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Six Ways to Teach Students Engineering from a JPL Education Specialist

Two Black children lean into something they are working on on a table with paintbrushes and crayons.
Everyday household materials are great for engineering projects.
Although teaching engineering may appear complex, it is not as daunting as it sounds and teachers don't really need "anything fancy," says JPL ed specialist Ota Lutz. Here are six of her tips on how to get kids enamored with engineering.
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Although the subject of engineering may appear complex, it is not as daunting as it sounds.

For Ota Lutz, Ph.D., it just means solving a problem by creating a solution. It also involves improving on things we already know by implementing new ideas, technology and designs.

In a recent webinar with PBS SoCal, Lutz, who is a STEM elementary and secondary education specialist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said kids are natural engineers. They are instinctively curious and enjoy building things. Teachers can support them in developing those skills by teaching engineering.

"There's so much fun stuff you can do," Lutz said. "And you don't need to have anything fancy. There's so much you can do with cardboard, tape and string."

For anything from building a wheel to fixing a rover, here are six of her tips on how to effectively educate kids on engineering.

1. Stop Memorizing the Engineering Design Process

The Engineering Design Process is a step-by-step map that shows how we can approach engineering projects. It begins with identifying a problem, brainstorming and then choosing a design to try out. The subsequent steps include building out a prototype, testing it, improving features and sharing final results. Lutz recommended that teachers use the design process as guidance rather than as a tool for students to memorize.

"Kids naturally will follow what we call the Engineering Design Process because if you present them with a problem or they have a problem that they've identified, they automatically brainstorm," she said. "And then what do they want to do? They want to try it out."

Lutz said that by tuning into a student's innate ability to solve problems without memorization, they can develop their skills independently.

"If they see it as some steps they have to follow, it makes them reliant on someone else for their own learning," Lutz said. "And it's much more powerful if they go, 'Well this is just something I do,' as opposed to, 'I need my teacher or my parent or whoever to tell me the steps, and then I follow them.'"

2. Let Kids Explore

Allowing students to explore different problems and answers is a key way to introduce engineering. Teachers can begin by setting forth a situation that needs resolving. Lutz recommends that educators assess their classrooms or have students think of their home environment and pinpoint what can be improved.

"All of us have lived in a house that had something that doesn't work right, like the door doesn't open, the door opens backward, or the cabinet crashes into the refrigerator when you open it," Lutz explained. "How can you fix that? What solutions can we come up with?"

She said educators should work with kids to come up with ideas that they can experiment with.

"Give them a lot of latitudes," Lutz said. "If they have an idea and they want to try it, let them do it. It's so powerful for kids to have a sense of agency about their own learning. And little kids, if they have a chance to try things out, they're going to gain confidence."

In the school system, we tend to emphasize that you have to have the right answer for things. ... And truly, in engineering, there are multiple answers and multiple approaches that can be right.
Ota Lutz, JPL STEM elementary and secondary education specialist

3. Change One Thing at a Time — and Take Notes!

To successfully test out designs and find solutions, kids need to pace themselves and optimize one feature at a time. For example, if they are fixing a toy plane, they should first test the wings in one trial and then the wheels in another.

"You want to change a little bit at a time and see if you can control what is changing your outcome," Lutz said. "All those things are scientific habits of mind."

Additionally, she recommends that educators enforce note-taking.

"Kids just want to try things and not take notes. And then they'll get frustrated," Lutz said. "So if you have them take notes, they'll have a better chance at success because they'll know what they changed."

4. Encourage Creativity and Decision-Making

Original and imaginative thinking is a driving force for solving engineering problems. Teachers can foster a creative classroom environment by reminding students that there is no one right answer.

"In the school system, we tend to emphasize that you have to have the right answer for things," Lutz said. "And truly, in engineering, there are multiple answers and multiple approaches that can be right."

By removing the need to identify one right answer, kids can expand their ways of thinking. It will also help train them to be academic risk-takers and to make inventive decisions, she said.

5. Focus Grading on Processes, not Outcomes

As for grading procedures, Lutz thinks that teachers should assess students' processes instead of the outcome of their design. For example, they should grade whether students brainstormed, created a model and effectively controlled their variables.

"I would give them credit for trying things so that kids understand they have more license to try crazy things since the outcome isn't the only thing that's graded," Lutz said.

This is also important, Lutz said, because the results of a design can often differ due to luck. For example, two students that follow the same process may coincidentally have different results.

6. Challenge Students with Questions

When working through an engineering problem, educators should challenge students rather than give them answers right away.

"Kids will naturally ask an adult, 'Will this work?' And maybe you know because you've tried it, and you know if it'll work or not," Lutz said. "But I think it's important to just say to the kid, 'I don't know. Let's try it.'"

Once they are done experimenting, Lutz said teachers should follow up with more questions, such as "What did you try?" "How did it not work?" and "What do you think we should change?" These questions will drive kids to evaluate their work and make independent critical decisions.

By providing guidance, enriching creativity in the classroom and promoting exploration, young students can gain confidence and get more comfortable with engineering, which, as Lutz said, at the end of the day, is just solving problems.

Want to get started? Here are some activities from JPL that are sure to flex little engineers’ creativity:

In this activity, kids will use a tangram to identify the shapes in real-life rovers and build their own.

Perfect for older students, this activity directs kids on how to make a cardboard rover that can move on its own!Esta actividad también está disponible en español.

This fun activity will help kids pasta the time by making rovers out of macaroni and glue and figuring out how to improve their designs so they can travel smoothly down a ramp.

Several rovers made out of dried pasta are laid out on a table.
Several rovers made out of dried pasta are laid out on a table. | NASA/JPL-Caltech

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