early age—on the playground, in the classroom, or even at home. As Christine points out, children are always building things up, tearing them down, and building them up again—whether it’s block towers, doll beds, or train tracks.
Christine knew that this play and problem solving were just the first steps to building future engineers. So, she founded Engineering is Elementary, a K–12 engineering curriculum and education program headquartered at the Museum of Science in Boston. The program has now reached over 13 million students nationwide, and is the reason Christine was just named as one of three recipients of the 2017 Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education this week.
In this interview with Ranjini Govender of Stand for Children Massachusetts, Christine Cunningham tells us about her groundbreaking work at the Museum of Science, and how she created an early engineering curriculum.
Ranjini Govender: Hi, this is Ranjini Govender, executive director of Stand For Children Massachusetts, here today at the Museum of science, interviewing Christine Cunningham for Ed Tech Times. Thank you so much, Christine. It’s great to have you here. Tell us a little bit about your role at the Museum of Science, and how has the role grown here over the past years. [0:10]
Christine Cunningham: I was recruited by the president of the Museum of Science, Ioannis Miaoulis in 2003. And I joined the museum as a vice president at that time, where I came to found and currently direct the engineering is elementary project. So my main two interests in putting the program together were first, I noticed that children sort of naturally build things. They build forts, towers, bridges, sand castles, they build them and they knock them down. So every single day they’re building and problem solving, but yet in schools we had only focused on the natural world and not the human made world. So I found that a little bit intriguing, and started to think about how we might introduce young children and build upon these natural proclivities to design and problem solve, and bring that into school settings. So that was one thing I wanted to do, how do we bring engineering or the design of the human made world into K12 classrooms, and the second thing that has underlain my entire career is how we can do this in a way that’s inviting and attractive to students of underrepresented and underserved populations. So I was committed from very early on that if we were going to do engineering at the elementary level, which was pretty much a radical concept in 2003, that whatever we did had to engage girls, children of color, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, english learners, children with a range of abilities and disabilities. [2:14]
Ranjini Govender: That makes a lot of sense and is really exciting. So I have two little kids, and they run around and they build things, and they do understand how things work, so that’s a really great concept. About how many children does the curriculum reach. Tell us a little bit more about the program and how it’s implemented.
Christine Cunningham: Right now we’ve reached, we’ve developed five different curricular tracks. Our flagship program is our elementary age program from grades 1 through 5, we have an after school summer camp program, but at the elementary level and the middle school level. And we’re currently developing a program for preschool students and for kindergarteners. So, our projects that are out in the world so far are the elementary and the middle school programs, have reached about 13.2 million children. About 2 million kids per year.
Ranjini Govender: Wow, so that’s great. So this goes beyond Massachusetts? The Engineering is Elementary program… [3:10]
Christine Cunningham: Yes, Engineering is Elementary is in all fifty states, and also internationally. [3:30]
Ranjini Govender: Great. I didn’t know that. So, we talk about a lot, that learning outside the classroom is just as important and a critical piece as children grow up. So what kinds of programs here at the Museum of Science do you have that offer students and teachers the ability to take some of the things from here and the things that they’ve learned outside of the traditional classroom settings.
Christine Cunningham: Right. Learning doesn’t stop when the school bell rings or when the school vacation begins, so we’re really excited that here we can work with students, with teachers, and with their families to create an ecosystem of learning where everybody is constantly thinking about how science and engineering constantly intersect with their lives. So if schools or teachers or students or families visit, they might engage with our exhibits here at the museum, and one of our most recent permanent exhibits is the Yawkey Charles river gallery, where they can engage in engineering and science activities to explain how we interact with this river ecosystem on which we’re situated. So that’s pretty interesting they can look up the river while they do different kinds of activities to learn more about engineering and science of the river upon which we’re on. They might visit science in the park, which is one of our most beloved visits because it’s a playground. And as the kids engage in various activities of the playground, they learn more about the physics and the science underlying that. So exhibits are one way that students can interact while they’re here .They can also engage with programs. And we have a wide range of programs. Design challenges is particularly interesting, and the students can design a trampoline and try to figure out how to make it as bouncy as possible. So groups and families may come on their own, or they may come as part of a school group. We have a lot of field trips and students can sleep underneath our dinosaur on one of our overnight programs. And…. [inaudible] and our school programs that we offer also leave our building itself and travel out into the community. So we have a set of traveling programs that goes out every day. The vans leave the museum bright and early, six-thirty, seven-o’clock. And drive to schools all over New England, to bring the museum to the schools. We also bring the exhibits to people, schools, and teachers nationwide because they travel. For example, the Pixar Exhibit, which was here a couple years ago, is now on a worldwide tour through at least on 2023, so that reaches a lot more students and teachers that way as well.
