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We're putting engineering at the center of STEM programming

The Minnesota 4-H program is increasing efforts to enhance science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) program opportunities, specifically focusing on the E -- engineering and the engineering process.

What is the engineering process? This is National Engineers Week, and it seems important to explain how the engineering process is different from, but related to, inquiry. Inquiry is about asking questions in depth. It has these phases: sparking curiosity, articulating curiosity into questions, systematically investigating questions, interpreting the meaning of results, and improving ideas and explanations.

Engineering, in the simplest terms, is about solving problems. It is the application of science, mathematics, economics, and experience to design products, processes, or services. The engineering design process is used to fulfill these goals, through a systematic and iterative approach that involves asking questions, imagining solutions, planning things out, creating, optimizing and improving.

According to Dym, et. al. in their article, Engineering Design Thinking, Teaching, and Learning, "Design thinking reflects the complex processes of inquiry and learning that designers perform in a systems context, making decisions as they proceed, often working collaboratively on teams in a social process, and "speaking" several languages with each other (and to themselves)."

In Minnesota 4-H we support youth STEM learning through a variety of project areas. This includes robotics, aquatic robotics, and new this year, the 4-H Engineering Design Challenge -- the Rube Goldberg Machine contest.

The 4-H Engineering Design Challenge will engage and, yes, challenge youth to develop 21st century learning and innovation skills -- critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity. I am already excited and energized by this!

What are strategies you recommend for elevating and discovering engineering design? What will we find as we continue to elevate and refine engineering design in the Minnesota 4-H STEM program?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. Emphasizing creativity and fostering multiple solutions to a problem! That one solution is not necessarily better or worse than another. Listing specifications that encourage youth to think about diverse attributes and uses. Something I have been thinking about since I watched it over the weekend is designing to make the user happy, design as a process that unlocks our potential. Pieter Desmet, professor of Emotional Design at the Delft University of Technology, talks about this in his brief video What if we emphasized a social and emotional component, ingenuity in designing and engineering solutions to problems?

  2. Trudy,
    Thank you for sharing the TEDx talk from Pieter Desmet on Design for Happiness. His talk reminds me of an excellent documentary titled, “Objectified” that I watched a few years ago on design. Creating opportunities for engineering design that connects with emotions is another important strategy for us to consider. The idea of design as inspiration is so great and supports developing creativity.
    What do others think? Should there be more emphasis on the social and emotional aspects of design? Additionally, what strategies can be employed to elevate and discover engineering design?

  3. A successful and easy strategy for elevating and discovering engineering design that I would recommend for any staff who does after school programming, day camps, etc. would be to simply make engineering the focus/topic of your program. There are so many great engineering activities you can do! Why not have an after school program or a day camp that is all about engineering! Doing so is very easy and from my experience, youth participants love it! Teaching about something that may be unfamiliar can be uncomfortable at first, but like anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets. There are so many great resources out there that make activity planning super easy! A few I'd recommend include: Janice VanCleave's Engineering for Every Kid: Easy Activities That Make Learning Science Fun by Janice VanCleave, Explore Simple Machines!: With 25 Great Projects (Explore Your World series) by Anita Yasuda, and Gizmos & Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why) (Williamson Kids Can!) by Jill Frankel Hauser. Another bonus I've found in doing engineering themed programming is that it is actually easier to teach because it's less about the teacher leading activities and more about building some background knowledge, introducing new concepts that are made real by the participants playing around, troubleshooting, and reworking things while the instructor serves more as a guide. From my experience, I'd also say that engineering activities provide a more immediate opportunity to witness learning that has occurred than some other activities because the youth are so immersed in what they are doing and developing a concrete example of the concepts that their learning revolves around. On a side note - I'm so glad to hear about the Rube Goldberg challenge and new 4-H engineering project!

  4. Hi Becky –
    Thanks for the great blog on making engineering the focus. One thing that I really like about this focus is that engineering can be paired with many other topics. Could you share your thoughts on how you envision engineering working alongside other subject matters?
    - jennifer

  5. Great post Becky!
    As you said, engineering thinking reflects the complex processes of inquiry. I think engineering design is not too far away from what 4-H youth program is doing right now. We just need to be more intentional about the process when we do what we are doing now.


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