Building the Future

Lower School teachers gain inspiration, share ideas from 21st annual Virginia Children's Engineering Conference

By: Kris Marchant (Junior Kindergarten Teacher), Suzanne Casey (Lower School Enrichment Teacher), Nancy Loyd (Second-Grade Teacher), and Mary Ann Taylor (Second-Grade Teacher)

What do you remember about your childhood schooldays? Sitting at desks arranged in neat rows? Passively watching filmstrips? Completing another worksheet fresh from the ditto machine? We're betting your children's memories will be quite different, thanks in part to the rise of children's engineering as a significant component of classroom instruction.

At Steward, STEM-driven (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) lessons are one way we aim to prepare our students for “the now and the next,” setting them up for success in our hallways, in college, and in life. Our recent attendance at the Virginia Children's Engineering Convention reaffirmed these efforts and also allowed us to collaborate with fellow educators on ways to deepen our practice for the benefit of our students.

Our proposal was accepted and we were invited to present at the annual convention, held just last month in Roanoke from February 9-10. With lots of excitement, a few nerves, and a great desire to represent Steward well, we met for weeks to prepare our session entitled, “Implementing Research, Systems Thinking, and Children’s Engineering in the JK-2 Classroom.” We felt strongly that our STEM/Systems Thinking/Design Challenge model for the primary grades was innovative and effective, and based upon attendance at and reactions to our presentation, we were right!

We described junior kindergarten (JK) lessons related to our studies of pumpkins, as well as the mechanics of handwriting, kindergarten students building a bridge for the Three Billy Goats Gruff, and first-grade students following a design brief to build bats from recycled materials and create a systems thinking diagram on the bat population. We talked about how our second-grade students read No Monkeys, No Chocolate: in addition to each class creating a systems diagram of inflows (factors that increase) and outflows (factors that decrease) of the cocoa bean harvest, the entire second grade collaborated to create a 3D model representing the systems diagram. Of particular interest were our lessons based on the study of snow as they were scaffolded across grades JK through 2. Significantly, attendees were actively involved throughout our workshop, whether they were building solutions to design challenges or collaborating to brainstorm stocks, inflows, and outflows for systems thinking diagrams.

While presenting our own program was an invaluable learning opportunity, we also greatly benefited by attending numerous workshops with the more than 700 educators at the conference. We found ourselves invigorated by the opportunity to work with new colleagues to deconstruct mechanical stuffed toys, to collaborate with them to design a labyrinth for nano bugs, and to share our experiences and ideas. The interactive nature of these sessions, as well as our own workshop, mirrored one of the central precepts of children's engineering: collaborating to solve problems. Students work together to exercise their critical thinking skills and ask about, imagine, plan, create, and improve their solutions to the challenge at hand. Invariably, even the youngest engineers run up against their desires for instant gratification, expecting that they will find the one “right” answer straightaway. In the process, they learn a most valuable lesson--that success can come in many forms and often only after failure. This idea of trying again--of revisiting your thinking, of developing resilience, of improving upon your design--is a natural fit for children’s inherently curious and creative minds.

Born inventors, all our young students need is the opportunity and encouragement to build. They'll construct more than solutions to design challenges: they'll build relationships with each other and come to understand and appreciate our increasingly interconnected world. The interactive, creative, and innovative memories they make today will guide them as they engineer the future for all of us.

Sources/Additional Resources

  • "Teaching Kids to Think Like Engineers," Discover Magazine, December 2013
  • Children’s Engineering Educators, LLC,
  • International Technology and Engineering Educators Association,
  • Virginia Children’s Engineering Council,
  • For technical and systems thinking support: Laura Akesson, Academic Dean, Bryan Innovation Lab
  • For moral support and encouragement: The Innovation Fellows Gang, Bryan Innovation Lab Week, Class of 2016

Suzanne Casey, Kris Marchant, Nancy Loyd, and Mary Ann Taylor are proud teachers in the Lower School. Collectively, they have 93 years of teaching experience. They are working on completing the requirements to become BIL Innovation Fellows.





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