How to Turn Any Activity into an Engineering Lesson

I’ve done numerous outreach events, especially those geared toward girls, where activities tend to be more crafty than teaching future Engirlneers how to use the engineering process. While making lipstick or cookies is fun and gets girls’ attention, how can one turn these activities, or any activity, into an educational experience?

One of the easiest ways is to look at these activities from a project management standpoint, and ask yourself, as a leader, how you can incorporate these concepts into an activity? Primarily, consider scope, schedule, and budget. Often, “crafty” STEM activities have a set scope (what are we doing/what is our goal?), schedule (this activity will run for 1 hour), and budget (you will be given a set amount of items to work with), we just don’t think of how these can be altered to make Engirlneers think critically and be innovative. There are easy ways to incorporate these concepts into any activity to change it into an engineering lesson.

  1. Scope: Instead of giving Engirlneers instructions on how to achieve the end result, tell them the end result, and have them figure out how to get there on their own. Some activities are better suited for a change in scope, such as building a sky scraper or a bridge that can hold the most pennies. However, think of other ways in which someone could achieve the task at hand and provide them with the necessary items to come to a different, but successful, design.
  2. Schedule: This one can be tricky if you truly have a set time frame in which to work. However, by altering the scope and making the Engirlneers design their own solution, they have to figure out how to optimize their time to not only design a solution, but to also build it. Additionally, you can choose whether the Engirlneers can have multiple attempts to complete the scope as long as they get it done in the allotted time. For instance, if they are building a dome that has to hold 100 pennies, are they allowed to test their design and improve it if it fails? Another idea is that if they complete the project on time, maybe they get a reward or bonus.
  3. Budget: Budget is so much fun to play with and can be varied to accommodate whatever age group you’re working with.
    1. For younger Engirlneers who don’t have a high level of math knowledge, you can give them a set quantity and tell them they don’t get any extra but they don’t have to use it all either.
    2. For older Engirlneers, you can assign each item a specific value, give them a “not to exceed” budget and allow their creativity to soar.
    3. You can also assign scores based on the weight of a structure or the number of items used. The lower weight (or lower quantity of materials) will be factored in to the final scores to determine a winner. This concept can also be applied with the schedule (less time equates to a better score).

THEN, THROW A WRENCH IN IT

After the Engirlneers are fully enthralled by the activity, think of problems you can throw their way that they have to solve. Maybe “the client” wants a taller skyscraper, or it needs to be wider. Decide if they get more budget to do so, or if they have to re-allocate materials from the rest of their design to complete the scope. Maybe a storm hits, and they lose 5 minutes of construction time; what can they do during 5 minutes of downtime to make sure they still get done on time? Explain to the future Engirlneers that these are problems that professional Engirlneers deal with every day. Projects never go as planned, and it is important to be able to adapt and come up with solutions to solve the problem.

MAKE THE ENGIRLNEERS EXPLAIN THEIR THOUGHT PROCESS

An important part of engineering is being able to explain a concept to a client or the community. Engirlneers need to get comfortable explaining their design.

FINALLY, WHAT DID THEY LEARN?

Engineering is all about learning from successes and mistakes. Ask the girls what they liked about the project, what they hated. What did they find difficult? What did they feel most proud of?

There are many ways to turn every activity into an engineering lesson. By thinking about scope, schedule, and budget, an activity leader can easily turn a “craft” into an engineering lesson. Following up on their thoughts and what they learned will further ingrain the engineering process into their minds.

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