Ranjini Govender: So you spoke a little bit about the focus on engineering, and also the K-12 focus, but I know that you’re working on a program specifically for preschoolers that is really exciting that is called “Wee Engineer” so tell us a little bit about that program. And you know, I know that this is something that is new, something that is new, something that is unique, so what sets this apart from other programs that are focused on preschoolers? [6:17]
Christine Cunningham: So Wee Engineer arose because we had been working originally with children ages five or six or up, but we know that kids don’t start solving problems and designing solutions at those ages. They actually start much younger building block towers, or beds for their dolly. So we started to think about how we could harness some of those natural instincts and have kids engaged in activities that would get them thinking a little bit more in the way that engineers would. And when we started thinking about this about two years ago now, this was brand new and there wasn’t really anyone else that had thought about engineering at the preschool level. And we’re still learning a lot, preschoolers are very different than five year olds. But we have two central things that we distilled from all of the literature about how young children learn, what’s developmentally appropriate that we are focusing on. One, is that we’re trying to have students think about engineering as something that you do to solve a problem and you continually can improve. So we had to distill our engineering design process to three steps. Because at the preschool level there are lots of things that come in threes, they can remember three things. So first we have the kids explore, and they might explore the materials, they might explore how they behave. And then they create a technology. But most importantly they think about how they might improve it. And a lot of what goes on, and kids are very familiar with in preschool, is arts and crafts: you make something and then it’s done and you take it home. And what we’re interested in getting kids to think about is once you make that, how can you make it better? How can you go back and revisit what you did? And that’s a new thing for both teachers and for the elementary and the preschool, excuse me, students themselves. So this idea that you can design and redesign and constantly make things better, is something that we want these youngsters to know. The second thing that we’re trying to work on with them, and it’s interesting working with three and four year olds, is the idea of materials and that materials have properties. So this is very common in engineering, and its one of the central things that most engineers need to consider. And young children are building their knowledge of this world around them, so they like to squeeze pom-poms and figure out the sounds when things drop. Those kinds of properties are just the kinds of things that young kids should be doing and accumulating and as they get ready to think about how to apply that knowledge to other kinds of situations. So we try to set up activities where kids can explore materials and think about how well a material solves a certain kind of problem. So initially, many of the girls want to choose anything that’s pink. Doesn’t matter if it works or not, if it’s pink they want it. And the boys have their own set of things. But we’re trying to get them to think if you’re going to make a noise maker, what materials might you put in that box to shake to make it the loudest. And that’s a very different shift for these youngsters. [10:12]
Ranjini Govender: That makes a lot of sense. In education, we’re thinking more and more about how to develop K through 12, in higher order thinking skills. Analysis, and how do we plan out before we dive in. Which is hard to do with three and four year olds, but really interesting to hear about how to develop that in them. So engineering, definitely not too advanced for young kids.
Christine Cunningham: Definitely not, no. We like to say that some of them are better engineers than older students, because they’re willing to innovate and try new things, and they don’t see it as failure, it’s just time to go build a different block tower if your first one fell down. [10:45]
Ranjini Govender: So I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay between science and literacy. So when we’re thinking about how a child is developing when they’re three or four, and they’re interacting not only with the physical things, and learning in that way through engineering and other play, what are your thoughts about how literacy comes into play as we think more about those two basic things that kids are developing, which is you know science and math skills and their ELA english literacy skills.
