On a recent crisp winter morning at the child-care center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., a group of educators gathered to plan their big teaching initiative for the year ahead.
“One of the questions was: How are we going to make engineering work in an infant space?” says Monica Dolan, an early educator who works with infants at The Children’s Center, as Caltech’s child-care center is officially known.
The center has always focused on teaching through science and math principles – after all, it is attached to Caltech – but diving into engineering curriculum for little ones was new.
“Usually when you think of engineering you’re usually creating something,” says Dolan. “Coming up with the ideas, the blueprints.”
While infants aren’t about to sketch a blueprint, they can create – with some assistance. Teachers use a lot of big cushion-y blocks to create structures the babies can climb on. It’s part of a strategy to get all children to learn through basic engineering principles, Dolan says.
“If you can start with the infants, then we can take those skills and build upon them every year,” she says. “So if at infant age, if they are already good at stacking and balance, then in the toddler yard they may already be using scales.”
In the next yard, teacher Seadra Chagolla and her toddlers are building a train. They scour the yard for materials to make carriages and find empty crates.
“It would fall under ‘engineering’ for them because they are thinking about something they want to create and figuring out different ways to create it on their own,” says Chagolla.
Then a classic engineering problem strikes: resource scarcity. The crates run out and there are still 2-year-olds without a seat on the train. The toddlers solve it by finding chairs to create the needed train carriages.
Yard time is over, and back inside, Chagolla quiets the toddlers with a story.
“Young Iggy Peck is an architect and has been since he was 2, when he built a great tower in only an hour with nothing but diapers and glue.”
It’s deliberate here. From story time to free play, everything is geared toward age-appropriate learning through engineering principles, Chagolla says.
“Because they’re between 2 and 3, they’re still acquiring a lot of language and so there’s a lot of ideas that they have that are nonverbal,” she says.
But not speaking doesn’t mean they don’t get complex concepts. Toddlers here know and verbalize concepts like stability and balance because they are constantly named and reinforced.
In the preschool classroom, 4- and 5-year-olds are building straw rockets using just three items: fat straws, thin straws and tape.
Teacher Veronica Dayag engages the 4-year-olds like college students. “So I want to see if you can get your straw rockets to shoot all the way from where you’re sitting to the other side of the room,” she says.
She asks them to start by sketching a blueprint, but doesn’t give them any other instructions. Each one uses tape, plus the big and little straws, and through trial and error figures out how to turn the materials into a rocket that shoots across the room.
Using engineering curriculum with small children optimizes what new research shows are the capabilities of small children’s brains, says Carrie Lynne Draper, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) director at Caltech’s Children’s Center.
“What this really is about is a process that is natural to children,” she says. “To get them to ask, to create, to test their ideas. Believe it or not, in the grown-up world that’s called the “engineering design process.’”
But it’s not just preschool advocates who believe an engineering education can start young. The strategy has support at the top end of the education pipeline, too. Gregory Washington, dean of the School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine wants more women, black and Latino engineers in the field, and he says starting young is key.
“If you’re starting at preschool, you’re right about right in order to prepare kids to be ready as inventors and as problem solvers,” he says.