The Power of Engineering as a Teaching Tool

We have long known that STEM subjects all fall underneath one similar umbrella; but it turns out that the “E” might be getting left out more than it should. Engineering is a subject commonly viewed as complex, and reserved for higher-level education. However, it has strong potential when used in elementary and middle school classrooms. Students can connect with its emphasis on creativity and problem-solving, which can in turn boost their learning in other STEM subjects. 

Indi used in the classroom
Photo provided by Sphero Indi

Researchers have built engineering curricula for use in young classes and evaluated their effects on learning. A study of middle-school life-science classes1 investigated the potential benefits of engineering design-based curriculum both in student learning and in student attitude. The curriculum used an engineering activity to connect to a life science unit. Students were tasked with designing and building a nesting platform for their state bird. This task required several smaller ones; students must define the problem at hand, learn about the problem, model the problem, create a design, and build and test their design. Several lessons were prepared with this general structure in mind. Some lessons focused on science knowledge which served as context for the design problem, providing information such as the bird’s natural habitat and the food chain. Other lessons were more focused on the engineering design activity, which applied the foundational science knowledge. This study highlights the complementary nature of STEM subjects and displays how engineering can be used as a teaching tool that can boost learning. Results of the research showed that this teaching approach was particularly beneficial to special education students in learning science concepts. Student attitudes about STEM also improved after this unit.Engineering Design Process Graphic

What this shows is that engineering can be incorporated into current science and math classes, even for young students. It can aid understanding of target material and create a more memorable and challenging learning experience. Our Engineering Gift Guide has this knowledge in mind when recommending gifts for children of all ages. The guide organizes toys by framework categories2, which relate to different engineering skills. Gifts under the “processes of design” (POD) category specifically include aspects of the engineering iterative design process, helping users apply these steps to real situations. Gifts under the engineering tools (ETool) category expose the user to other engineering processes and tools, which vary from rulers to flowcharts to computer softwares! Toys that promote engineering help teach skills that will be useful across many other subject areas. Engineering’s core aspects align with childhood play in many ways, so combining these two creates a positive learning experience out of play. Challenging children to solve engineering problems of many types will help prepare them for higher-level education. Creative play paired with adult guidance is a wonderful method of encouraging children to explore their interests and curiosities, and will help build the next generation of confident problem-solvers!

Written by Katherine Schieltz


1 Guzey, S. S., Moore, T. J., Harwell, M., & Moreno, M. (2016). STEM Integration in Middle School Life Science: Student Learning and Attitudes. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 25(4), 550–560. 

2 Moore, T.J., Glancy, A.W., Tank, K.M., Kersten, J.A., Smith, K.A., & Stohlmann, M.S (2017). A framework for quality K-12 engineering education: A definition. Purdue University Research Repository. PURR)