Christine Cunningham: Well, I like to say that children need to learn to read and communicate about something. And so I think that the key is to think about how you can interest and engage those children about what they’re either reading or doing. So all of our engineering programs actually start with some literacy element. In part because we want to set a larger context for the activity that the children are doing. This gets them more motivated, and it’s particularly motivating for girls and children of color. So all of the research shows us that if you can help them understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing, and also put a human face or some sort of face, with our little students we use a puppet, and they’re animal puppets, so it’s not always human. But if you can put a face on what is going on, then the kids are more likely to engage with it. So for instance at the elementary level, all of our engineering units start with an illustrated children’s story book. And the kids will read the story, and it connects to literacy, it allows us to present some of the basic background information about the science and mathematics, but it also has a story and a theme, that the kids can call upon throughout the activity as they’re trying to make a water filter that will protect a turtle, or try to create a knee brace to help the boy get down the mountain. That interactive and that context is important. For our middle school program, the children are a little older, so we have a video context instead, so it’s still a narrative story of a real world engineer, explaining the work that he or she does, but it sets the background for the students that helps them connect. For the littlest ones, the preschoolers as I mentioned, the puppet comes out, and when the puppet comes out it’s time for some interactive dialogue, that always focuses on engineering. So again setting this larger context and larger storyline about why what you’re doing is important to the world around you. [13:34]
Ranjini Govender: You spoke a little bit about how you are trying to take these programs, and all the great work you’re doing here, to populations that might be typically under represented. We think a little bit about minorities, women, we also think about low-income students. And that seems to be something that’s important from you from what you’ve said. Can you expand a little bit about what can be done to engage underrepresented communities? Or the sort of things that you think could expand your program to these populations?
Christine Cunningham: Yes, so I think it’s really important as we think about how we can attract and engage a wide diversity of students to think about how you create both materials that teachers will use and experiences for children. So before we start any of our activities, and before we started working with Engineering is Elementary, we first went to the literature and did a lot of reading about what the research tells us engages and does not engage people from a range of populations. Then we also then went next to talk to the experts being the classroom teachers, because they know a lot of things about how students learn and about how different kinds of students learn, inside their classrooms. And based on that set of research, we then developed 14 inclusive design principles that underlie all of our curricular programs that we make. So for instance, the example of setting things in a larger context is part of them. And making sure that you have role models in those narrative contexts from a wide range of genders, races, ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, family structures, from countries all around the world. So that gives those kids, and we hear when we go to those classrooms, like “Oh, Juan Daniel looks just like my brother,” and those kids start to identify with those characters. Another thing the literature tells us is that students from different cultures have different ways of interacting in different group structures and with adults. So one of the reasons that we articulate five step, or three-step, or eight-step depending upon the age, engineering design process, is to help cue students into what is the important part of the lesson today. So, for instance, one of our steps, is the ask step of the engineering design process. And we want students to know during this time that you are supposed to ask questions of adults and of your peers. Because in some cultures, you don’t ask questions of adults, that’s not your role. So really explicitly making it clear to students so they all know what’s expected of them in this context is one way that you can engage students. Another thing we do is make sure that all students have an opportunity to explore in a hands on way, the materials that will be available to them to do the larger challenge. So it’s not an even footing, if some students come from more highly resourced households that may have pom poms and card stock and pipe cleaners, and another group of students don’t have access to those particular materials because then you throw them together and say “design something!” Because haven’t had that real world experience of “how does this work?” So by explicitly in every one of our lessons setting aside a time that all students interact with whatever materials they’ll be using, and all students do some testing to understand what will pick up simulated pollen better, we use baking soda, a pom pom, a marble, an eraser, a pipe cleaner. When it’s time to take and apply that knowledge in the larger challenge, the students come in on a much more equal footing. And so they’re able to participate with their peers. So those kinds of things, and we have many of them, we carefully think about as we design all of our activities, to try to bring and interest the students, and allow them a way to participate. And our research has shown us that it works that if you design with these principles in mind that the students are much more likely to learn the science. Not just some students, but all the students are. And it works so well, that we’ve actually started another set of resource development to further research certain populations that teachers have told us, “We haven’t seen anything like this before,” so we are going back now and creating even more curricular supports for English learners and for students who receive special education services. [18:50]
Ranjini Govender: Two things you pointed out as basic themes are access to resources and setting high expectations, and we’re thinking about those two things a lot more in education. About how can we give access, and set high expectations that all kids can meet from different backgrounds. So that makes a lot of sense. So, question about your personal experience. So anyone who works with kids or who has kids of their own, it tries on the patience sometimes. And sometimes we need those really great moments where you see a kid having that “aha!” moment, and really falling in love with something, and that gives you a sense of pride and “yes this work is meaningful.” Do you have any experiences like that where you’ve seen a kid in one of these programs who has had a moment like that that you carry with you?
