A bottom-up approach STEM education

Spring 2016

An all-female team of former corporate engineers has joined forces as STEM educators at Allendale Columbia School (New York). Implementing instructional programs starting in lower school grades has yielded remarkable results in effectively developing STEM fluency, design thinking, and strategic innovation in this bottom-up approach to real-world engineering education.

Infusing engineering principles and professional practices, the Vista Teach STEM Team of teachers has developed a systematic and comprehensive instructional continuum, repurposing robotics systems and electronic components across multiple grade levels. First-grade students develop design-thinking skills to solve the problems they confront, while maintaining specific constraints and incorporating real-world, unanticipated “function change requests.” Students must comment on their code by second grade as they share design thinking, debugging, and strategic innovation in the process of creating interactive structures and smart robots programmed with sensors and actuators. By third grade, students apply complex programming and high-level, mechanical concepts as they further develop solution-focused, problem-solving skills. Students in fourth grade and beyond solve problem-based building and programming modules in structural design, as well as robot navigation and manipulation.

In this active learning context, young students engage in complex engineering concepts and skills. All modules have been developed in a systematic and comprehensive approach for teams of two students. However, each student takes responsibility for completing individualized programming tasks.

Through this hands-on learning, students make relevant content connections. The 21st-century skills our workforce urgently needs are easily cultivated in the early elementary years by tapping into the natural curiosity and risk-taking mindset of young learners. The team advocates developing STEM fluency in the early elementary grades in order to sustain interest and build competency across the STEM disciplines as students move on to middle and high school.

The remarkable success of students in their formative years at Allendale Columbia School makes the case for implementing a bottom-up approach to engineering education more broadly, enhancing the capacity of young learners to become global leaders and innovators.