Skip to main content

Engineering in early childhood continues

By Peggy Ashbrook

Posted on 2019-02-26

child digs a hold in the sandEngineering was celebrated last week but it continues to happen spontaneously, and with teachers’ support, in early childhood settings. Engineering happens when young children try to solve a problem by designing and testing a solution. They use a stick to dig and sculpt a hole, maneuver a block to stand on to reach a desired object on a shelf, or drape a cloth over a table to create a “house.” They try first solutions and re-design some aspects, and we hope they will persist until they solve the problem to their satisfaction. See Hoisington and Winokur’s examples of engineering in early childhood programs and how to prepare the environment in their September 2015 article in Science and Children.

The “Approaches to Learning” domain in many early childhood standards references persistence and other approaches such as curiosity, eagerness, initiative, creativity, inventiveness, initiative, active exploration, reasoning, flexibility, reflection, and problem solving (Resources). Take a peek at the Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects (NAE and NRC) written by the Committee on K-12 Engineering “to determine the scope and nature of efforts to teach engineering to the nation’s elementary and secondary students.” The report describes a set of three general, aspirational, principles for K-12 engineering education (pages 4-6).

Principle 3. K–12 engineering education should promote engineering habits of mind. 

Engineering “habits of mind”1 align with what many believe are essential skills for citizens in the 21st century.2 These include (1) systems thinking, (2) creativity, (3) optimism, (4) collaboration, (5) communication, and (6) attention to ethical considerations. Systems thinking equips students to recognize essential interconnections in the technological world and to appre- ciate that systems may have unexpected effects that cannot be predicted from the behavior of individual subsystems. Creativity is inherent in the engineer- ing design process. Optimism reflects a world view in which possibilities and opportunities can be found in every challenge and an understanding that every technology can be improved. Engineering is a “team sport”; collabora- tion leverages the perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities of team members to address a design challenge. Communication is essential to effective collaboration, to understanding the particular wants and needs of a “customer,” and to explaining and justifying the final design solution. Ethical consider- ations draw attention to the impacts of engineering on people and the envi- ronment; ethical considerations include possible unintended consequences of a technology, the potential disproportionate advantages or disadvantages of a technology for certain groups or individuals, and other issues. 

And on page 6: These principles, particularly Principle 3, should be considered aspirational rather than a reflection of what is present in current K–12 engineering education efforts or, indeed, in post-secondary engineering education. 

In “The Designing Elementary Engineering Education from the Perspective of the Young Child” University of Northern Iowa researcher Beth Dykstra Van Meeteren, Ed. D. references “engineering habits of mind,” including systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, and communication. 

How will you continue to celebrate young children’s engineering and support their developing engineering “habits of mind”?


California Preschool Learning Foundations, Volume 1. 2008. (page 25, and also the Desired Results Developmental Profile© )

Hoisington, Cindy, and Jeff Winokur. 2015. Gimme an “E”! Seven strategies for supporting the “E” in young children’s STEM learning. Science and Children. 53(1): 44-51. 

Massachusetts Standards for Preschool and Kindergarten: Social and Emotional Learning, and Approaches to Play and Learning June 2015 page 37

National Academy of Engineering (NAE). 2009. The Bridge on K-12 Engineering Education. 39(3). 

National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and National Research Council (NRC). 2009. Engineer-ing in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects. L. Katehi, G. Pearson, and M. Feder, eds. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. 

Virginia Milestones of Child Development page 57 

Asset 2