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Beyond Early Literacy: A Balanced Approach to Developing the Whole Child

We do not mean to suggest that K students should be treated like little engineers or that engineering education in K classrooms should resemble in scope or rigor the post-secondary engineering curriculum Katehi et al. The basic constraints with which our students were working involved the laws of physics, the materials, and the physical space. Some children chose plastic eggs, while others chose small cars, blocks, or jingle bells. Other children, appearing to understand that spheres easily roll down inclines, selected marbles to explore questions such as how far or how fast they could get their objects to move.

The children were motivated, thoroughly engaged, and genuinely interested in finding out if their own ideas about design as well as force and motion would work. Our observations led us to conclude that in the early years, it is important that children be allowed to investigate their own questions. We found that for young children, the engineering design process does not reveal itself as steps but rather as nonsequential components that may often be enacted by children simultaneously sometimes within a few seconds and would often quickly result in new questions.

Much like engineers in the field, the children used, repeated, or skipped components of brainstorming, planning, testing, and improving as the project or question dictated. In the component of planning, we found that children verbalized their plans or held a mental image but almost never drew out their plan on paper before, during, or after they began to build.

We believe this component is done mentally by children for several reasons. First, children already have something of a mental picture of what they want to see happen and are eager to replicate their idea with the materials. For young children, requiring them to first draw it seems an unnecessary interruption and misuse of valuable time in their design process.

Second, while young children can think 3-dimensionally, they have difficulty representing a 3-dimensional mental image on a 2-dimensional plane. The requirement of recording a plan on paper would demand a great deal of mental energy that is better spent on building their mental design. The desire to design and build enables children to develop spatial reasoning and a working understanding of physical science.

Provided with a reason to count, to seriate, to measure and compare, to consider space and time, the child demonstrates that STEM education works best when all aspects of the acronym are considered Katehi et al.

Institutional Practices

This satisfies the second principle advocated by the committee regarding the incorporation of important and developmentally appropriate mathematics, science, and technology knowledge and skills. This vignette provides opportunities to identify what the child brings to the design process based upon prior experiences, and the components of the design process.

In the beginning of building, a young girl is excited to create a ramp to make her marble go fast. She wants her marble to go fast because in her world fast is best. Fast wins races. She also seeks a marble that is big in size and weight because in her world big overpowers small and power is held in high regard.


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The girl places a section of cove molding or track against a chair and releases the marble at the top. She squeals in delight as she watches the marble roll quickly down the ramp and across the floor. After several tries, she decides to change the position of the ramp, and she sets it on a bookshelf at a lower height and finds that the marble does not roll as quickly or as far. After several tries at changing the steepness, she decides that the steeper the track, the faster her marble will roll.

She overgeneralizes and stands the track nearly perpendicular to the ground and releases the marble with the expectation that it will go the farthest and the fastest see Figure 2. She is surprised when the sphere falls, bounces several times, and comes to a stop.

Beyond Early Literacy : A Balanced Approach to Developing the Whole Child

She tries this design several more times until she is satisfied that the design is unworkable and returns to work, placing her ramp against the chair. Dissatisfied with her ability to vary the steepness of the track when placing it against a chair, she selects a number of unit blocks and stacks them up to reach the desired height and leans the track against the stack. In this way, she begins to add or take away blocks until she is satisfied with the speed of her marble.


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  • Once satisfied, her attention turns to increasing the complexity of her design by adding other sections of track. Analyzing the scenario above, we see that she is moving between the components of the engineering design process quickly and often. We could argue that she does not even ask a question at first. She may be in a state of equilibration in which she believes that her plan will work and simply desires to build it.

    It may only be after she begins having difficulties or finds herself in a state of disequilibrium that her design process becomes more systematic. When she has a problem in her original design, she may ASK herself what the problem is and perhaps consider what she has seen others do. Through observation, she determines how successful the change was and then performs some iterative changes to IMPROVE her design until she is satisfied with the results.

    We also include here a video of two second-graders who have built an impressive ramp structure using only unit blocks.

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    In the first segment, the children can be seen working on the structure independently. In the second segment, the teacher the first author enters the scene and questions the children about their structure.

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    She asks them to show her how it is constructed, drawing their attention to not only what they have done but how they did it. In order to answer her question, the children must reflect on their system. In the third and fourth segments, she goes deeper, questioning the children about the problems they encountered and how they addressed these problems to IMPROVE their structure, and about the purpose of certain aspects of their design. Finally, the last segment shows the finished structure and how it works.

