Tiny tots aren't yet at the stage where they can solder a circuit board or code a subroutine. Nevertheless, as is the case with many subjects, many educators and parents feel that, the earlier engineering is introduced, the better.
Here are a number of reasons why.
Little humans are programmed to question, build, and create. It's in their nature to ask and explore how things work and how they're made. Just ask any parent who's had to reassemble something taken apart by curious young hands. Catching their interest and introducing key concepts while they're still fun and interesting can establish a solid foundation.
As we move up to higher levels of education, we're told to specialize and to separate one subject area from another. As children, however, engineering concepts blend into all sorts of other types of learning. A young child doesn't have to be specifically interested in engineering to be taught key ideas. They can learn them through art projects, storytelling, music, or even physical education. The skills learned through early engineering education, including problem solving and analysis, can be applied throughout a child's education.
Technological literacy, or the awareness of how technology impacts one's way of thinking and living, is a key 21st-century skill. The sooner a child begins to develop this skill, the better able he or she can make technology work, regardless of whether the child eventually chooses engineering as a career.
Early engineering education also helps to break gender barriers. The younger the child, the less he or she tend to think of specific activities or subjects as being for boys or girls. Studies have shown that female participation in engineering tends to dwindle as children get older. A concerted effort not only to make engineering available to little girls, but also to keep it appealing as they get older, is necessary.
So how are engineering concepts being introduced to learners as young as three or four?
- There's no shortage of toys and educational tools available to teach engineering concepts, even to very young learners. Lego WeDo, for example, allows early elementary-level students to build and program robots. As kits like GoldieBlox demonstrate, efforts are being made to market engineering toys to both boys and girls.
- Early engineering is being included as a subject area as early as preschool, and the learning objectives are being formally written into the curriculum. What's more, a hands-on, project-based approach is being employed, ensuring that learners know the practical applications for the theory being introduced.
- Extracurricular activities, clubs, and competitions surrounding engineering are becoming wildly popular. Just look at the success of Junior First Lego League, which invites competitors as young as six or seven. It's even possible to have an engineering-themed birthday party.
- Most children's museums feature exhibits that teach early engineering concepts. Young visitors are invited to peek inside complex machines, experiment with light and motion, and build and test structures.
- Educators have come to realize that areas of engineering previously thought to be beyond the reach of child learners, such as coding, are not only within their grasp but also of great interest to them.
Whether efforts to introduce engineering to a younger crowd will result in more students entering the field remains to be seen. What is known is that exposing young children to any new idea at an early age tends to result in a great appreciation of it as they grow. At the very least, more young learners will be familiar with the positive impact that smart design and execution can have on their daily lives.