“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Kids hear this question throughout their entire academic careers, from early elementary days to the never-ending asks before walking the graduation stage. The options are endless for the future generation, but oftentimes students aren't exposed to the wide array of careers available until later in life.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of occupations connected to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are projected to grow by nearly 11% by 2031. With close to 10 million workers already holding STEM-related positions in 2021, this growth will be “
over two times faster than the total for all occupations.” Your students can most likely explain jobs related to math, science, or technology in their own words, but what about engineering?
The importance of engineering
85% of the jobs your students will hold by the year 2030
haven’t been invented yet, but engineering-related skills, like problem solving, critical thinking, and communication, can help prepare them for ever-adapting roles. It’s important to expose students to engineering and STEM skills early since they are “essential prerequisites to career technical training, advanced college-level and graduate study, and increasing one's technical skills in the workplace” (United States Committee on STEM Education).
But how can you introduce students to engineering in age-appropriate, exciting ways without adding extra hours to the school day? Check out these easy-to-implement ideas.
Help kids understand what engineers do
National Geographic defines an engineer as a “person who designs and builds complex products, machines, systems, or structures.” Whether building a bridge or a car, engineers follow the design process to guide their problem solving.
Use questions to help students realize they’ve already experienced the engineering design process. Have you ever built a fort? Tell me about a time you designed something for fun. Have you ever built something and it fell apart? Why do you think that happened?
Then, ask students to think about how they see and use things made by engineers in their daily lives. How do you think that bridge was built? Why does your car move when you push on the gas pedal? How do lights come on when we flip a switch? What do you think is going on inside a cell phone? Use these “What Do Engineers Do” free poster downloads for further discussion about the processes engineers engage in. Keep the posters displayed year-round to reinforce that engineering matters!
Finally, ask students to brainstorm a solution to a real-world problem they’re experiencing. How could you design or create something to fix that problem? How would you start the process of creation? How will you revise your plan if it doesn’t work the first time? How will you test to know if your design works? At the end of your discussion point out that engineers engage in the same type of thinking in their jobs.
Different types of engineering
As your students become more familiar with engineering, introduce examples of the various
types of engineering through videos, short reading passages, or hands-on experiments.
Students will never know the exciting fields available to them if they are never shared. Plus, exposing learners to types of STEM fields at a young age “goes a long way in capturing their imagination and keeping them interested in science, technology, engineering, and math jobs in the early stages of their career” (Purdue University,
Early Exposure to STEM and its Impact on Future Work, p. 4).
Types of Engineering:
Civil engineers design and construct different types of infrastructure, like bridges, buildings, roads, and more.
Mechanical engineers study and develop systems related to the flow of motion, from cars to roller coasters.
Electrical engineers design systems that transmit energy and information, including electrical systems for airplanes and cars along with communication systems.
Chemical engineers examine how new substances can be created using biological and chemical processes, including chemicals, fuel, drugs, and food.
Aerospace engineers design and test aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, missiles, and other technologies used in aviation.
Biomedical engineers develop new technologies, medicines, equipment, and devices to improve human health, from a prosthetic arm to the components of an x-ray machine.
Environmental engineers create solutions for the world’s environmental challenges, including clean drinking water, sanitation, and air quality.
Agricultural engineers work to make farms more efficient, by designing new equipment, developing seeds, or testing different environmental factors to observe the impact on crops.
Software engineers develop applications and programs that power our daily lives, from a computer processing system to a video game.
This all sounds great, but when am I possibly going to fit this into my classroom schedule? Talking about engineering doesn’t have to mean you have to forgo other lesson plans. Rather, weave engineering into your existing schedule for strong cross-disciplinary integration.
Infuse a five minute discussion about engineering into your next math or science lesson. Point out a type of engineer who uses the foundational skills your students are learning today to build strong real-world connections and increase motivation.
During literacy time, incorporate stories about inspiring engineers with picture books or nonfiction readings. Encourage students to notice the different branches of engineering in the text and evidence of the engineering processes at work. Simply having engineering-related books in your school or classroom library will increase students’ exposure and potential interest in the field.
Bring real-world engineers to your classroom with a Virtual Career Day. No bus permission slips required!
I saw on the news last night that aerospace engineers are working to develop a new satellite. Did anyone see the construction on the way to school? It made me think about civil engineers who designed and tested the bridge. Celebrate engineering all year long by talking about ways you’ve seen engineering in the news and your community. As students see you place an emphasis on engineering, they too will start to be on the lookout for examples of engineering around them.