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Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children

“How are we going to make engineering work in an infant space?” asked Monica Dolan, an early educator who works with infants at The Children’s Center, Caltech’s child-care center.

Featured in a news story from Marketplace called “Caltech’s Little Engineers that Could,” Dolan is an early educator who was meeting with “a group of educators gathered to plan their big teaching initiative for the year ahead.”

“The center has always focused on teaching through science and math principles – after all, it is attached to Caltech – but diving into engineering curriculum for little ones was new,” the story says.

At the center, infants build with big, soft blocks.

Toddlers construct a train: “They scour the yard for materials to make carriages and find empty crates… Then a classic engineering problem strikes: resource scarcity. The crates run out and there are still 2-year-olds without a seat on the train. The toddlers solve it by finding chairs to create the needed train carriages.”

Later these students go inside and listen to a story called “Iggy Peck, Architect,” by Andrea Beaty. Iggy is a fictional architect who, at age 2, built a tower in under an hour using diapers that weren’t entirely clean. 

As for the Children’s Center’s 4-year-olds, they build rockets out of straws. Their teacher, Veronica Dayag, says, “So I want to see if you can get your straw rockets to shoot all the way from where you’re sitting to the other side of the room.”

“She asks them to start by sketching a blueprint, but doesn’t give them any other instructions. Each one uses tape, plus the big and little straws, and through trial and error figures out how to turn the materials into a rocket that shoots across the room.

“Using engineering curriculum with small children optimizes what new research shows are the capabilities of small children’s brains, says Carrie Lynne Draper, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) director at Caltech’s Children’s Center.”

One way Caltech is sharing its work is through the Early Childhood STEM Conference (ECSTEM) that was held in Costa Mesa, Calif., earlier this month.

Focusing on children from birth to age 7, the conference “provides business partners, community leaders, educators, politicians, practitioners, [and] researchers an opportunity to come together to address the needs of our youngest citizens. Laying the foundation will contribute to increasing the number of students who choose to pursue careers in STEM fields. ECSTEM contributes to raising the scientific literacy of all students including those who do not choose careers in STEM.”

The ECSTEM website features resources from previous conference speakers, including The “E” in Stem: defining Engineering in the early childhood experience. This slide presentation is full of ideas about promoting engineering and design in early education settings.

The presentation prompts early educators to ask key questions about whether children have both manmade and natural materials to play with? Whether children are embracing or avoiding constraints? If children have the chance to learn about “connective points, pivot points, and balance points” as well as “pitch, slope, weight, force, momentum, speed…?”

And also: “Do children embrace mistakes, incorporate systems and offer assistance to others?”

As the Marketplace story says, “…it’s not just preschool advocates who believe an engineering education can start young. The strategy has support at the top end of the education pipeline, too. Gregory Washington, dean of the School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine wants more women, black and Latino engineers in the field, and he says starting young is key.”

“If you’re starting at preschool, you’re right about right in order to prepare kids to be ready as inventors and as problem solvers,” Washington told Marketplace.

We’ll give the last word to Iggy Peck’s classmate, who is featured in the book “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” also by Andrea Beaty. After thinking that one of her inventions was a flop, Rosie learns that at the heart of engineering is the importance of trying, and trying again:

“Life might have its failures, but this was not it.
The only true failure can come if you quit.”