Problem: There’s a not-too-secret challenge in the field of engineering — it lacks diversity.
Solution: Begin engineering education early in a child’s life, like soon after birth.
Don’t scoff. Think about how neglected the "E" as in engineering is inside the now-popular educational push for STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. How many schools do you know where kids take engineering classes as they do with science and math?
Turns out there's at least one — The Children's Center at Caltech, where infants, toddlers and preschools are getting an engineering-based education.
If you have dreams of an engineering career for your young child, follow these five tips:
1. Understand what engineering really is
“Engineering is about problem-solving,” says Gregory Washington, dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Engineering, and it's about making something, said Monica Dolan, early educator at The Children's Center: "You’re coming up with the ideas, the blueprints.”
Activities that encourage kids to create things and solve problems — like stacking blocks to make a tower, for example — helps children think through the steps needed to make something work.
2. Be deliberate about the language you use
As your child plays, name the terms and concepts, says The Children’s Center teacher Seadra Chagolla. Say "balance" and "assembly" while your child plays with blocks. “Between two and three, they’re still acquiring a lot of language and so there’s a lot of ideas that they have that are nonverbal.”
However, the center's preschool teacher, Veronica Dayag, doesn’t advise hand-holding of preschool age children or gratuitous praise such as the all too common, "Good job!" Instead, Dayag said, ask "open-ended questions to help [children] develop their ideas."
Carrie Lynne Draper, STEM director at The Children’s Center, says using engineering curriculum with small children is optimizing what new research shows children’s brains are capable of.
"What this really is about is a process that's natural to children," Draper said. She said adults should work with small children "to get them to ask, to imagine, to design, to create, to test their ideas and then to improve upon that." This is what's known as the engineering design process, she said.
3. Get your daughter out of the pink aisle
At the toy section of the department store, the stereotypical princess and Barbie dolls dominate. Instead, take girls to the hardware section, experts advise.
A Stanford engineering graduate, Debbie Sterling, tired of the toy industry for its pigeonholing of young girls, created the Goldieblox toy. It features a girl character who constructs and creates her way around life. The toy comes complete with screws, axles, 5-way joints, and wheels. It prompts girls to build things like a derby car or a tropical island.
Other gender-neutral engineering toys are available at learning-based toy outlets like Lakeshore Learning Store.
Find fun books that involve little children who build and create, such as "Iggy Peck, Architect" or "Rosie Revere, Engineer." Here’s the opening line from author Andrea Beaty's Iggy story: “Young Iggy Peck is an architect, and has been since he was two, when he built a great tower in only an hour, with nothing but diapers and glue.”
4. Make math fun
Washington, UC Irvine's engineering school dean who is African-American, knows well the challenges in a field with few blacks and Latinos. He sees a “fundamental fear of math” in some communities of color as an obstacle to “getting into the discipline.”
Engineering is about solving the world’s problems, and “more people of color bring a diversity of solutions," he said. Starting at preschool is just about right "to prepare kids to be ready as inventors and as problem-solvers.”
5. Look for developments from the Early Childhood STEM Conference
The conference, Feb. 5 to 7 at the Hilton Orange County Hotel in Costa Mesa, will gather early education experts who will focus in part on engineering and sharing hands-on teaching tips and curriculum ideas for preschoolers. Registration is open online.
For a rich archive of engineering activities, principles and ideas for the zero to five set, check the presentations from last year's conference.