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Why should children learn about engineering?

Jan 20, 2014 | By: Glenn Ellis

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Learning about engineering typically has been restricted to the college level—but this is now rapidly changing.  What’s causing this change?  And will it help our children?

What’s the cause?

Consider our world:  increasingly complex, interconnected, competitive and technology-dependent.  The growing challenges we face—as individuals and nations—are a strong argument for introducing engineering to children at a young age.  In fact, because engineering plays such a key role in shaping this world, it’s increasingly clear that all citizens can benefit from developing a basic understanding of the processes and uses of engineering.  This understanding can help us make sense of the world around us and make informed choices.  It is also well recognized that prosperity in the twenty-first century requires a steady supply of well-educated engineers.  

Although their parents may feel otherwise, children growing up now are typically comfortable with this new world.  They love texting and are at ease with technology in general.  However, using technology is quite different from understanding technology.  Few children know how their cell phones work or care about how they were designed.  They don’t know what engineers do and they don’t want to become one.

What are the benefits to our children?

The potential benefits of introducing engineering to children were recently the subject of an extensive study by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC).  They reported that learning about engineering increased all of the following:

  • learning and achievement in science and mathematics;
  • awareness of engineering and the work of engineers;
  • understanding of and the ability to engage in engineering design;
  • interest in pursuing engineering as a career; and
  • technological literacy.                                           

They even indicated a belief that “engineering education may act as a catalyst for a more interconnected and effective K–12 STEM education system in the United States.”

Are there other benefits?

Engineers literally design our world.  But potential engineers are often turned off to engineering at an early age.  This is particularly true for women and underrepresented minorities—and the result is a profession that’s lacking in diversity.  Why does this matter?  A strong case can be made for diversifying the engineering profession based upon equity and fairness.  Another reason is that as white males become an increasingly smaller percentage of the population, the profession must diversify to find enough engineers to meet the needs of our country.  A less obvious reason is that good engineering requires diversity.  Former president of the NAE, Dr. William Wulf, has this to say on the topic.

At a fundamental level…men, women, ethnic groups, people with handicaps, all experience similar life experiences differently.  If all are not involved in creating engineering solutions, needs are unstated and, therefore, unmet…This has gone beyond an equity issue.      

You can read more about Dr. Wulf’s opinions here.

So all of these reasons are why we decided to develop a website that introduces children to engineering.  Our goal is to not only make children aware of the engineering profession and its impact on their lives, but also to help them understand other subjects more deeply through engineering.  Our hope is to create a learning environment that engages all children and helps them to see themselves as the engineers who will be designing the future.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1223868 and 1223460.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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