We’re facing enormous challenges in the 21st century—such as climate change, the need for sustainable sources of energy, and providing access to clean water. Solving these challenges will require, at least in part, engineering solutions. (See the Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century.) But the U.S. is not graduating enough engineers, and only small percentages of new engineers are women or members of minority groups. We simply can’t afford to lose the talent and creativity of young people in these under-represented groups.
How can we inspire more students to consider an engineering career?
Most school-age children don’t realize that engineering is a helping profession. Engineers identify problems and challenges that people are facing and attempt to engineer solutions. One of the goals of our STAR Library Education Network (STAR_Net) project is to let young people explore how engineers help people and introduce them to the full range of possible engineering careers. To reach this goal, we developed a traveling exhibit for public libraries called Discover Tech: Engineers Make a World of Difference. The Discover Tech tour is all booked up, but we’ve made all of our hands-on engineering resources available to the public.
We’ve found that public libraries are excellent venues for engineering programs for a range of age groups, but especially for school-age children.
But I’m not an Engineer. What can I do?
Provide the inspiration. Develop programs that give kids opportunities to learn by engaging in the engineering process: Think, Build, Test, and Do It Again. Introduce students to the kinds of problems engineers face, and then let them engineer solutions. Emphasize the many ways that engineers make a difference in people’s lives. By putting kids in the role of engineers, we can inspire them with their own potential to be agents of change in the world.
Here are some steps for developing an engineering program or programs.
1. Identify your target audience and the program’s learning goals for them. Do you want to develop something for your pre-schoolers or for older students? Learning goals can be very simple and general, such as introducing kids to the engineering process or the range of possible engineering careers. But it’s important to have goals because they help guide your choice of appropriate activities. And having a specific purpose helps you have an impact on your audience, such as increasing their understanding of what engineers do.
2. Collaborate with engineers in your community. With no engineering experience at all you could facilitate basic engineering activities. However, you may want to consider collaborating with local engineers in order to add more in-depth programs and reach more than one age group. Such collaborations could lead to longer-term partnerships to provide ongoing engineering programming in your library. Here are a few ideas about how to find potential engineering partners:
- Many cities and towns have city engineers who could talk about the engineering that goes into your local environment. For example, engineering is involved in buildings; roads and bridges; systems for clean water and sanitation; power grids; and much more.
- Find local firms and industries that hire engineers. These professionals may work in any of a range of areas within engineering, such as civil, mechanical, chemical, industrial design, computer, electrical, bio-medical, and other fields. Contact as many as you can find and let them know that you want engineers for public talks and activities that will introduce school children and their parents to engineering.
- Look online for local chapters of engineering societies, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). The engineers you find might want to give a talk, help with the hands-on engineering activities, or help you develop new programs.
- Contact your local schools. There may be middle and high school teachers interested in helping you develop programs for kids. Is there a university or community college in your town? Many of these institutions have STEM outreach programs that you can contact or instructors who are interested in helping reach kids in the community with engineering content.
- Find a nearby professional or university chapter of Engineers Without Borders – USA. EWB volunteers design and build sustainable infrastructure—such as water treatment facilities and solar energy systems—for some of the world’s poorest communities. Their work profoundly impacts the lives of those served and those who provide the help. There are several hundred EWB chapters in the U.S., including chapters for professionals and for college engineering students. Find a local chapter here and contact them. School-age children find it especially engaging to talk and work with college students.
3. Find hands-on activities for your audience or audiences. Kids (and grown-ups) learn by doing. The STAR_Net project has made all of its professionally developed and kid-tested engineering activities available to the public for free. To find easy-to-implement activities for a range of age groups, visit this page. There are also great engineering resources on these Web sites:
- PBS Kids’ Design Squad Nation resources
- National Engineers Week Foundation activities
- PBS LearningMedia resources
Please let me know about any engineering programs or maker spaces that you’ve developed. We’d like to share as many success stories and lessons learned as possible.