Using Engineering to Teach Thinking Skills

Problem solving is not something that’s done randomly. We want students to learn it’s a deliberate process.

Kindergarten students at Rachel Freeman Elementary School in Wilmington, like their peers everywhere, are full of energy. Staying in line, being quiet and keeping focused are daily struggles. So school staff worked with NC State to channel this energy into learning. The process — ask, imagine, design, create and improve — is the core of a curriculum that researchers from NC State’s College of Engineering (COE) and College of Education (CED) helped the school implement. “We’re not trying to teach all kids to be engineers,” says Dr. Laura Bottomley, COE director of K-12 outreach. “We’re trying to teach them critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.”

When Freeman Elementary became a magnet school in 2007, the staff approached NC State. COE trainer Liz Parry showed teachers how to use an engineering curriculum developed by the Boston Museum of Science that she enhanced with ideas of her own. The curriculum goes beyond math and science to incorporate engineering ideas into all subjects, from social studies to language arts to physical education. For example, students read books set in different cultural contexts, learn new vocabulary, and perform experiments based on concepts in the stories. Students must also record data about their daily life, such as their heart rate before and after exercise. “Problem solving is not something that’s done randomly,” Bottomley says. “We want students to learn it’s a deliberate process.” Dr. Jeremy Ernst, an assistant professor in the CED Department of Math, Science and Technology Education, devised ways to measure the effectiveness of the curriculum. Extensive classroom observation and surveys of teachers and students showed teachers were getting the concepts across to students, and marked increases on state end-of-grade tests showed students were learning.

A two-year, $561,000 Recovery Act grant through the National Institutes of Health allowed the team to extend Parry’s contract and hire a graduate student to also implement the engineering curriculum at Brentwood Elementary in Raleigh. Plans also call for testing it in four other schools statewide. “We need to see if it can work anywhere, not just in a magnet school,” Ernst says. The data so far, from test scores to teacher morale, suggest that getting students to think like engineers builds a successful classroom, Bottomley says. “It’s a more efficient way of teaching because they’re involved in more hands-on, engaging activities.”


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An NC State team has worked with students at Brentwood Elementary in Raleigh to think more critically.