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Engineering EduKit: Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers

21st Century Design, or the idea that design can have a positive impact on the world, is a philosophy we not only believe in, but we also invest in. We have the responsibility to make sure the impact of our work and thinking is positive in nature and this philosophy continues to shape all the work that we do and the areas we are passionate about. Through our innovation program Startefact, we actively look for opportunities to apply our design thinking and crafting skills to make a positive impact in important areas such as education. This is the challenge a few of our designers decided to tackle.

Education is a broad and massively complex area. For our design efforts to have a tangible impact, we needed to narrow the topic. We talked to education experts at the Washington State Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER), who together with their partners at the Pacific Science Center and schools across the state share a goal to improve K-12 science education. We analyzed our own skills and passion and decided that Engineering is one of the immediate opportunity areas we could focus on.

STEM: an ambitious initiative with real implementation challenges

Our decision was partially driven by the ongoing national and Washington State initiative to introduce more Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning materials in schools. The world has never been more in need of experts in these areas, yet as a country, we are desperately falling behind. In order to create a bigger pipeline for these areas of expertise, Washington State public elementary schools will start implementing an engineering-focused curriculum starting in 2015. While STEM is a great step toward addressing the need for more science-ready graduates, many teachers consider engineering unfamiliar, overwhelming to learn and difficult to incorporate into their existing curriculum. In order to teach engineering successfully, teachers themselves need some basic tools to understand its concepts, describe its applications and be able to easily incorporate it into their already full and busy classrooms. Armed with the right resources, teachers will be able to nurture their students’ innate sense of creativity and raise the next generation of engineers. Through our research we found that teachers felt overloaded with curriculum content, often receiving multiple large 3-ring binders, full of (often) outdated materials. They needed clear, straightforward and engaging materials to help them prepare to teach engineering. Ultimately, our goal was to empower teachers in a way that acknowledged their busy schedules and commitments to specific public school teaching standards as well as took into account their unique teaching styles.

This was the essence of our design brief: Can we develop a supporting material that will help 2nd Grade teachers get more comfortable with the science of engineering and create natural connections between this new subject matter and what they are teaching successfully already?

The EduKit is a concise, approachable and actionable tool that empowers teachers to both understand and teach engineering. It is a small, beautifully designed and engaging lesson plan template to help teachers educate students about engineering.

What IS engineering?

Engineering is hard to define: it could encompass anything from machine to building engineering, from programming to bioengineering. So, our first priority was to define what exactly engineering means. When you ask “What is Engineering?” the answer may seem like you need an overwhelmingly deep understanding of calculus, physics, chemistry and math. Flipping the question to “What can we do with engineering?” allowed us to make the subject relevant and accessible to 2nd Graders to help teachers ignite their natural curiosity.

Answer: We can build a car that requires no gas and uses very little battery power to protect our environment. We can create a pet carrier that makes scared pets feel safe. We can reuse a broken bike to make something brand new. Thinking about the question differently helped us focus on and define the principles underlying engineering: Identify the problem (Define), ask questions (inquire), work together (collaborate), make it real (create), try again and again (iterate) and think about your process (reflect). These principles are the backbone of engineering and so they are the backbone of our solution: the Engineering EduKit.

A practical, actionable, easy to use kit.

The EduKit helps teachers create engaging engineering lesson plans and investigations that break down complex problems and help students apply what they are learning in real-world scenarios. Each lesson plan shows an example of how to incorporate engineering practices into classroom activities and includes criteria, directions, a prompt and a listed of materials needed to complete the lesson.

For teachers, the Engineering EduKit takes an overwhelming and complex subject and makes it accessible, adaptable and empowering by offering clear guidance and examples. It gives them the freedom to teach in their own style while adhering to specific standards like the Next Generation Science Standards.

For students, the EduKit highlights real-world examples and relatable materials that encourage imagination. The EduKit also helps them visualize how they can apply these much-needed skills while building the foundation for a lifelong passion for engineering.

Our biggest challenge: keeping it simple

Engineering is complex. Yet, we heard time and again that teachers needed something they could start using quickly and seamlessly to get their students excited. While a digital platform could deepen understanding and passion for the exciting subject matter down the road, differences in technology adoption guided our decision to design a clear and concise, physical, go-to guide for teachers.

At the end of the day, the true test of good design thinking lies with those who will actually use it. So, once we completed our EduKit, we invested in producing several copies and took them to the classroom to see how they fit in the real world. Teachers, parents, and students who kicked the tires for us loved it.

What’s next?

The EduKit is a great example of how design thinking could lead us to effective, yet straightforward solutions. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of Washington teachers, and above all by the excitement of the second graders who got one of their first engineering lessons based on it, we plan to continue to evolve it through further testing and iteration in our schools and, eventually, make the Engineering EduKit downloadable and printable for others to use. Other states’ curriculum standards may be different, but the principles of engineering still apply, so even though it is designed with Washington’s curriculum in mind, the EduKit can easily be adapted to other regions.