4 ways to excite youth about engineering

In time for Engineers Week 2012 planning, here are ways to excite youth about engineering: Latching onto something familiar, use technology tools, and educate educators, says a supplier of electronics, desktop robotics, and educational kits.


Excite youth about engineering by latching onto something familiar, using technology tools, educating educators, and using games and stories. Here’s some advice in each category, just in time to plan for Engineers Week 2012, Feb. 19-25.

The SparkFun Inventor's Kit for Arduino (an open-source electronic prototyping platform) is a box of goodies to get the engineering beginner started with blinking LEDs, controlling a toy motor, controlling a servo, reading temperature, detecting ambient lLatch onto something familiar first—Understanding new concepts and embracing learning can be achieved by latching onto a subject or object that is familiar for the student. For example, if a young student is interested in art or fashion, a good area to introduce the student to is e-textiles or conductive paint. The barriers are pretty low for getting started, and the skills learned are very transferable across multiple engineering subject matters. Providing stepping-stones, especially in regard to where these skills or projects would fit into a broader engineering subject, can spark the imagination and creativity of kids who wouldn’t necessarily otherwise see that connection.

Technology’s role and tools for learning—Exposing students to different learning styles is important. The kinesthetic (play-oriented) style of learning is appealing to everyone, especially children. Technology captivates the mind of the youth and cultivates intellectual curiosity and the desire to tinker and apply the newfound abilities in everyday life, hence, the ubiquity of electronics in games, TVs, computers, etc. It’s important to encourage students to get their hands dirty by taking things apart and playing with technology because it likely will create a more lasting impression. Repurposing old tools for kids to play with or taking apart older technology can be a great learning experience because it gets children exploring. In a Denver school, for example, the class took an old adding machine (which by today’s standards is obsolete) and repurposed it into a machine that makes music. Students learned engineering fundamentals and had a lot of fun throughout the process.

Educating the educators—Some educators and parents balk at teaching youth engineering-focused ideas because of the misperceived notion that there is a steep learning curve in getting these programs started. Introducing the open-source mentality to teachers (making them aware it is out there) and connecting them to a community, like a software or museum group, can show them the foundation work already has been done and allows them to customize it for their own curriculum and level of students. Moreover, it provides an avenue for exciting and educating not just one class, but an entire group of educators that can spark the interest in entire generations of students. Parental participation also is critical and can create a long-lasting bond between the student and parent by allowing them to work on a project together. However, it is important that parents and teachers not try to force learning; they should let the student choose whether or not to continue down this path.

Kids can get hands-on engineering opportunities with the SparkFun Inventor's Kit (SIK). Courtesy: SparkFun ElectronicsGames and stories—Pick an object that is engineering-related and create a background story for it. This personalizes the tool and gives kids a stake in the learning process. Teaching students to look through the lenses of constructivism is inherent in both the game and story approach as well. Through game and make-believe, kids are encouraged to ask leading and open-ended questions, which help develop a sense of teaching themselves how to do things. This also feeds off of the idea that we can teach young kids the basics of engineering practices, like soldering and programming, through constructing a game model, such as create their own adventure or animated simulations. These are other ways to lower the age and technical barriers to introducing youth to ideas of engineering.

- Lindsay Levkoff is education director and Lindsay Craig is educational outreach coordinator at SparkFun. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, www.controleng.com.



National Engineers Week Foundation’s Engineers Week 2012 is Feb. 19-25. What are you doing to inspire youth, your next generation of talent, in engineering?


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