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5 tips for creating tomorrow’s engineers



Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Kendall Simmonds III, 5, works on an electrical engineering activity on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. Simmonds is building a doorbell using a circuit kit.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Children work to power a set of LED lights using a circuit kit on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21 at the Children's Center at Caltech. The school incorporate engineering principles with all activities, including free play and story time.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
A circuit kit is one of several activities that pre-kindergarten kids can choose from in lead teacher Veronica Dayag's classroom.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Lead teacher Veronica Dayag works with 5-year-old Ariana Housseini, right, on a maze enclosed in a ball. The balls involve problem-solving and coordination skills, Dayag says.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Pre-kindergarten students are challenged to build airplanes on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, at Caltech's Children's Center in Pasadena. The curriculum at the school focuses on the principles of building, including balance and stability.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Four-year-old Annika Greer, left, builds an airplane using clothespins and popsicle sticks during an engineering-based activity on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21 at the Children's Center at Caltech.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
Pre-kindergarteners at Caltech's Children's Center are encouraged to take part in a challenge to build a toy airplane without using glue.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Clara, a student in the six to 18-month-old class at Caltech's Children's Center, plays by dropping balls down a tube on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21. The school has made engineering a focus in curriculum.
A teacher works with 3-year-old Max Hamlin to better stabilize a block tower on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, at The Children's Center at Caltech.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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Problem: There’s a not-too-secret challenge in the field of engineering — it lacks diversity.

Solution: Begin engineering education early in a child’s life, like soon after birth.

Don’t scoff. Think about how neglected the "E" as in engineering is inside the now-popular educational push for STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. How many schools do you know where kids take engineering classes as they do with science and math?

Turns out there's at least one — The Children's Center at Caltech, where infants, toddlers and preschools are getting an engineering-based education.

If you have dreams of an engineering career for your young child, follow these five tips:

1. Understand what engineering really is

“Engineering is about problem-solving,” says Gregory Washington, dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Engineering, and it's about making something, said Monica Dolan, early educator at The Children's Center: "You’re coming up with the ideas, the blueprints.”

Activities that encourage kids to create things and solve problems — like stacking blocks to make a tower, for example — helps children think through the steps needed to make something work.

2. Be deliberate about the language you use

As your child plays, name the terms and concepts, says The Children’s Center teacher Seadra Chagolla. Say "balance" and "assembly" while your child plays with blocks. “Between two and three, they’re still acquiring a lot of language and so there’s a lot of ideas that they have that are nonverbal.”

However, the center's preschool teacher, Veronica Dayag, doesn’t advise hand-holding of preschool age children or gratuitous praise such as the all too common, "Good job!" Instead, Dayag said, ask "open-ended questions to help [children] develop their ideas."

Carrie Lynne Draper, STEM director at The Children’s Center, says using engineering curriculum with small children is optimizing what new research shows children’s brains are capable of.

"What this really is about is a process that's natural to children," Draper said. She said adults should work with small children "to get them to ask, to imagine, to design, to create, to test their ideas and then to improve upon that." This is what's known as the engineering design process, she said.

3. Get your daughter out of the pink aisle

At the toy section of the department store, the stereotypical princess and Barbie dolls dominate. Instead, take girls to the hardware section, experts advise.

A Stanford engineering graduate, Debbie Sterling, tired of the toy industry for its pigeonholing of young girls, created the Goldieblox toy. It features a girl character who constructs and creates her way around life. The toy comes complete with screws, axles, 5-way joints, and wheels. It prompts girls to build things like a derby car or a tropical island.

Other gender-neutral engineering toys are available at learning-based toy outlets like Lakeshore Learning Store.

Find fun books that involve little children who build and create, such as "Iggy Peck, Architect" or "Rosie Revere, Engineer." Here’s the opening line from author Andrea Beaty's Iggy story: “Young Iggy Peck is an architect, and has been since he was two, when he built a great tower in only an hour, with nothing but diapers and glue.”

4. Make math fun

Washington, UC Irvine's engineering school dean who is African-American, knows well the challenges in a field with few blacks and Latinos. He sees a “fundamental fear of math” in some communities of color as an obstacle to “getting into the discipline.”

Engineering is about solving the world’s problems, and “more people of color bring a diversity of solutions," he said. Starting at preschool is just about right "to prepare kids to be ready as inventors and as problem-solvers.”

5. Look for developments from the Early Childhood STEM Conference

The conference, Feb. 5 to 7 at the Hilton Orange County Hotel in Costa Mesa, will gather early education experts who will focus in part on engineering and sharing hands-on teaching tips and curriculum ideas for preschoolers. Registration is open online

For a rich archive of engineering activities, principles and ideas for the zero to five set, check the presentations from last year's conference.