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IAP: Student makes engineering kid-friendly

Contrary to popular belief, engineering concepts can be taught to children as young as 5, graduate student Kristen Bethke explained to a handful of students gathered in Building 4 for a Jan. 11 Independent Activities Period seminar called "Teaching Engineering to Kids."

At its heart, engineering is a process -- a series of careful steps that lead to a desired result, which is a relatively simple idea for children to understand, Bethke said.

"That is the way to teach engineering to kids," said Bethke, a student in aeronautics and astronautics who plans to get a Ph.D. in education.

"I really love this (teaching engineering to children), and I am going to prove it by making it my profession," Bethke said. It is now especially crucial that children learn these concepts early because Massachusetts has required schools to include science and technology/engineering components in their curricula, Bethke said.

In Wednesday's seminar, each of the roughly 10 attendees received a briefcase-sized box of Lego building pieces with a little computerized engine that runs Robolab software. This kit is designed to help students as young as 5 learn math, science and simple engineering concepts.

Using the materials, attendees were charged with designing a car that could stop before hitting some Lego people posed in a mock pedestrian crosswalk. "We try to make it fun," Bethke said.

Once students have built a Lego car and attached its engine, they must measure how fast the car travels (how long it takes to go a given distance) and enter that information into the engine. By also measuring the distance from the start point to the crosswalk and entering that into the engine, they can get the car to stop in time.

The lesson can be modified to the age of the students. For second-graders and younger kids, the first step is simply classifying the Legos. For young students, identifying the pieces that make up the whole is an important part of the process.

For older children, the project offers lessons on such concepts as distance and time. In the end, students win the challenge by measuring accurately.

"These are engineering challenges they have to solve on their own," Bethke said. "Along the way they learn some engineering or science."

The IAP course is just the beginning, said Bethke. In the coming months, she plans to use seed money from Tufts University to start an outreach program at MIT that will send MIT volunteers into local public schools to help teach students.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 25, 2006 (download PDF).

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