Growing in STEM. The Design Process: Engineering Practices in Preschool
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Three-year-olds Jessie and Michaela spend the morning exploring the effects of last night’s rainfall on the playground sandbox. After the sun dries the sand, they ask their teacher, Ms. Stefanie, for water to make the sand wet again. Ms. Stefanie frames this as a problem, asking them, “How can we transport water from the porch to the sandbox?” Ms. Stefanie helps a small group of interested preschoolers imagine solutions by providing photographs and nonfiction texts of water transportation systems—like pipes, aqueducts, and pulleys—to introduce them to ways others have addressed similar problems.
For several days, the children investigate potential solutions, realizing that conservation of water should be one of their primary concerns. As they consider why preserving and reclaiming water matter, they sketch plans and discuss the merits and constraints of various models. Eventually, they agree to design a pipe system to move water. Ms. Stefanie provides copies of a blueprint of the playground, which the children use to draw their pipe plans. She asks them to think about the materials they need to create a prototype. The children list pipes, water, sand, buckets, tape, clay, twine, and sticks. Their enthusiasm for the project remains high, and Ms. Stefanie looks forward to guiding the children through a few cycles of the design process so they can improve their prototype and build a pipe system.
The problem-solving experiences Ms. Stefanie (the second author) facilitated for the children demonstrate how engineering practices can be integrated into preschool classrooms. With just enough support from Ms. Stefanie, the children identified a problem, imagined possible solutions, and selected a design to model and test. In this article, we explain why engineering practices are an important part of early STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning and share recent explorations of engineering practices from Ms. Stefanie’s classroom.
STEM is an essential component of early childhood education as it combines the intentional integration of content with in-depth inquiries meaningfully embedded into children’s real world contexts (Linder et al. 2016). While engineering practices—one aspect of STEM learning—are similar to inquiry processes, there are some significant differences. “Scientific inquiry involves the formulation of a question that can be answered through investigation, while engineering design involves the formulation of a problem that can be solved through design” (NGSS Lead States 2013). We set out to better understand what solving problems through design looks like in preschool. We thought critically about the potential of engineering practices to engage children’s intellect in authentic ways and to address “the life of the mind in its fullest sense” (Katz 2010).
The design process
Adding engineering practices to the preschool classroom formally introduces young children to the design process. Design is the “study of aesthetics and the utility of items in our daily lives” (Bequette & Bequette 2012, 40). While professional designers typically have an elaborate multistep process for creating and improving their plans to solve problems, we needed a streamlined approach for novice designers. Engineering is Elementary has developed a five-step engineering design process for elementary students (Museum of Science, Boston 2018), which we’ve paraphrased here:
- Ask—to identify the problem and others’ solutions
- Imagine—to brainstorm and select a solution to test
- Plan—to specify the design and materials
- Create—to make and test a model
- Improve—to ask how the design can be even better and start the cycle again
Based on the museum’s process, we developed the following slightly modified four-step design process for preschoolers:
- Finding a problem: Identify a problem or need. Ask, Why is it important? How have others approached the problem?
- Imagining and planning: Brainstorm solutions. Sketch possible plans. Choose one to build. List and gather needed materials.
- Creating: Refer to the plan and build a model or prototype. Share the model for feedback or test the prototype.
- Improving: Analyze the model or prototype with others. How could it be improved? Redesign based on feedback.
Finding a problem
Teacher-guided play that includes identifying problems encourages children to become critical observers of their surroundings. The aim is strengthening children’s disposition to seek and embrace complex challenges. In preschool, children may need help finding problems. Questioning, as Ms. Stefanie did in the opening vignette, can lead children to recognize challenges they can take on.
To help the children see themselves as problem solvers, Ms. Stefanie often looked for opportunities to engage the children in authentic design challenges. One such occasion arose when we colleagues were talking about renovating the playground. Ms. Stefanie saw this as a good potential design problem for the children to solve because of its relevancy to their lives and because the children could present their designs to an authentic audience.
After introducing the idea to her class, Ms. Stefanie showed images of various playground designs. A particularly interesting geometric climbing dome, unlike anything on our preschool playground, generated a flurry of responses. Ms. Stefanie asked, “What kinds of climbers do you think we should have on our playground?” Based on the children’s eagerness to design a solution, she knew that they had found their next engineering problem.
To deepen the children’s understanding of the problem, Ms. Stefanie helped them explore how others have addressed similar problems. For example, Ms. Stefanie and the children shared their own playground experiences, studied images of playgrounds in other places, examined playground architects’ blueprints, gathered data about their own school’s playground, and talked to some of the people serving on the preschool’s playground renovation committee (teachers, parents, and other volunteers affiliated with the university) about playgrounds in their community.
