Promoting Inclusive Teaching and Learning Using the Engineering Design Process
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Children gather in the block area as the teachers lead them in a familiar song: “We are engineers! We are engineers! We solve problems, we are engineers!” (Museum of Science, Wee Engineer 2016–2018, 9). One child, Trevor, eagerly stands up and leaves his puzzle in the corner to join his 15 other classmates on the rug because he knows it is engineering time.
Evie the Racoon, the classroom’s engineering puppet, describes the engineering challenge to the class. They are asked to make a raft that floats on top of the water when Evie places her toys on it. As Evie sparks the children’s curiosity, Trevor raises his hand with his own ideas to share. This is significant because four months earlier, he was not joining whole-group times or sharing ideas with other children.
The opening vignette presents a change in the teaching and learning that occurred in our early learning program when we (the authors) decided to implement a curriculum focused on the engineering design process (EDP) in our classroom. Prior to implementing the engineering design process, we structured our learning centers by having children rotate between three different activities that were placed on separate tables—beading, puzzles, and open-ended drawing. We noticed that children with disabilities in our group explored the same materials each day and had few interactions with other children. When we incorporated the EDP into our centers routine, we discovered how the intentional use of explore, create, and improve (the simplified steps of the EDP) promoted both the inclusion and the development of our young learners with disabilities.
In this article, we share contextual information about our program and children, including three focal children, Trevor, David, and Holly. We then describe our decision-making and implementation processes, including how we adapted a research-based curriculum to meet the individual needs of children with disabilities. Finally, we highlight the lessons we learned along the way.
Our Context and Goals
At the time of this project, our teaching team consisted of a university faculty member with research and professional expertise in inclusive practices and a doctoral student serving as the classroom teacher with prior teaching experience in an inclusive preschool program. As part of a university-based lab school, our goal was to create a classroom where preservice teachers saw inclusive, child-directed approaches in action and where children with disabilities could learn and play alongside children without disabilities. Ten children enrolled in this preschool class, and we recruited six additional children from the local school district, including Trevor, David, and Holly. All 16 children attended the inclusive preschool program in the mornings, and the six additional children left in the afternoons to attend their special day classes within the school district. The remaining students continued their daily routine in the same classroom.
For children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), we addressed their goals by intentionally offering activities that leveraged a child’s strengths and interests during playful learning with other children. These activities included playing with puzzles, building bricks, and baby dolls. Each child with a disability had goals related to attention (time on task), social skills with peers, and expressive and pragmatic language development. This was the case for Trevor, David, and Holly, who showed significant improvements in these goals when we implemented an engineering design process.
Trevor enjoys visual motor tasks such as puzzles and building with blocks. He is also a child with a developmental delay related to language and social development. Although he can use language to express himself, Trevor is quiet and prefers to play by himself. He rarely speaks up in class, does not initiate play or interactions with other children, and appears disengaged during whole-group times. His teachers support Trevor by helping him invite other children to join him in his activities or to work alongside his classmates.
David is a child with autism spectrum disorder who has well-developed expressive and receptive language skills and speaks about topics of deep interest to him, such as cars, construction equipment, and police officers. With peers, David’s conversations focus solely on his interests, and he struggles to use language (to ask questions, to initiate play) in social situations with other children. David appears frustrated and pushes children if he needs to share or take turns. As a result, several children do not want David to enter play with them. The teachers use a scripted story with him to address listening, sharing, and turn taking to prompt him to engage in these friendship skills.
Holly is the youngest of the three focal children and enjoys engaging in several areas of the classroom, especially dramatic play. She expands on the materials in this space to support her pretend play. For instance, she mixes water and leaves to create a soap to wash her baby dolls. Holly is deaf, has a cochlear implant, and uses an assistive listening system in the classroom. She is emerging in her expressive speech, and her IEP includes goals in this area. She seems hesitant in playing with others and participating in whole-group times. The teachers honor Holly’s need for distance from the group by encouraging her to stand on the perimeter of the circle, where she appears more comfortable. The teachers position themselves so Holly can see the books.
