Eduporium Weekly | Engineer or Not...STEM Careers Require Engineering Skills

  • Posted on: January 6, 2018 - 11:21am
  • By: alarmand

Modern STEM education is all about giving students the tools to be creative and testing their 21st century skills with challenges that mimic those they will find in the real world. Sure, that all sounds great on the surface, especially to parents, but what exactly does this mean? Well, students need learning experiences that best prepare them for the jobs they will more than likely be holding in the future. One of those STEM jobs (the ‘E’) is engineering. Fortunately, for teachers of all grade levels, preparing students for jobs like these is not all that difficult.


Creating More Effective STEM Education with Engineering


One of the overarching goals of STEM education is to provide students with immersive learning opportunities that allow them to truly get a feel for what it will be like to apply those skills in the future. Today’s students need hands-on learning and the chance to create solutions to real problems using their creativity and other tools. This is when students become much more engaged than they would be in a traditional classroom and, with that increased engagement and hands-on learning, come new levels of empowerment. This is the same kind of empowerment that will help them in the future when many of them could wind up holding any number of high-profile STEM careers. They should be building a 3D model of the heart to see how blood flows through it -- not just reading about how this works.


The ideal time to really ramp up engineering education and STEM in general is when students are in middle school because studies show that this is generally the time in which they begin to lose interest in science. By changing the way these subjects are taught and showing students that things like building robots and other models can be fun, teachers should be able to use the excitement of engineering to their advantage and increase interest among their students. Engineering helps students to see that it’s okay for them to make mistakes as long as they learn something valuable from each one. Eliminating the fear of failure helps students at this age level become more inclined to try a certain engineering approach and, if that doesn’t work, know that they’ve only simply ruled out one possibility rather than hit a dead end.


The benefits of teaching STEM with an engineering approach include greater student interest, increased comfort with working on complex projects, and newfound interest in STEM careers. While the attitude kids hold towards STEM learning is very important, the progress they make is crucial as well. Plus, when students see their successes in a tangible way, they know that they got to that point because they were able to try something new. And, engineering does not necessarily have to be complex building. It doesn’t even have to be physical. Engineering, in this day and age, can include the planning process, how students design their experiments, and why it worked or did not work. All this time, while they’re engineering, students are also learning about problem solving, trial and error, and more real-world relevant skills. Engineering definitely has a permanent place in education -- no matter how we view it.


The Engineering Process in Active Learning


The best STEM experiences are those that are active. When learning with their hands as well as their minds, students are better able to grasp the concepts they are studying and stimulate their creative juices. By creating lessons that incorporate opportunities for active learning, teachers are also better able to liken their material to the real world, thus preparing their students more efficiently. Active learning is sometimes referred to as challenge-based learning because students are actively identifying problems and using both an internal and physical engineering process to solve them. Conversely, traditional learning, of course, is mostly a teacher telling students what to learn and how to learn it. We ask ‘what good is that?’ It seems pretty obvious that students generally learn more effectively when they’re engineering their own success.


To effectively teach the engineering process and engineering skills, there is little doubt that active learning is the way to go. But, just what kinds of projects should students be completing? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to that, but that’s because there are so many options. Along with learning about engineering, active learning also allows students to fine tune their creativity as their engagement soars at the same time. Now, engineering is not all designing structures and putting them together. As we mentioned a little earlier, there is an internal engineering process as well, which essentially goes hand in hand with the design process. When using this method of thinking, students will learn how to break their challenges down into simple steps, account for anything that could happen along the way, and create the best possible outcome for themselves.


When constructing a new structure, engineers make use of a very specific process to be sure they get everything correct down to the last detail. The good news is that this can easily be applied to STEM education. The engineering process includes a bunch of different steps, like identifying and defining a problem, gathering information, and identifying possible solutions to start. Once these questions have all been answered, the next steps are to create a prototype, test, and evaluate it. After that, engineers refine the prototype they have made to better reflect what they’ve learned during the initial tests and then communicate the results. Wouldn’t this be a perfect way for students to explore STEM education in the classroom? If you think that is the case, we’re with you and will always advocate for an engineering-style approach to learning in the 21st century.


Thinking Like an Engineer to Solve Real-world Problems


Engineers are often tasked with some of the most important work in the STEM workforce. And, to be honest, it’s something we tend to take for granted. Engineers are responsible for designing things we use every day, like bridges, roads, skywalks, and other things that could lead to catastrophes if not for perfect calculations and planning. So, how do they do it? How do they take a thousand different pieces of information and compartmentalize it into useful strands that they can easily understand? We talked about the engineering design process in the last section, but it is so critical to the work that engineers do -- especially in this day and age. Even the slightest miscalculation or misstep while building something could someday become the difference between life and death.


