Build a better playtime: Incorporate the simple engineering design process into your child's activities

In an earlier blog, we talked about why engineering is so important to helping children develop STEM skills – skills they’ll need in order to advance in school, gain a good education and, hopefully, a good career. Again, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and the one STEM subject that incorporates all the others is engineering.

We aren’t saying your child needs to grow up and become an engineer, but it’s a good idea for them to learn and understand the essence of what an engineer does, which is the process of solving a problem through design. This is actually a great mindset to have as you plan and guide your child’s activities.

At the professional level, engineers follow the engineering design process (EDP). This is a methodical series of steps that engineers use to create designs and solve problems. It’s critical to complete each step before moving to the next. You may have found your child does some version of this very naturally, even during play. Consider her most recent fort. How many times did she scurry in and out, adjusting and adding, to get the space and lighting just right? At a rudimentary level, that’s engineering!

While knowing EDP is useful, we have found a different version of the model adapted by the Engineering is Elementary program by the Museum of Science in Boston. It uses terms that are more relevant to children and better understood:

Ask: This is where you define the project and ask some questions about it. Let’s say you are tasked with building a simple Rube Goldberg machine that can pop a balloon. You would think about what has been done in the past. You would also ask what you can and can’t use. Perhaps this is for a class science project. The assignment calls for three simple machines, but anything that runs on batteries or electricity is not allowed.

Imagine: Brainstorm ideas. Think about things that can pop balloons: sharp objects, pressure, friction. Think about what you have and how you can use these objects to transfer kinetic energy from object to object, making that sharp object land perfectly on the balloon at the end of the run.

Plan: Make a simple sketch, showing the layout of your contraption. With brief sentences, you can also explain how it works, step by step.

Create: Build the Rube Goldberg machine and then perform a test run.

Improve: Even if the balloon does pop at the end, what are some weak spots of your creation? Does a rolling ball tend to be “derailed” and fly off in a different direction? What can be done to fix it? Here you return to the earlier steps to discover a solution.

Whether they are playing or completing a structured assignment, talk about these steps. At the very least, when they come to you for help building that fort, have these steps in mind so you can guide them by asking open-ended questions.

Bricks 4 Kidz features a variety of programs that allow kids to practice these important problem-solving skills. Sign up for a class that features LEGO Bricks or robotics today.

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