In addition to individualized goals, we aimed to have meaningful learning experiences for each and every child that draw on familiar topics and materials (DEC/NAEYC 2009). Providing more open-ended exploration and materials can improve engagement in inclusive preschool settings (Coelho, Cadima, & Pinto 2019). In addition, young children already engage in some engineering-related tasks, such as using blocks or bricks and designing sculptures with loose parts, and preschoolers often exhibit emerging engineering habits of mind when engaged in different learning areas or centers (Raven, Al Husseini, & Cevik 2018; Lippard et al. 2019).
Throughout the first three months of this particular year, we spent a great deal of time observing—each child and the whole group. We observed Trevor, David, and Holly play primarily alone. Although solitary play can be appropriate and serve as a self-regulation strategy, our observations led us to wonder whether they felt isolated from or rejected by the other children (Luckey & Fabes 2006). We knew that creating a sense of belonging requires more than children with and without disabilities learning and playing alongside one another (Nepi et al. 2013; D’loia, & Price 2018). It requires intentionally planning and doing activities that promote active engagement (Palmer et al. 2013).
Therefore, we wondered if a more intentional approach would shift their playful learning with other children. We read about peer-mediated interventions involving play with building materials, which found that children with disabilities can emerge as expert players and leaders when interacting with others (Hu, Zheng, & Lee 2018). We also considered data showing an opportunity gap in terms of equity and access to STEM learning (US Department of Education 2016; Clements et al. 2021), including for children with disabilities. Therefore, we chose an engineering design process as a new curricular framework for our center-based learning and play and to address the strengths and needs of each learner.
Our Starting Point: Deciding on an Engineering Curriculum
To find a new approach, we searched for research-based ways to incorporate the engineering design process within the early childhood classroom. We looked through the broader literature (e.g., Ingram 2011; Hoisington & Winokur 2015; McClure et al. 2017) and specific programs for a clear and teacher-friendly approach. At that time, Engineering is Elementary (EiE) from the Museum of Science in Boston had just begun to offer its Wee Engineer program. After closer examination of the Wee Engineer Educator Guide (Museum of Science, Boston 2016–2018) and other resources, we decided to use Wee Engineer because it incorporated five key elements (Museum of Science, Boston 2016–2018):
- developmentally appropriate language and challenges
- open-ended materials
- resources for consistent implementation, including scripts to introduce challenges, suggestions for open-ended questions, and visuals related to key science concepts
- letters to families (in English and Spanish) and handouts for extending the engineering challenges at home
Related to families, we strove for strong partnerships as families support their children’s engineering-related interests and learning (McClure et al. 2017; Tippett & Milford 2017; MacDonald et al. 2020). We also wanted families’ input, which we gathered through a variety of means, as we monitored goals and tracked progress of our children with disabilities across multiple settings (Stockall, Dennis, & Rueter 2014; Palmer et al. 2018; Shepley et al. 2022).
The Wee Engineer Program
Wee Engineer is part of the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum project of the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. As a research-based curriculum, it provides a framework that includes the steps of the engineering design process (EDP) that are responsive to young children (Davis, Cunningham, & Lachapelle 2017). Wee Engineer adapted the EDP to three steps (Laguzza et al. 2021):
- Explore. Before using materials to solve problems, children must first understand how those materials behave.
- Create. Using their understanding of the materials and resources available to them, children can begin to test ideas for solving given problems.
- Improve. Once children have tested their ideas, they can analyze the results and determine if there are further improvements or if investigation is needed.
(For more detailed information on Wee Engineer, see www.eie.org/stem-curricula/engineering-grades-prek-8/wee-engineer.)
Implementation and Adaptations of the Engineering Design Process
Wee Engineer incorporates one pre-challenge (to acquaint children with the steps of the EDP) and four main challenges (problems to solve using the EDP). We added an additional pre-challenge to ensure that all of the children in our class understood the three main steps (explore, create, and improve). This additional pre-challenge aimed to connect a problem to a real-life scenario and to make the problem-solving approach more explicit (Fusaro & Smith 2018). We also adapted the curriculum to meet the unique needs of our children with disabilities (DEC 2014; Waters et al. 2021). (For more details on the challenges and how we adapted them for our classroom environment, see “Adaptations to Engineering Challenges” below.)