Imagining and planning
Four-year-old Andrew begins sketching some design ideas. He suggests that the structure for the Magnolia classroom (3- and 4-year-olds) include “steppers for jumping,” but thinks the structure for the Willow classroom (2-year-olds) should be different. As he incorporates an arch into his Willow design, he explains, “This is so they can climb over, because their legs are not as long.” Andrew points out, “I made them a stool to get up. You put your feet here and swing jump over.” Pausing to consider his sketch, he shifts his idea. “This is actually for the Holly room (4- and 5-year-olds), because it might be a little too scary for the Magnolias and Willows. I can build a medium one for the Magnolias and a small one for the Willows. So everyone can have a climber to climb on. I will add a stool to get up and a slide to go down.”
Ideas are slippery. Representations—such as Andrew’s drawings—stabilize ideas so they can be examined (Eisner 2002). Envisioning possibilities and giving form to them challenges children to perceive subtle differences and portray the essence of their designs (Katz, Chard, & Kogan 2014).
Teachers can foster creative engineering practices by explicitly teaching concepts and techniques children can use to symbolically represent their thinking. Examples include demonstrating types of lines (e.g., straight lines, curved lines, zigzag lines, and spirals), inviting children to try them, and discussing making long lines, short lines, fast lines, and other kinds of lines. Similar demonstrations can be done for composition (i.e., use of space on the page) to help children plan their designs.
Empathizing is another skill embedded in imagining and planning. It involves “learning to perceive the world through someone else’s mind and body” (Costantino et al. 2015, 17). An authentic design problem, contextualized in children’s day-to-day experiences, can’t help but invite consideration of who will be impacted by the different potential solutions. There are real people and constraints involved—something Andrew considered as he modified his climber design to suit a range of age groups. Whether or not to design different play spaces based on perceived age-related competencies had been a contentious issue among Ms. Stefanie’s colleagues. Though she did not raise the issue with the children, they empathized with the younger children’s possible needs (and potential fears) on their own.
After imagining and sketching multiple possibilities, the next step is to select one of the plans to build a model from. This requires analysis of the designs’ strengths and weaknesses. Ms. Stefanie worked with a small group of children who chose to brainstorm and sketch design plans. She invited each of them to explain what was important about their design by commenting on specific aspects of each drawing and asking questions like, “What do you think makes this a good design?” or “Why do you think this will work better?” Each child selected one of his or her own designs to then create a model from.
Jelani refers to his drawing as he constructs a 3-D model using small wooden blocks. Realizing the blocks do not allow him to create the rounded shape his plan requires, he says, “I can’t make the circle, there’s no round.” Unable to locate curved blocks for his oblong climber, Jelani is still for a moment, appearing perplexed. Then he revisits his design, editing it to represent his new block model.
Translating plans into models requires dimensional thinking, in which designers move back and forth between 2-D and 3-D (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein 1999). Consider drawing versus building with blocks: drawing on paper provides freedom to visualize impossible structures, while building with blocks restricts structural possibilities because many designs will collapse. Other construction materials, like clay and wire, offer more flexibility but still have far more limitations than sketches. “The constraints of a medium make it difficult to symbolize certain meanings. The paper used to symbolize elephant has no easy way to capture heaviness or the lumbering walk or the trumpeting roar” (Forman 1994, 44).
Teachers can foster dimensional thinking by giving children opportunities to explore multiple mediums for modeling—such as sculpting materials, twine, felt, and found items—and then using them to create models that they present to others. Ms. Stefanie encouraged children to manipulate clay, smooth it out with water, flatten it, roll it, and coil it. In this way, she invited them to play with the clay’s endless capacity to be shaped and reshaped. She also provided rolling pins and basic wooden modeling sticks that the children could use to add shape or texture. By narrating her observations as children explored the properties of the clay and tools, Ms. Stefanie made the features and qualities explicit.
Once children had experience with the materials, Ms. Stefanie increased the activity’s complexity by helping the children build models of their climbers. This was quite a representational challenge for the preschoolers. Using clay and other materials, they had to solve the problem of vertical stability: how could they make their climbers stand?
Learning to evaluate and improve one’s own work is a challenging task that requires a great deal of practice (Isbell & Yoshizawa 2016). “When children are able to return to and continue with their work the details and expressions are significantly extended” (86). Creating a model naturally leads to identifying opportunities for revising and enhancing the design. Throughout this stage, it is important for teachers to support and extend children’s thinking. After validating children’s efforts by observing and describing what the children have done (Swartz & Copeland 2010), teachers can
- Ask questions for greater clarity (e.g., “What are you going to do with ___?”)
- Find out about the next set of actions (e.g., “Are you planning to add more ___?”)
