Skip to main content

Editor's Note

Tinkering vs. Engineering

Science and Children—February 2020 (Volume 57, Issue 6)

By Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn

Thinking about tinkering conjures up memories from my grandpa’s basement workshop where he had fascinating tools and odd bits of leftover project items. He would spend hours hammering, sawing, grinding, and mending things to be used around the house and yard. In those days, items were not discarded so quickly, and people would find ways to reuse and repurpose household items. An old ironing board became an outdoor fish-scaling table. Tin cans held nails, screws, and other interesting novelties. Metal hangers served as a television antenna, and broken shoelaces became lamp pulls. Grandpa always found a way to solve a problem and usually with just a scrap of metal or slice of wood.

In some ways, tinkering is very much the same today—it requires a wide assortment of items and tools, and a great deal of purposeful creativity. Understanding the inherent properties of objects, such as which are most flexible, provide the greatest stability, or are waterproof, helps make tinkerers so successful in finding working solutions. Tinkerers see possibilities beyond the prescribed or conventional use; they analyze objects for their potential properties and ability to fit a purpose.

Developing a tinkerer’s mindset allows for outside-the-box thinking, and this type of thinking enhances an engineer’s ability to search for alternatives, envision possibilities, and evaluate effectiveness. Engineers work within a framework of solving problems, with imposed limitations (constraints) and within guidelines (criteria). But what the heck is an engineer anyway? Adam Ruben delves into this question in the Experimental Error column of Science (AAAS), where he ultimately concludes that the labeling and defining of specific roles is forced and not very helpful. What seems more important is building a robust foundation for our future scientists and engineers. And if tinkering opens the door, let’s be sure to make room for that in our classrooms as well.

We must focus more time in the classroom for students to ask questions, try things out, and solve problems. It is less about the specific titles of “scientist,” “engineer,” or “tinkerer,” and more about encouraging students to think creatively as they design solutions. Creating space within the classroom for exploration through direct observation and experience enables students to search for alternatives and optimize design solutions. With less emphasis on titles and procedures, more time can be allotted for developing the engineering habits of mind: creativity, optimism, systems thinking, collaboration, communication, and ethical considerations. Let’s encourage our students to tinker to help develop a love for solving problems and be more engaged and committed to their own learning. 

As always, we’d love to hear from you about the implementation of some of the lessons and strategies in this month’s issue of Science and Children. Let’s keep the dialogue open as we learn about what works and what doesn’t within the walls of our classrooms.


Internet Resources

What the heck is an engineer anyway?

Why Teach Engineering in K–12?

Engineering Elementary

Asset 2