Note: This table was organized following the recommended practices for the environment and instruction by the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Early Childhood as well as resources from Daly and Beloglovsky (2014) and Waters, West, Chih-Ing, and Vinh (2021).
Based on our goals and observations, we learned five key lessons as we integrated the engineering design process in our inclusive preschool.
Lesson One: Provide Children Time to Explore, Create, and Improve
Initially, we decided to plan one week for each challenge: day one to explore materials; day two to create initial solutions; days three and four to test out and improve their designs. After our first week, we noticed that children engaged in all three of the steps of the EDP at various rates and in various stages. For instance, Wayne and Steven, two boys without disabilities, tended to create a solution quickly, test it out, and then improve upon it. They did not explore the materials ahead of solving the problems. Trevor, on the other hand, took much more time examining the different items set out on the table.
We learned that we needed to be flexible and offer more time to those who needed it and alternative activities for those who finished the process earlier. We determined that two days devoted to a challenge worked best for our children, which is consistent with other studies focused on integrating the EDP in preschool (John et al. 2018; Cinar 2019).
Lesson Two: Try to Connect Problems to Real-World Contexts
From the literature, we knew that children’s learning may deepen and expand when they can make connections with past experiences and their daily lives (Hoisington & Winokur 2015; John et al. 2018; Cinar 2019; Lippard et al. 2019). Although Wee Engineer offers extensions in the areas of math, science, literacy, and engineering, these suggestions do not explicitly relate to real-world contexts. Therefore, we offered an additional challenge for children to learn about the engineering design process through themes related to the natural world around them.
When we introduced the EDP with the puppet, Evie the Raccoon, we presented the children with an additional problem to solve: “Evie needs a place to rest when she is not engineering with us.” We talked about habitats and what she would need in her home. Since it was winter at the time, we explored changing animal habitats through discussions about hibernation. This life science concept (of animals, including humans, needing air and shelter) connected to content and activities from a past theme we studied.
We also brought in informational and narrative books that centered on raccoons and their habitats. After looking through the books, we introduced several organic materials that could make up a raccoon’s home such as leaves, sticks, and feathers. We encouraged the children to look around the room and outside on the playground for additional materials to include in Evie’s habitat too.
Lesson Three: Use the EDP to Expand on Children’s Vocabulary and Emergent Writing Skills
Intentionally choosing books and using content-specific words related to the challenges spurred in-depth conversations and expanded children’s vocabulary. For instance, during the Wind Challenge, we read one of the narrative texts suggested by the program, The Red Hat, by David Teague and illustrated by Antoinette Portis (2015). We went to the library and found informational texts on wind energy and weather-related wind. We also held whole-group discussions about children’s experiences with wind and asked questions such as “Have you ever seen a turbine like this one? What do you think this does?” We documented the STEM-related vocabulary children were using on notecards (like experiment, compare, and cyclone), and we returned to those words and concepts during our whole-group reflection time later on.
Embedding language and literacy practices within the engineering design process benefited children with and without disabilities. For instance, it helped to showcase David’s strength for learning and remembering new vocabulary words. He used new words to explain his design to other children, and they became more curious to hear how and why he designed solutions the way he did. Children started asking David more questions, which, in turn, created more positive interactions and playful experiences for David. Families also noticed their children’s vocabularies had expanded. One parent commented in a survey, “Since participating in the engineering challenges, [my child] has more of an interest in how things work in general. He asks more advanced questions that go far behind the traditional why?”
In addition to building content-specific vocabulary, we also noticed that children with and without disabilities were more interested in writing (through various forms of emergent writing) their ideas in their provided journals. This is an effective way to embed literacy into child-centered activities (Bingham et al. 2018) and to promote one essential part of the engineering process—documentation of solutions and improvements (Hoisington 2015; Raven, Al Husseini, & Cevik 2018; Cinar 2019). We also noticed that the use of the journals created opportunities for positive social interactions. During the Wind Challenge, another child invited Trevor to share his special markers with him to draw ideas in their journals.
We adapted the curriculum to include journals for the classroom and for home. That way, children could write down or plan solutions to problems as they explored the materials in both settings. Our observations as well as conversations with families about what they were noticing indicated benefits to children’s engagement and literacy learning during the engineering process.
