Owen Wageman and his fellow engineers are designing a bridge.

“Have you ever seen the Golden Gate Bridge?” Owen asks. “You have these things holding up the bridge. Maybe we could do something like that.”

They lean in around the table to test out the materials: index cards, paper clips, tape, string, drinking straws, copy paper and craft sticks. Well, they are fourth-graders.

Engineering our Future from GeoCore Films on Vimeo.

The project is part of a curriculum called Engineering is Elementary (EIE), which came out of the Museum of Science, Boston. Heidi Carlone, an associate professor in UNCG’s School of Education, contracted with the museum to help teachers in several Piedmont schools implement the hands-on program.

Owen’s school, Irving Park Elementary in Greensboro, was one school selected by UNCG as a partner. His teacher, Kristin Boyce, started using EIE last semester — the class made petroglyphs, or rock engravings — and says it has brought new life to her classroom.

“It’s a blast! It’s so energizing,” Boyce says. “Kids who normally don’t have a voice in the classroom are stepping up and taking on leadership roles. There’s a kind of excitement you don’t see anymore. I certainly never did anything like this in elementary school.”

Her students use engineering terms. Abutments. Span. Balance.

“Too much weight on one side might cause it to collapse,” Emery Kano says, explaining the importance of balance to his classmates.

Addison Mitchell comes forward to sketch out how forces pressing down on the bridge have to be countered by adequate upward forces.

The class has already experimented with three types of bridges — beam, deep beam and arch. Now, they are folding index cards into three different shapes — triangular, rectangular and cylindrical prisms — to see which design yields piers strong enough to support their science textbook.

“Children are natural engineers,” Carlone says. “They build forts out of blankets, modify sledding hills with curves and  jumps. However, the push for testing in mathematics and literacy often shoves science and engineering to the margins of the elementary curriculum.”

EIE, designed in part to “humanize” engineering as a career, aligns with Next Generation Science Standards suggested for adoption by state public education systems across the country, she says. The standards basically paint a picture of what “quality science education should look like.”

Cynthia McKee, Irving Park’s principal, says EIE also fits nicely with the new Common Core standards for schools. Irving Park has adopted a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) curriculum model, and EIE is proving to be an effective way to gets kids fired up about engineering.

McKee wants to continue the program in fourth grade next year and add a fifth-grade component.

“What we’re seeing here is that it’s really increasing awareness of what engineering is, and it’s boosting interest in other careers and increasing their technical literacy,” she says. “The students are so excited. When I walk into the classroom, I don’t have to ask them what they’re doing, they tell me all about it. It’s amazing. It has just opened up their minds.”

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations