PreK-12 Engineering
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Ms. Missy Taft is an Elementary Science Specialist, teaching lab science/engineering to grades 2-6 at the Soule Road School in Wilbraham, MA. She has a Ph.D. in Anthropology and became certified in elementary education after enjoying her role as a parent volunteer in her daughter's school. Before coming to the Soule Road School, she taught for 2 years at the Holland Elementary School, where she became a PALMS Teacher-Leader in Mathematics and Science.

In 2000 she read the first draft of the revised Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering frameworks, and realized that even though her father was an electrical engineer, she didn't know the first thing about teaching engineering to students. Missy found out about the DoE Content Institute in Elementary Engineering that was offered in the summer of 2000 and immediately decided to commit to it. After participating the institute she says, “I have been actively and gleefully teaching engineering as an integral and key component of my lab science program.” She has integrated major engineering projects into all physical and earth/space science units for grades 3-6. Each project takes about 5 weeks, (bearing in mind that each class usually only meets in the lab once a week).

“I love teaching engineering,” says Missy. “It has become my favorite part of teaching physical science topics.” In particular she likes the critical thinking and problem solving that the students have to do, along with the diversity of solutions that kids come up with. She is always thinking of ways to improve the engineering projects, ways to challenge students more, to increase the content, and to provide more frequent authentic assessments of their understanding. As for her own comfort level with the engineering, Missy says, “I don't think I've mastered engineering, any more than I've mastered anything else. I am a lifelong learner who is always looking for ways to learn more and improve my performance. My goal is not so much mastery as it is continual improvement.”

When asked how her students respond to the engineering based lessons, Missy's describes it as “rabid enthusiasm.” Already certain engineering projects are becoming legendary in each grade, so students know to look forward to these special projects as part of the experience of being in that grade. “For example,” she says, “in 5th grade we do a recreation of the makeshift carbon dioxide filter in the famous Apollo 13 emergency.” Other projects include a 6th grade corporate engineering project called 'Green Planet', where they do an 'internship' with the package design division of a Green Planet, a new environmentally responsible fast food corporation entering the New England market. They are assigned to develop a party-sized insulated drink container that meets certain limitations set forth by the corporation. That project lasts for an entire term (10 weeks). In 3rd grade they design and built catapults out of lumber, PVC pipe and dowels that fire marshmallows. At the Soule Road School, older kids say they want to go back to 3rd grade and do that project!

Missy believes that including engineering has definitely changed the students' educational experience. She feels that it has empowered them in many ways. For one thing, they have learned to function as a team, which can be very difficult, and Teamwork is an important life lesson. Secondly, engineering has taught students to think outside of the box. There are no pat or easy solutions, so they have to come up with their own. Students learn to rely on their own critical thinking ability, and the abilities of their teammates. The more they do this, the better they get at it. A third and very important way that engineering has changed students' educational experience is through the assessment component of each project (for students in grades 4-6 only). For this, the team puts their work together and assesses it as a whole using the MCAS Science/Engineering rubric. They need to decide as a group how they did against state standards, and explain exactly what information justifies their ratings. This is a radically different way for students to approach assessment, as they are forced to think for themselves and assume responsibility for knowing how successful their work is against the state standard. The fourth way that engineering has impacted students' educational experience is by its nature as a student-directed learning experience. Students get out of it what they put into it. As a student said to her last year, “I never used to care about science because I only had little projects to do, which somebody else thought out for me. This [the student's first engineering project] is a big thing, and I care how it turns out. This is about me.”

One of the major challenges that Missy faced was that at first, students thought engineering projects were an excuse to fool around, because it did not “feel” like a regular science class. She says that the subsequent low grades on projects after doing the assessments seems to have cured that problem.

With her recent and exciting experiences in teaching engineering to students, the advice Missy offers to other teachers is, “Teach the process. Show students different ways engineers use the design process in different situations. No matter whether it is aerospace engineering or biomedical engineering, or corporate packaging design, or any other kind of engineering, the process is the same.” She also says to plan on engineering projects taking a lot of time. “You can't rush the brainstorm and design process, and if you want students to do an adequate job communicating their results, you have to allow them time to do that.” Assessment as a collaborative process also takes time. Another recommendation of hers is, “Don't be afraid to say you don't have an answer.” Let students find answers for themselves while you guide them in the process and shape their thinking by asking questions. Tell them only what is absolutely necessary. The results are positive. In her classes, the students are normally eager to begin a project because they have seen other classes working on their projects, or have seen the same project worked on in prior years. The kids keep track of engineering going on in other grades, and monitor progress with interest. It's become a school-wide area of interest.

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