- Share information or resources (e.g., “There are different kinds of bridges ___”)
- Make suggestions (e.g., “You might want to try ___” or “I wonder what would happen if ___”)
Ms. Stefanie cultivated the children’s dispositions to improve their work by providing time and space for them to revisit their designs each day during choice time. In the design space the children could reference the images of playgrounds Ms. Stefanie has shown them, photos of their existing playground, their initial design sketches, and their 3-D models. Ms. Stefanie also provided multiple kinds of materials (e.g., paper, pencils, clay, wire, blocks, and found objects) the children could use to construct and reconstruct their designs in 2-D and 3-D.
Ms. Stefanie engaged with the children in the design space, encouraging them to rethink and rework their ideas. This codesigning enabled her to point out specific qualities or strategies evident in children’s work that would be useful for others. For example, Ms. Stefanie commented, “Andrew’s jumper idea works, but he also wants a way to go up without jumping. How else do you think he could do this?” She also asked, “How did Patience show the ways the steps connected to the base of the climber?” Ms. Stefanie’s remarks helped children learn to observe closely and notice particular qualities in their own or their peers’ representations. This encouraged them to view their peers as resources for collaborative design strategies.
Ms. Stefanie made the value she placed upon revising work over time explicit by providing an authentic audience. She invited the children to share their designs with the school’s director and to make recommendations to the playground renovation committee. In preparation, Ms. Stefanie held a class meeting where she retold the story of the design processes she observed. She showed photographs that documented the children’s design processes and read some notes she had written as she observed the children, acknowledging and appreciating the children’s efforts to revisit and improve their designs. Then Ms. Stefanie asked the children which design or designs they thought they should bring to the preschool director to recommend for their playground. Rather than selecting only one design to be built, the children suggested that multiple kinds of climbing equipment be included so that children could engage in different ways. Their recommendation was heeded, and the initial phase of the playground renovation included climbers of various sizes.
Supporting children in completing the design process—including several cycles of improving their plans and models—is a great gift to them. As one scholar explained:
Letting children grow up thinking they must get things right the first time is cruel and deceptive. Even teaching them that they can get things right the first time is unfair. If getting things right were easily done, we would hand the children a world in beautiful, highly functional condition. Given the work that lies ahead of them, we must give the children our support and the freedom to do it wrong at first. (Clemens 1999, 7)
The engineering design process—finding a problem, imagining and planning, creating, and improving—enables educators to engage young children’s minds in solving real problems, demonstrate that learning includes testing and revising, and help children explore a wide range of STEM topics.
Ms. Stefanie’s preschool class has embraced engineering practices. When a design does not work well or could be made even better, they enjoy revising and improving on their ideas and plans. They see themselves as problem solvers—identities that will serve them well throughout their education and lives.
Bequette, J.W., & M.B. Bequette. 2012. “A Place for Art and Design Education in the Stem Conversation.” Art Education 65 (2): 40–47.
Clemens, S.G. 1999. “Editing: Permission to Start Wrong.” Early Childhood Research & Practice 1 (1). http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v1n1/clemens.html.
Eisner, E.W. 2002. The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Forman, G. 1994. “Different Media, Different Languages.” In Reflections on the Reggio Emilia Approach, eds. L.G. Katz & B. Cesarone, 41–53. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
Isbell, R. & S.A. Yoshizawa. 2016. Nurturing Creativity: An Essential Mindset for Young Children’s Learning. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
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Museum of Science, Boston. 2018. “The Engineering Design Process.” Engineering is Elementary. www.eie.org/overview/engineering-design-process.
NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) Lead States. 2013. “Three-Dimensional Learning.” Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. www.nextgenscience.org/three-dimensions.
P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Learning). 2011. “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” www.p21.org/our-work/p21-framework.
Root-Bernstein, R.S., & M.M. Root-Bernstein. 1999. Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. New York: Mariner Books.
Schwartz, S.L., & S.M. Copeland. 2010. Connecting Emergent Curriculum and Standards in the Early Childhood Classroom: Strengthening Content and Teaching Practice. Early Childhood Education series. New York: Teachers College Press.
About the editors
Sandra M. Linder, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood mathematics education at Clemson University. Her research centers on supporting teacher practices and student understandings related to early childhood mathematics.
Angela Eckhoff, PhD, is an associate professor of teaching and learning in the early childhood education program and codirector of the Virginia Early Childhood Policy Center at Old Dominion University. Her areas of specialization include creativity and inquiry-based pedagogical practices in early childhood.
Photograph: © Getty Images
Jolyn Blank, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on professional development and the role of the arts in early learning. She is a former preschool, kindergarten, and first grade teacher.
Stefanie Lynch, MEd, is a doctoral candidate in early childhood education and a preschool teacher at the University of South Florida’s Preschool for Creative Learning. She is interested in the ways teachers enhance the complexity of young children’s scientific thinking. [email protected]