What happens when you combine the energy and imagination of a kindergartner with the engineering design process? As an educator and an engineer, I can stand in front of students and describe the engineering design process all day long, but there’s no replacement for learning by doing. This year, over two dozen colleagues joined together at Kingsley Montessori School (Massachusetts) to bring a hands-on Kindergarten Engineering Design Workshop to life, drawing inspiration from two Boston-area neighbors: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Museum of Science.
Nothing embodies MIT's motto mens et manus (“mind and hand”) better than course 2.007, the Institute's famous Design and Manufacturing class for mechanical engineering undergraduates. Students receive universal kits containing assorted motors, circuit boards, gears, and hardware, and they build robots to accomplish a set task under time constraints. The class culminates in an Olympiad-style competition in which robots face off for prizes and bragging rights. These are some of the past challenges:
- Moving a trash can from one end of a racetrack to the other
- Climbing a plateau and pushing as many tennis balls as possible into a trough
- Gathering plastic eggs of a specific color
- Climbing a clock tower on a field inspired by the 1985 film Back to the Future
- Navigating a Revolutionary War-themed obstacle course
I can still picture mechanical engineering classmates tinkering at all hours of the night in our dorm hallways and common areas. Their drive made a lasting impression that would inform my teaching years later. As I set forth to develop an engineering offering for our Early Childhood program, I remembered their sheer grit and asked myself, “Why couldn’t five- and six-year-olds do this?”
To make it child-friendly, I took cues from the Museum of Science. The museum’s Engineering is Elementary® program and Engineering Design Workshop both involve building prototypes with ordinary household materials, such as pipe cleaners, foam, and coffee filters. Because the components are everyday objects, students are already familiar with their properties and can focus on figuring out how to combine them to solve problems.
Thus, our Kindergarten Engineering Design Workshop was born. Colleagues across seven classrooms and multiple areas partnered together to make this experience a reality. Our goal was to spark interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) in our Early Childhood students.
We chose shoes as the design project because they appeal to boys and girls alike, and they offer many avenues for creativity in both form and function. Together we embarked on a three-week journey with the following objectives for our students:
1. To learn what engineering is: problem-solving using math, science, and creativity
2. To realize that technology is any object, system, or process that solves a problem
3. To experience the engineering design process through a personally meaningful hands-on project resulting in a functional prototype, a journal of their work, and a formal presentation for peers, parents, and faculty
The workshop kicked off with a read-aloud of The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, a picture book that promotes innovation, creativity, resilience, and persistence in children of all ages. Next was a short video about engineering, followed by an exploration of technology. Cars and cellphones are obvious examples, but there are many other forms of technology, such as disposable diapers and medicine, that have no on/off switch yet are equally life-changing.
I explained that everyone would become engineers over the next three weeks; we would use the Engineering Design Process (EDP) as our road map. Developed by the Museum of Science’s Engineering is Elementary® program, the process consists of five steps: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve.1
The introductory session closed with a mini-design challenge: to create a tower with index cards and tape that could hold a stuffed animal 10 inches above the table for at least 10 seconds. Although the children were unsuccessful within the 15 minutes allotted — not unusual — they did get a taste of what it is like to collaborate with others to solve problems while working under time and resource constraints.
For the remaining sessions, we dove right into our engineering project: building functional shoes to specifications. After examining and comparing their own shoes, the kindergartners unanimously agreed that no shoe, no matter how “cool,” is worth wearing if it does not stay on your foot! They developed two measurable design criteria:
1. The shoe must stay on your foot when you jump 10 times.
2. The shoe must stay on your foot when you walk across the room.
Once their shoes passed these two specifications, the students were welcome to upgrade their designs for functionality, comfort, and appearance.
After the students received their “standard parts kits” — large zippered bags containing cardboard pieces, shelf liner, pipe cleaners, bubble wrap, cotton loops, ribbon, yarn, various kinds of tape, rubber bands, pleather (artificial leather), craft foam, and felt — the ball was in their court to transform these scraps into functional shoes.
Detailed Plans Matter
“No cutting or gluing without a plan!” was our mantra. We reassured the students that their plans were simply a starting point. Failure and modifications were expected! In fact, anyone declaring their very first prototype a success would be sent back to the drawing board and challenged to find something to improve; otherwise they had not truly engineered — that is, improved — anything.
