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If a 12 year-old child were to ask you to tell them the most important thing you do on a daily basis as part of your job, what would you say? This question was posed to several engineers at CHESS who were asked to describe in simple terms the three most important aspects of their jobs at a National Synchrotron Light-Source facility. Their responses were strikingly similar, with the ability to solve complex problems being at the top of their collective list, followed by the application of math and science knowledge to help them tackle these problems. In addition, our staff engineers suggested that the ability to collaborate and communicate were exceedingly important aspects of their jobs, acknowledging the diversity of ideas and personalities that contribute to the work they perform. Creativity and the capacity to envision innovative solutions and to invent new devices were also recognized as important aspects of their profession.

Fourth graders write down their ideas about being an engineer after working for several days on an engineering design challenge presented in the classroom by Xraise.

Many young students have preconceived ideas about engineers and engineering, believing that engineers are people who use tools to build buildings and fix car engines, while older students are more likely to think that engineers are involved in designing things such as buildings or machines (Knight and Cunningham, 2004). To address these shortcomings and to establish a link between the work done by professional engineers at CHESS and by junior engineers in the classroom, Xraise has been working with elementary students on engineering design activities throughout the 2015-16 school year. Third and fourth grade students were recently asked to describe what they think are the most important aspects of an engineer's job. Collectively, the junior engineers we worked with believe that an engineer is someone who makes, creates or invents new things. Third grade students, who have been conducting engineering design activities in the context of developing interpersonal skills, also revealed that engineers are people who talk to others, work with others, and who help other people. Fourth graders have been designing devices that incorporate simple machines as part of their curriculum believe that engineers are people who make, create or fix machines in order to solve problems. With the help of Xraise, elementary students are developing an understanding of the multifaceted aspects of engineering and the role science knowledge and interpersonal skills play in engineering design.

Given the increasing importance of engineering and its related fields, it is imperative that students be given the chance to develop a drive to participate in engineering at an early age (Sadler, 2000) and remain aware of opportunities to pursue engineering as a career path throughout their K-12 schooling (English, Dawes, Hudson & Byers, 2009). Perhaps, even more importantly, young students need to recognize the ability of engineers to better society. One CHESS engineer summed up the key features of his job as "I think about how to make things better, and how to improve people's lives." One fourth-grade classroom engineers revealed a remarkably similar perspective after working on her Xraise-inspired design project; "An engineer is a person who builds things to make the world better." Along with everything else they do, engineers have the ability to inspire young minds.

 

 

Submitted by: Lora Hine, CHESS, Cornell University
05/09/2016