Lesson Four: Embrace the Improve Process
One unexpected result for us was the persistence that many of the children developed by going through the engineering design process. Over the course of the four main challenges, we especially noted that Trevor, David, and Holly spent more time on activities than previously observed during non-engineering center-based tasks. Emerging evidence suggests that this may be related to increased motivation and reflection when engaged in problem solving using the steps of the engineering design process (Lowry 2019; Dilek et al. 2020). Children began to see mistakes or design flaws as a natural part of the engineering process. We observed that children both with and without disabilities spent more time improving on their creations to solve the problem rather than expressing frustration or leaving the activity.
One such observation involved the Raft Challenge. When creating a structure that would allow toy frogs to float on the water, Holly used an egg carton and placed several items on it. At first, her structure floated, but after a few seconds, it sank. She proceeded to try new materials for a raft a second and third time. Then, she noticed another child attaching a piece of foam to his creation. Holly placed another egg carton on top of the foam, secured it with a low-temperature glue gun, and placed items on top of her newly improved structure. It floated, and she showed and verbalized that she fixed her raft to her classmate. Throughout, Holly did not seem upset or discouraged. She persisted and continued to improve the creation until it worked.
In general, we observed that the children were motivated to think of alternative ways to make their solutions better and saw the need to improve as part of the process, a finding supported by other practitioner-based studies (Hoisington 2015; Lowry 2019). Families also saw their children viewing problems as opportunities. One parent described that her child began saying often, “That was unexpected!” and would then continue to confront the problem. “He seems so interested in how to solve it!”
Lesson Five: Build Community Through Engineering Together
Studies indicate that children naturally want to solve problems together, and educators can capitalize on the strengths and interests of children with disabilities to help them interact with peers (Hu, Zheng, & Lee 2018; Lippard et al. 2019). The cooperation and collaboration did not happen in this way in our classroom. Rather, listening to, sharing with, and observing others’ solutions during whole-group and small-group engineering created a sense of community centered on a shared goal (solving Evie’s problem). Although children did not spontaneously collaborate, they began to acknowledge and value the strengths of each other.
During the Fan Challenge, Trevor approached Wayne and Steven and asked them, “Do you want to see how my fan works?” Prior to implementing this curriculum, Trevor did not approach any other children. Since Trevor’s fan worked so well, these boys started to refer to him as the “figure-outer person.” They began to view him as an important member of the classroom for other activities. At one point, we heard Wayne say to Steven, “Let’s go ask Trevor. He’ll know how to fix it.”
Families noticed this sense of community as well. In one online survey, a parent stated about their child, “He seemed to be more open to other people’s ideas. He would come home and talk about his classmates’ work too, or how they collaborated with one another as a team.”
The engineering design process provided us with a framework for effective practices and to help address access and opportunity for children with disabilities to engage in early STEM learning (Donegan-Ritter & Zan 2017; Clements et al. 2021). We encourage other early childhood educators to consider observing and reflecting on how children with and without disabilities are engaging with these content areas and consider using and adapting an engineering process design based on their interests, their experiences, and the happenings within their communities.
These adaptations to this program were discussed and welcomed by the creators of Wee Engineer: Christine Cunningham, founding director, EiE; Christopher San Antonio-Tunis, research and evaluation manager, EiE; and Jill Olson, senior director, operations and professional development, Museum of Science, Boston.
The authors would like to thank the Idaho STEM Action Center for providing general funding to integrate STEM into the Boise State Children’s Center, including Wee Engineer.
Photographs: © Getty Images; courtesy of the authors
Copyright © 2022 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
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Yvette Mere-Cook, EdD, OTR/L, is a child development demonstration lecturer/program coordinator at the University of California, Davis. Yvette has worked as a preschool-based occupational therapist and a consultant to further the inclusion of all young children in early childhood settings. [email protected]
Gurupriya Ramanathan, EdD, is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland. Dr. Ramanathan’s previous teaching experiences include teaching across preschool through second grade, as well as special education (self-contained) and inclusive classrooms. Her program of research revolves around high-quality early childhood science and engineering practices and supporting teachers in implementation of inclusive early STEM learning experiences. [email protected]