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Thinking Like an Engineer by Quynh Cao






Like many great beginnings, engineering starts with a question. SpaceX asked How can we make interplanetary travel more affordable?  After the Falcon Heavy launch earlier this month, children wondered, how did they do that? These were a few of my wanderings as I prepared activities to support our study of space and space exploration. How do we encourage children to think like engineers?  What can that look like at Lake and Park? What does it sound like? What is the role of the educator? What is the role of the student?












Engineering at Lake and Park looks like a bustling workshop where teachers make it a priority to reuse everyday materials in non-conventional ways.  A balloon, straw, string, and tape illustrate jet propulsion.












Questions are used as a guide to help children approach and discover a topic rather than have an idea defined for them. Instead of explaining what jet propulsion is, we challenge the students with a question.  How can I get my balloon to travel farther? Open ended questions allow for children to discover more possibilities.








Thomas, Ayar, and Ted use the Canadarm to move a lunar rover.

Wire, foam board, and brads can be fashioned into a simple lever machine to simulate the Canadarm found on the International Space Station. Paper cups and strings taped in a particular way become a grappler.  Children made “lunar rovers” using a thread spool, thumb tack, rubber band and a pencil to demonstrate how stored elastic energy is converted into kinetic energy. Cardstock, tape, and glue are all that are needed to make a rocket.






Wire, foam board, and brads can be fashioned into a simple lever machine to simulate the Canadarm found on the International Space Station. Paper cups and strings taped in a particular way become a grappler.  Children made “lunar rovers” using a thread spool, thumb tack, rubber band and a pencil to demonstrate how stored elastic energy is converted into kinetic energy. Cardstock, tape, and glue are all that are needed to make a rocket.











Children worked collaboratively in small groups and across the grades.  North Room engineers shared their knowledge with younger children from the Beginning and Very Beginning rooms. 

The ability to “make something from nothing” is a skill that can be developed at any age. 





 Access to materials, a place to work, and time to create solutions of her or his own design are necessary. There are many ways to structure an engineering challenge, but I think the most effective method (at this age) is by trial and error. Many children find the trial and error method most satisfying, and for the above-mentioned projects I did not give instructions in the assembly process but provided a model for children to examine. In figuring it out for themselves, children feel empowered by their own abilities. 






“I liked it because I messed up so much. I learned that messing up can help you a lot.”  -Ardin



Engineers view mistakes as learning opportunities.  




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