Once their plans had been reviewed, the students were off to the races! Hot glue guns and scissors emerged from cabinets. In every corner, children were measuring, tracing, cutting, and assembling with laser focus. They giggled as they performed the jump test, and they cheered one another on during the walk test. After testing, students made beelines back to their tables to tweak — and, in some cases, overhaul — their designs; one boy even asked to skip recess so he could continue working on his prototype. Their grit and persistence confirmed that we had channeled the spirit of course 2.007 for Kingsley’s kindergartners!
As for the adults, we were equally consumed with an all-important mission of our own: to photograph every student’s journey from start to finish. We snapped away as they planned, created, and tested their prototypes. In between pictures, we circulated around the room and served as sounding boards for the students’ ideas.
When their designs were complete, the students each received a stack of photos and a list of key terms, such as design criteria, prototype, ask, imagine, plan, create, improve, and test. The students affixed these photos into journals and reflected on their experiences. They wrote captions for the photos, noting their successes and failures and the changes incorporated into each prototype.
These journals served as powerful assessment tools that captured not just the learning but also the joy the children gleaned from their work. The journals were a delight to read!
No two shoes were alike; from sandals to boots, the variety was stunning. It was fascinating to observe which design features mattered to each student. One child focused on elegant yet practical straps; another strove for a rugged waterproof design, even testing the materials under water before incorporating them into his prototype. One thing, however, was universal: the immense ownership demonstrated by every single student!
Showcase: A Celebration of Learning
The best part of the workshop came at the end, when the kindergartners unveiled their work to younger classmates, parents, and faculty. An elegant display of handmade shoes greeted visitors as they entered the classroom. Once everyone found a seat, the lights dimmed.
That’s when the real magic unfolded. Each and every child gave an individual formal presentation, speaking with confidence. Who would have imagined five- and six-year-olds willingly standing alone in a dark room in front of a large group — including adults — using a projector and a screen, explaining their work, and fielding questions? No note cards were used, and nothing was memorized. For many it was the first time they had done any public speaking, yet they did it with pride, grinning from ear to ear.
How did they pull it off? The secret lay in the framing. Instead of using the terms “document” and “presentation” to describe the assignment, we pitched it as a golden opportunity to be the hero of a story they would write themselves about their three-week stints as engineers. What’s more, their stories would become a show that everyone could watch at the end of the workshop. Portraying it in this context proved irresistible for the kindergartners. They were hooked! They eagerly embraced the journal writing, driven by the desire to make the stories the best they could be.
Incorporating audiovisual equipment into a young child’s first formal presentation was admittedly ambitious. However, three measures helped set the students up for success. First, I explained that the screen and projector were simply there to help people “see the pages better.” Second, during the presentations, I had the students stand on a strategically placed dot on the floor to ensure that they did not block the audience’s view of the screen.
However, the most important key was the packaging of the presentations themselves. It was completely child-centered. The “slides” were simply projections of each student’s journal pages, so it was 100 percent their own work. Presenting meant simply talking about the pictures and captions; it was show-and-tell on the big screen.
Profound Engagement Extending Well beyond School Hours
Positive feedback poured in throughout the workshop. Parents reported their children talking about their shoes over dinner. One student asked whether she could bring the materials with her on vacation so she could keep working on her shoe. Another was so fired up that he initiated and led a mini-version of the workshop in our After School Program. For me, one of the most memorable moments was when a girl proudly announced that she had played "Engineer" at home with her younger sister; her response when asked if they used dolls was, “No, I made her a journal.”
These compelling vignettes affirm the deep impact the workshop had on the students. Most revealing of all was this journal entry — completely unprompted.
In a news article about this year’s 2.007 contest at MIT, Assistant Professor Sangbae Kim commented, “The really cool thing about this class is, they’re all starting from raw materials, from scratch…. And they always come up with something we never expected.”2 The same could be said of Kingsley kindergartners! Their accomplishments serve as a shining example of what is possible when students are deeply engaged in their learning. Their creativity, enthusiasm, and confidence inspired everyone at our school. In this program, 40 young children succeeded in transforming scraps into shoes — and, in the process, discovered the budding engineers, writers, and speakers within themselves.
Melanie Flores is an independent education consultant and a former Early Childhood Assistant Teacher and Engineering Enrichment Teacher at Kingsley Montessori School (Massachusetts). Melanie can be reached at email@example.com.
1Engineering is Elementary, “The Engineering Design Process”; online at http://www.eie.org/overview/engineering-design-process.
2Jennifer Chu, “2.007 Robots Battle It Out, Revolutionary-Style,” MIT News, May 6, 2016; online at http://news.mit.edu/2016/course-2007-competition-robots-battle-revolutionary-style-0506.