If you wish for a child of yours to develop an interest in Engineeering, it’s never too early to start. But let me put this straight. The purpose of introducing your child to a discipline early on is not to force them to become an expert. That would be unkind indeed. Rather, having a good idea of what a certain discipline is about makes it easier for your child to make an informed decision who he wants to be in future. Too many young adults out there step into college signing up for a course that they later find unsuitable for themselves. Imagine the amount of time and money wasted, not to mention the frustration that they go through.
Mindful adults who have a clear purpose in their minds in raising children are meticulous. These adults will create materials and use these purposefully to mould the way children think, feel and behave.
To illustrate, a total of 300 children between the ages of 3 to 7 years old were proven to develop an engineering identity when they were exposed to engineering-centred educational materials, which included books and these children’s illustrations of themselves as engineers.
In this study, to gauge these children’s understanding of engineering, researchers in the beginning asked these children, “What do engineers do?” Most of the children gave the answer, “I don’t know.” The second most popular answer was, “Engineers drive a train.”
The researchers introduced a specially designed book, Engineering Elephants, to these students, over a period of 3 years, implemented in 50 different classrooms, with 10 to 20 students per classroom. From the book, the children learnt that engineers solve everyday problems and make human lives easier in diverse fields inside and outside of home. The main character in this book is an elephant which questioned the way things were around him.
The main strategy in this study was to use the method of inquiry, whereby the elephant kept asking questions, presented in vibrant water-colour images, to help the children contextualise the story. The class was interactive, the students were told what engineers do, but everyone had to answer the questions asked.
As an example, to test their understanding after each related activity, the students were asked, “Do engineers make elephants?”, to which the students replied, “No”, which showed that they were internalising the differences between man-made technologies and naturally existent things. Engineering is a combination of Math and Sciences, a critical foundation for technological advancement in any country.
Early STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education is crucial if a child were to develop an interest in these subjects. By fourth grade (around age 9), interest in STEM subjects among children who have not been exposed early to these subjects is likely to decline.
A strong Mathematics and Science identity is needed if a student were to persist in resolving challenging Mathematics and Science problems. It also implies that Mathematics and Science concepts must be introduced strategically to children as early as possible, so they feel confident and comfortable to do them. Literacy in Mathematics and Science require early exposure to related vocabulary, concepts and communication patterns. The children were taught to envision themselves in the future as engineers by asking them the question, “When you grow up to be an engineer, what new things will you create?”
Finally, the last page of the book required each student to draw a picture of himself or herself if they were an engineer with a sketch of an engineering product that they create. Students also were asked to explain the benefit of their engineering inventions, for example, one 7-year-old student stated that he would invent a flying car so that “there will be less traffic”. In comparison, the concept sketches of students who were not exposed to the lessons in Engineering Elephants did not reflect a similar understanding.
It’s okay if, after all you have done, your child isn’t head over heels in love with engineering. Your job as a parent is to expose them early, to as many disciplines as possible. Engineering is just one area. Careers today are much more varied than before. There are even careers that combine two or more disciplines. Artificial intelligence, for example, is one discipline that is fast garnering interest among the young. If children are raised to see themselves as adaptable and flexible, chances are they would eventually settle with a good fit career-wise.
Pantoya, M. L., Aguirre-Munoz, Z. & Hunt, E. M. 2015. Developing an Engineering Identity in Early Childhood. American Journal of Engineering Education. Vol. 6. No. 2. December. pp. 61-68.