Christine Cunningham: Yes, there’s a number of them. And in fact not only do I have them, but we have captured some of them in our classroom video library on line. So I’ll talk about two of my favorites. There’s one class that’s in a very poor district in Florida, it has received as a school a grade of D. So this is not a wealthy school, it’s not an affluent school, it has a number of students from all different kinds of backgrounds. But they’re second grade teacher for the first time was teaching engineering to her six and seven year olds, and they had read a story about a bunny who was eating the school garden, so the child in the story book decided to solve this problem, she would build a wall to keep the bunny out of the story book. So the young children in the class are then challenged to think about how they would build a strong and sturdy wall, and more specifically between the rocks. So at first they do some testing to think about how sand and soil and clay work separately to keep things together and keep them strong. And before they move on to the larger challenge of now mixing the ingredients together. The teacher asks the class if they feel like materials engineers, because that’s the discipline of engineering that they are doing, and this little child raises his hand and walks through they’ve walked through what they’ve done, and says “I feel, that because I’ve done all of these, that I’m really ready, that I’m really ready to be an engineer. And I’m really engaged just like an engineer would be.” and that sort of reflection and assuming the identity of the engineer is really what we want to see from these kids. They know they can do it, they’re confident they can go out and solve problems, and not only hopefully this problem but any other problems they encounter in life. There was another young child here in the Boston area, whose class was designing water filters. And so they were trying to filter tea, potting soil and corn starch out of a mixture of water. And the class was working on it, and this child hadn’t particularly engaged in science or in school much before. And after a couple weeks, because the materials are all available at home, she had apparently gone home and worked on this challenge some more. Using, you know they had soil, sand, cheesecloth, coffee filters. And she came running in one day, and said in Spanish, her first language, to the teacher, “I did it! I did it!” “Lo hice! Lo hice!” And the teacher said “What did you do?” and she said “I got the water perfectly clear!” because that’s a really hard challenge to get tea color out of water. So the teacher let her demonstrate her solution to the class, and then she turned and said, “For my next challenge, when I go back to my home country of the Dominican Republic, I’m going to meet with engineers there, because I want to figure out how to make fresh water out of desalinization of ocean water.” So from that point on, the teacher recognized that this child had a gift and a talent, she was tracked into the more gifted and talented programs, and off she went. So sometimes, it’s just getting the right challenge. She knew in her home country that fresh drinking water was a problem. And sometimes it’s just hitting the kids in a place that resonates with them, that you can get them to really re-engage in school. And we hear story after story of children who had sort of checked out of the more traditional type of instruction, being re engaged when it’s time to think innovatively, and come up with a more creative solution to the problem. [24:00]
Ranjini Govender: Those were wonderful, wonderful stories. So we just want to thank you so much for speaking with us today, we really enjoyed hearing more about your work here at the Museum of Science. Just really appreciate it. Thank you, Christine.
Christine Cunningham: Thanks for having me.
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A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.