    In this environment, young children have the luxury of time to immerse themselves in the engineering design process on a daily basis.

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    They have the possibility to engage deeply in meaningful questions that they pose to themselves. The children are not dependent upon an adult to guide them through every selection of a design component. Their tests held against nature are carried out without the constant oversight of the teacher. This allows the children independence in their creative designs.

    Within this open-ended center, children can engage in the design process many times on a daily basis, giving themselves opportunities to develop engineering habits of mind, which we address in the following section. The third recommendation of the Committee on K Engineering Education calls for the promotion of engineering habits of mind. These skills include systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, communication, and attention to ethical considerations Katehi et al.

    Systems Thinking. Evidence that children do not yet see their structure as a system can be seen, for example, when 3-year-olds shift one end of a segment of cove molding to the left or right so that it will align with the next segment. But shifting one end of the segment causes the other end to shift in the opposite direction. Preschoolers are frequently surprised and perplexed by this, and only after experiencing it several times, do they begin to recognize when it will happen.

    One solution to the corner problem is to elevate the starting end of the first ramp and then place a block at the end to allow the marble to ricochet onto the next ramp. That is, the child can lower the incline, thus slowing the marble down so that it does not strike the ricochet block with as much force, and bounces gently onto the second ramp see Photo 3. The coordination of the ramp subsystems becomes finely tuned with our young engineers. We witnessed a second-grader coordinate a total of thirteen 3-foot ramps at right angles to each other to create a ramp system spiraling down to allow a marble to travel 39 feet on a structure that took up only 9 square feet of floor space.

    This structure was beautiful in form as well as function. The child was so engaged in this process that she invested over two days working on her design before deciding that her limitations in physical height would not allow her to continue see Figures 4 and 5. We also witnessed builders creating complex systems consisting of a series of fixed ramps in combination with two tracks balancing on fulcrums that tipped in a manner precise enough to successfully place the moving marble onto the next piece of the ramp system see Figure 6.

    A second-grader creates a ramp system spiraling down to allow a marble to travel 39 feet on a structure that took up only 9 square feet of floor space. Figure 6. Children create a complex system of fixed ramps in combination with two tracks balancing on fulcrums that tipped in a manner precise enough to successfully place the moving marble onto the next piece of the ramp system.

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    As can be seen in the descriptions in the previous paragraph, the design process in and of itself exemplifies creativity. We celebrate any opportunity for children to demonstrate creativity through engineering design while they may still be searching for their creative edge in literacy. Student test scores influence decisions about instructional time, curricular emphasis, professional development, and ultimately what is valued in the classroom. The facilitation of Ramps and Pathways fosters resilience in young children.

    We found that when children engineered their ramp structures, they developed persistence and self-confidence in their abilities. Students with self-efficacy persist when faced with difficulties and display resilience when facing learning challenges Bandura, Literacy researchers are beginning to draw attention to the importance of socioemotional development for literacy development.

    Pajares found that literacy skill development and socioemotional development demand equal attention. Literacy skills are important, but they cannot develop without effort and persistence. In an article directed toward reading educators, Johnston argues that literacy screenings should include assessments of academic resilience. Learners who are resilient are not focused so much on what abilities they have but rather use challenges to build ability. Their attention is more on the learning process and less on the performance Johnston, Niemi and Poskiparta found that assessments of resilience in kindergarten are more predictive of success in reading than assessments of phonological awareness.

    Research on self-efficacy and student achievement has led to research exploring environments that foster self-efficacy and resilience. Least effective are classrooms that primarily use direct instruction models, where teachers teach to the whole class, control discussion, and control decision making. Yet lectures, drill and practice, and an overreliance on seatwork is what Haberman found most often in schools serving a minority underserved population—just the population the engineering profession hopes to reach.

    We certainly saw this in our young students as they enlisted the help of others in getting their designs to work, offered advice and encouragement to others, and even worked to figure out how to merge two working systems into a larger system see Figure 7. In fact, we routinely observed cooperation and collaboration among children who exhibited extremely difficult and challenging behaviors and who otherwise appeared incapable of cooperation. Somehow, the design process engaged them to such a degree that their behavior problems abated. Figure 7. Young students helped each other to get their designs to work and figured out how to merge two working systems into a larger system.

    We observed that Ramps and Pathways provided a rich context for using language for a variety of purposes. As children attempted to assist others in designing their ramp structures, negotiated goals for their ramp structures, and explained how they were able to get their designs into working order, we saw them take turns in speaking, listen closely to one another, and search for appropriate vocabulary to articulate what they desired to convey.