June 6, 2013

Gearing Up for Next Generation Science

Guest blog post by Wendy Goldfein and Cheryl Nelson

As part of the Next Generation Science Standards, elementary teachers will teach engineering.

Really??? I’m not an engineer!

The problem solving skills, communication, perseverance and teamwork that students will learn while participating in these lessons have been identified as necessary skills for the 21st century worker.

I'll just let someone else handle it. Our Advanced Academic teacher does some of those lessons with our advanced students.

By applying the math and science skills they are learning in the classroom to solve real life engineering problems, all students will see why it is necessary to learn these subjects.

Are you kidding me? I have trouble getting my students to read on grade level and perform basic computation. My plate is full!! Just when am I supposed to fit this into my day?

Sound familiar? Many elementary teachers across the country, faced with new mandates to include engineering in their curriculum, are experiencing the same anxiety. However, it is entirely possible to integrate engineering into your classroom, even if you have an inclusive classroom with special populations. Engineering does not have to be an “add-on” to what you are already teaching. Rather, it requires you to look at what you are already teaching through a STEM lens and find the opportunity for an engineering experience.

How to Integrate Engineering Lessons into the Curriculum
Integration into science lessons are the obvious first choices, but you will be amazed at the number of engineering concepts that can easily be integrated into history, literature, and math.

In literature, students could be challenged to:
  • Design a house that can’t be knocked down by a tornado for the Wizard of OZ.
  • Create a zip line for Peter Pan.
  • Plan a prototype for a new castle for Cinderella.

All can be accomplished using every day materials such as cardboard, hair dryers, fishing line, and recycled paper towels rolls in an elementary classroom.

In math, assign students to:
  • Produce an index card roller coaster that requires right angles.
  • Build a spaghetti tower that must reach a certain height.
  • Develop a catapult made out of paint stirrers that launches “angry peeps” to a specified distance.

Engineering provides an opportunity for students to apply their mathematical concepts in an engaging project for even the most reluctant student.

And in social studies:
  • Construct a suitcase for colonists to Jamestown out of recycled cardboard that will meet certain dimensions and hold a specific weight.
  • Build a shelter outside for a small animal using only those materials that you find on the playground such as grass, rocks, and twigs in order to replicate an early settler’s choices.

Engineering adds a new dynamic to a history lesson and enables students to comprehend the challenges faced by people from another time period.

Ok, I follow the logic and that sounds great. But I still don’t have time to redo all of my lesson plans to include engineering. 

Engineering Resources for Elementary Teachers
Luckily, you don’t have to recreate the wheel and invent your own design briefs and materials. There are plenty of resources available to bring engineering into all of your subjects and new ones are being added daily.

  • Engineering is Elementary by the Museum of Science in Boston offers a comprehensive program with teacher guides and kits of materials. 
  • Design Squad at PBS has a wide variety of STEM lessons for grades 4-8
  • eGFI – For Teachers maintains a comprehensive list of lessons for grades k-12
  • CEE – Children’s Engineering Educators LLC has free design briefs and activities

Engineering in the elementary classroom is here to stay as a crucial part of the STEM equation. Obviously not every child exposed to engineering will become an engineer. However, the skills of collaboration, communication, and problem solving obtained from these real life lessons will eventually allow students to take their place in the 21st century workplace. Fueled by a business world concerned that they won’t be able to meet the future demand for such workers, this initiative has the support of the White House, state legislatures, and local school boards. It has become a national priority thought necessary to keep the United States competitive in the global market. Elementary teachers will play a crucial role in planting the seeds of enthusiasm for engineering concepts with children.

Wendy Goldfein and Cheryl Nelson teach 4th grade and have spent the past three years developing an engineering program at their school. They have presented their model for children’s engineering at the Atlantic City NSTA STEM Conference, the San Antonio NSTA Science Conference, and many other state and national conferences. They recently launched Get Caught Engineering, a website and blog that provides ideas, lessons, and resources for elementary teachers. Click to read their article, "Family Style Engineering," which appeared in Science and Children magazine. You can reach Wendy and Cheryl at getcaughtengineering@gmail.com or via their Get Caught Engineering Facebook page. Be sure to leave them a comment here to tell them what you think about their engineering ideas!


  1. Great article...in Florida our standards to meet these requirements are in the peer reivew stage. I love some of the ideas you placed here.

  2. Thank you so much. We have lots of free lessons and resources that you might enjoy on our website and blog at:
    We also add ideas daily to our Facebook page.
    If you have a curriculum unit that you would like to see "engineered" just let us know. We will be happy to help.

  3. Very informative! Thank you so much.

  4. Science Buddies (www.sciencebuddies.org) has lots of relevant projects as well as additional information to help teachers compare using the scientific method to the engineering design process.

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