Problem-solving -- if not already -- is going to rapidly become an everyday aspect of students’ lives. Since evidence indicates that the majority of them will be needed to fill the ever-growing amount of STEM jobs, this seems to be even more true. A huge part of the STEM workforce is working through problems -- problems that may have been foreseen and others that even the most prepared individuals wouldn’t have seen coming. All engineers, however, have their own way of working through challenges and none of them are more correct than any other. No matter how students decide to approach a problem, it’s almost certain that the decisions they make will affect outcomes both instantaneously and in the long run. So, that is why an engineering mindset is so important. It helps students to learn how to evaluate their options, make the most informed decisions, and then evaluate the final results.


An engineer is somebody who, one way or another, fixes problems. To replicate the kind of real-world problem solving students will see in the future, educators must be prepared to teach them how to design solutions to problems. It’s important that they convey to kids that they will need to weigh a whole bunch of different options, even those that seem far fetched, so that they are better able to recognize the best solution when it becomes apparent. To start off, students should list everything that they know about a given scenario, which helps them break down and lay out all of the known factors that may come into play when designing a solution. From there, they should determine what they want to find out based on the facts they have, which completes the shift from “learning about” to figuring out.” When students are making sense of authentic problems and applying an engineering mindset in order to solve those problems, it’s real-world learning at its finest.


Reaching Girls and Encouraging them to try Engineering


So far, we’ve talked mostly about the engineering process in STEM education, but there is, of course, engineering itself to discuss. The physical role that engineering plays in the modern economy is pretty large and continuing to grow alongside other high-profile STEM careers, like computer science. Like the skills needed to advance in computer science, kids can start learning engineering skills at a young age and this includes girls. A few months back, we discussed ways for educators to get girls more involved in STEM. Since engineering is a big part of STEM, we thought it would be cool to talk about some specific ways for teachers to generate some interest among their female students using an engineering approach.


The numbers show that men currently far outnumber women in engineering jobs across the country by a margin of roughly 87 percent to 13 percent. There is also the fact that female engineers earn just 82 percent of what their male counterparts make and that they are often passed over for the most compelling projects in favor of men. Why are we bringing this up? Hopefully any girls who are reading this will find a way to use these discouraging facts as motivation to pursue something they enjoy and make a career out of it. We have the resources in our economy now to solve these problems and programs that will allow girls to enter engineering positions -- as long as they want to hold them. It’s efforts like this by giant companies in the STEM fields that will make engineering more appealing to young girls in school.


Once they see that there is no reason their path to success can’t go though engineering, there is a good chance that girls will start taking more of an interest in it in school. That’s when it’s imperative for their teachers to find ways to keep that interest and, to do so, they should be making engineering more appealing, challenging, and rewarding to these students. Not only should teachers make sure that every girl has the opportunity to explore STEM and engineering in particular, they need to know how to make it interesting. This means hands-on projects -- not reading about other people who have done hands-on projects. There are so many ways in which teachers can use technology to bring engineering into the classroom whether it’s a simple Roominate kit for young girls, a more complex, build-it-yourself robot for older girls, or maybe even an IoT device challenge using some powerful parts for more advanced students. Whatever the case may be, just remember that success is born from opportunity.


Engineering Connects Makers and Collaborators


So much of the modern workforce is composed of what is referred to as the ‘gig economy.’ Since there is so much turnover while new jobs are being created and old jobs are becoming obsolete, a lot of workers tend to hold jobs for a very short amount of time. This length of time is so short, in fact, that it’s led to the coining of the ‘gig economy’ term. Whatever is in demand is what people will offer in the 21st century. It requires a great amount of creativity and willingness to adapt to changing needs for a lot of people to be successful today. Many of these successful people? They’re makers or hobbyists, who have used their creative and engineering skills to build products that make a difference -- and they’re being rewarded for it thanks, in large part, to the engineering process.


If you have never heard of a makerspace or the Maker Faire, you’re missing out on some great ways in which everyday people showcase their amazing creativity through meaningful inventions. Referred to as makers, these talented individuals can find a way to use any supplies they have in constructing devices that serve some sort of communal purpose. It didn’t take people too long to realize that the makers of today tend to grow into the engineers of tomorrow. This is because they regularly must make use of what they have -- which is often not a lot or a random combination of materials -- to solve a problem in a certain amount of time. If you think this sounds like great practice for an engineering career, you are correct. More importantly, makerspaces are environments in which kids can fail freely, showing them that there is no reason to give up on engineering or other STEM dreams because they feel they’re not skilled enough.


Most makers start out young and they start out on a smaller scale, constructing projects out of everyday materials, like aluminum foil, paper towel rolls, and tape. As they get more comfortable working with their hands, however, they naturally want to expand their inventions. And, the natural direction for them to go is to add more complex technologies into the fold. Okay, we understand that paper towel rolls are about as low-tech as you can get, so it’s only uphill from there. In any case, this is when kids find inspiration from maker communities and start engineering things like mobile robots, trash compactors, and whatever else. They think they’re just having fun, but, more importantly, they’re starting to get a taste of what it’s like to be an engineer -- and that’s the best outcome that can come from children making.


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