STEM: “Career readiness” in elementary school—really?

“When do we get to be engineers again?” is not something you would expect second graders to ask. But when Woodland Elementary School in Ohio completed a grade-wide engineering unit, that’s what teachers reported hearing for weeks afterward.

Even as a novel part of their school lives, engineering lessons can make a mark on kids’ imaginations and shape their desire for what to learn. And even without anything like the kind of training they get in language arts and math, elementary school teachers can make engineering work with the right program and a bit of professional development.

Oh, the places you’ll go

“Career readiness” is an imperative being written into state learning standards all over the country. In my state, Pennsylvania, for example, the “Future Ready PA Index” details “career education and work” standards that apply to all levels of K-12 instruction.

The Woodland students’ response shows how well engineering (and technology, I’ll suggest) can serve both students’ intrinsic learning preferences as well as schools’ needs to fulfill mandated compliance with standards. Career readiness activities, such as these students experienced, can enlarge and enrich both their learning and their sense of what they can become in the world.

First steps, first

But how to get started? What can teachers do, as individuals or cohorts, within the confines of their already-bursting day to show their students what being an engineer is all about?

Awareness is the first stage of career readiness: building students’ understanding of what people do for work, what these jobs are called, and how school learning connects to these jobs. That is why the construction “be engineers again” is so notable; it signals students’ incipient formation of a career identity, which research shows to be crucial for persistence in STEM fields. If students use the language of a career exploration exercise to express a desire to be something, it shows the learning experience has shaped their sense of who they could become or even already are.

Playing to teachers’ strengths

This moves us to territory already familiar to every elementary school educator – language arts. Grafting practical engineering career themes onto language arts exercises turns out to be a great way to meet both literacy and career readiness needs.

Engineering, as a practice, is pretty easy to explain at a basic level. “Design under constraint” is one construction of it, as William Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, is famous for saying. More fully, engineering involves using technical knowledge of what can be done with available resources and materials to build a solution to a problem people are having, resulting in something generally categorized as technology.

In fact, the logic of engineering has much in common with a basic approach to reading a story: identify a problem facing a character, understand how details of the story define the elements (constraints) of the problem, analyze how a character does or does not solve the problem, and reflect on ways the story touches, even shapes, one’s own experience of the world.

But in practice?

Okay, all very abstract. To get more particular about how an actual story can serve as the vehicle for delivering a lesson in career awareness in STEM, let’s consider Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.

The story’s narrator and his sister Sally have been tasked with shoveling snow while their mother goes to town for the day (hello, social services?!). The Cat in the Hat shows up, settles into the bathtub with a piece of cake, and leaves a ring of pink…something…behind him. He solves successive cleaning problems by removing the pink… something…from various surfaces with a series of apparently inappropriate, but surprisingly effective, household items: mother’s white dress, dad’s $10 shoes, and a carpet runner. The final series of cleaning problems—bed, TV, snowbanks—requires the help of Little Cats A through Z, conveniently stored in the Cat’s hat. Little Cat Z, too tiny to see, deploys cleaning “technology” par excellence, Voom, to affect the final, once-and-for-all clean-up job. 

In each instance of cleaning, the Cat in the Hat practices the engineer’s creed—use technical knowledge of available resources to solve a problem. Moreover, his persistence in the face of inadequate solutions exemplifies a central dictum of engineering: learn from failure. The Cat optimizes his use of cleaning technologies to meet changing circumstances and arrive at a solution that ultimately meets his kid clients’ needs. In the best tradition of challenging engineering jobs, final success requires a collaborative effort melding team members’ distinctive abilities, all of which add up to an accomplishment beyond what anyone could do on their own.

For the teacher’s purposes, framing the story within the language and episteme of engineering and technology work is fundamental. Such a lesson connects a fun, accessible reading exercise to a career field that might otherwise seem strange and alienating. Making this connection requires teachers to develop only a rudimentary grasp of engineering and technology principles, readily available from numerous sources. “Engineering design process” is a search phrase that will deliver abundant sources of educator-oriented learning on the topic.

Next steps

Extensions to this exercise are easy to formulate: ask students to identify characters’ problems, taken from any text, and then have them design and prototype their own engineering solutions with materials at hand. Popsicle sticks, paper clips, pipe cleaners, paper, and masking tape, among much else, have been known to yield a wealth of imaginative classroom-built technologies.

PBS has built a STEM-focused learning program around the Cat in the Hat at The lessons do not meld story and STEM in the way described above, but the characters and setting will serve to usher early elementary kids into a world familiar enough to smooth their entry into learning about simple machines, force and motion, and properties of materials, among other topics.

Career readiness can seem like a wildly out-of-place burden to place on elementary education. We ask so much of educators at this level already. But STEM learning, and engineering in particular, can play to interests kids already bring to class. And connections to career themes are there to be made in all kinds of learning situations, especially the language arts curriculum. So, as the Cat in the Hat would urge, rev up the career readiness thing-a-ma-jigger hiding in plain sight somewhere in your curriculum, and see where you can go, go, go with it.

Eric Iversen is Vice President for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering, a print and digital media company that develops materials and services to help educators integrate STEM education and career learning into K-12 education. He has worked in education for over 25 years, as a teacher, writer, publisher, and administrator, and he has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. By coincidence, his first job out of college was at W. W. Norton.

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