Million Girls Moonshot along with STEM Next have identified 10 practices of high-quality engineering experiences that help students develop and strengthen an Engineering Mindset (Cunningham, 2018; Cunningham & Kelly, 2017). This mindset encourages children to innovate, take risks, and become comfortable solving open-ended problems! We have gathered these 10 mindsets along with articles, resources, activities, and videos to help implement STEM learning in afterschool programs.
1) Consider Real-World Problems
Engineers work to create solutions to real-world problems, and children should, too. Challenging students to build a tall tower using only drinking straws and paper clips can be engaging and fun, but it lacks purpose. A challenge that asks students to design a device that keeps important medicine cold during transport in an area ravaged by a natural disaster is an example of a problem embedded in rich context and introduces students to a more realistic vision of what engineering is. Real-world challenges help students develop empathy and see the genuine impact of their learning!
2) Use of Systematic Engineering Design Process
Part of what distinguishes “engineering” from “tinkering” or “making” is the use of a multi-step engineering design process (EDP). The explicit structure of an EDP scaffolds learning and breaks the process down into a set of discrete steps. Rather than diving headfirst into a problem and learning by trial and error, engineers follow steps that support planning and testing and improving solutions. Calling out discrete phases of the process can also help children to focus on the goals of that day’s endeavor. Learning to solve problems with the explicit help of a problem-solving process is part of developing an engineering mindset.
3) Explore the Properties & Use of Materials
Engineers make thoughtful choices about the materials they use to create technologies. They explore material properties and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. For a given challenge, students should be given a wide selection of materials to choose from, be given ample time to explore their properties, and then consider which are most appropriate for the task.
4) Balance Criteria & Constraints
Engineers need to design to specifications. Oftentimes, these entail trade-offs. For example, the strongest material might also be heavy and difficult to work with. A design that is simple and elegant might also be very expensive. To help reinforce the engineering mindset, clear criteria for success should be stated and students should be asked to work within design constraints.
5) Envision Multiple Solutions
A major feature of engineering challenges is that they can be solved in multiple ways and there is no ‘correct’ solution. Students should be encouraged to brainstorm several different ways to solve problems and be given the chance to compare and contrast their ideas. This process encourages students to innovate, take risks, and become comfortable solving open-ended problems.
6) Apply Science & Mathematics
Engineers use knowledge of math and science to solve problems. They combine that knowledge with their own creativity to design technologies. Challenges that are closely tied to the science that youth are learning in school are both authentic and compelling for students.
7) Evaluate Designs & Iterate
Reflection and evaluation of ideas is critical to the engineering mindset. Students are rarely asked to evaluate their own work, and engineering provides a rich arena in which to practice these skills. Engineering designs can be tested to see how well they work and the feedback from testing can be used to revise and improve solutions.
8) Persist through & Learn from Failure
Every engineering challenge is different (defined by its own unique set of criteria) and there is rarely a simple and direct solution. Rather, the process of developing a functioning or high-quality solution takes time and requires perseverance. Engineering activities that present failure as an opportunity to revise and improve will help students understand that learning from failure is part of the engineering mindset.
9) Working Effectively in Teams
Engineering is rarely a solitary pursuit. Teams of engineers work together, bringing a diversity of opinions and skills to the problem at hand. To develop an engineering mindset, students need to experience both the struggles and rewards of working in teams. Learning to communicate and negotiate effectively develops the collaborative skills that are part of the engineering mindset.
10) Identify as Engineers
High-quality engineering activities have the power to help them identify as capable problem-solvers. When students experience the success of using an engineering design process to create technologies that solve problems and help others, they begin to envision themselves as engineers and are more likely to pursue engineering opportunities in the future.