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Why incorporate engineering skills into an environmental program?

By Hui-Hui Wang

When you think about engineering, do you first think of machines and buildings? People rarely associate engineering with the natural world. You may think it’s hard to design a youth program that combines engineering design and environmental or nature components. It is a challenge but it’s worth doing because of the thinking skills that youth can get from these activities.

I am leading a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) youth program that focuses on native pollinators. Recently we asked a group of middle school youth to examine different flowers and write down their observations, such as the shape, smell, size and color of the flowers. Then, we introduced the concept of pollinators and different type of pollinators -- bees, bats, mice, flies, butterflies, birds and so on.  We asked them to design a flower that attracts the most pollinators. Next, they designed a pollinator that is attracted to that flower. We asked them to consider why the pollinators would be attracted (find a relationship between concepts). Then, “Does your flower present any environmental concerns (exploring beyond the program), and “What would you do differently if you had a chance to redesign your pollinators (evaluating critically, making decisions).

The questions that we ask are critical to developing their reasoning and problem-solving skills. The reason that we do this activity is not because we want to train them to be engineers or flower designers. We do it to help them learn problem-solving skills. That includes asking good questions and finding solutions to them.

When youth are “designing a flower” they need to think about the pollinators that will visit them. For example, if a young person decides that her flower will blossom during the daytime, it will not be accessible to nocturnal animals. There is a trade-off to take into consideration. This may spark other good questions, which in turn sparks more learning.

Adding engineering into a youth program that has a focus on environmental or agricultural issues is not impossible. With a bit of extended thinking, you can ensure your environmental youth program has an engineering flavor. Have you found ways to integrate engineering skills into an environmental or agricultural science youth program?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, former Extension specialist, STEM education

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