If they build it...

Schools find engineering is a natural fit for boosting kids' interest in math and science

Anyone worried about whether there will be enough engineers in America's next generation should take comfort in a group of first-graders in Lincoln, Mass.

These six-year-olds can scarcely contain their excitement as they burst into class and discover that some cherished duck eggs have hatched. But soon they're viewing the development through more-calculating eyes. Breaking into teams and comparing notes on axles, motors, and rubber bands, they're on a mission: to create an artificial duck that can move under its own steam, using that familiar tool of youthful trade, Legos.

Plastic blocks that parents are accustomed to finding stuck between chair cushions or clogging the vacuum- cleaner hose might seem an odd way to bulk up a future engineering corps. Yet use them to build everyday objects - putting them together in innovative ways, snapping on a motor or a gear, building experiments to test a hypothesis - and it can make a big difference in whether a kid takes to a subject of increasing importance in a technological age.

"If they're building, it's much easier to teach children math and science," says Chris Rogers, professor of engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and a driving force behind the Lincoln public school program. "It's an eye-opening thing for kids."

The effort is not a formal part of the curriculum. It probably can't compete with that paramount goal of first-graders, to learn to read. But it's reflective of a growing concern about how well American children are learning the skills that will lead to jobs in everything from industrial design to space exploration.

The desire to spark children's interest in math, science, and engineering has rarely been stronger. The recent Third International Math and Science Study showed that US students start out strong in math, only to lose significant ground by the time they graduate from high school. Many firms make no secret of their dismay at the math and science skills of young employees, and more than a few teachers are embroiled in full-blown "math wars" over how to engage kids in a subject often dismissed as boring. A recent high-tech confab in Washington had any number of corporate chieftains highlighting the need for more and better-trained engineers.

The key, many observers say, is to catch kids young and break down stereotypes about engineering as well as give them the skills for further study in the field.

LDAPS, or the Lego Data Acquisition and Prototyping System, aims to get kids thinking about how they can literally build on any experience. If they read Dr. Seuss's "The Lorax," then build a truffula tree. If US geography is the topic, construct a car to travel from state to state on a floor map. The message is clear: If you can write a story or draw a picture of something, you can probably render it in 3D and give it moving parts.

Don't watch it - build it

"We wouldn't have built lunar rovers before the Lego project," says Sue Ann Kearns, a veteran first-grade teacher at the Lincoln School. Kids would have looked at video clips or pictures instead.

That more-passive approach seems remote this particular morning, as Dr. Rogers lays out his criteria: Use a battery pack and make the bird strong enough not to fall apart if it runs into a wall ("that would be embarrassing for the duck").

Children pull out their specially designed Lego toolboxes and quickly pepper each other with questions. Natalia Thomas and Matthew Rogers start debating the placement of their duck's motor, and opt for the duck's bottom side. That prompts their next question: "How does he move?" The two pull out axles, decide they're too long, and debate yet more. Finally, wheels in place on the selected axles, they put the duck on a table and check out the motion. "We need a bigger wheel because it doesn't reach to the table, below the motor," Matthew points out - and it's back to the drawing board.

These construction tasks are the stock in trade of the LDAPS program at Lincoln, now in its fifth year. Each project has goals, which vary in difficulty according to grade and relate closely to other classroom pursuits or the time of year. Ms. Kearns's charges built snow-removal machines over the winter. Seasoned fourth-graders construct bridges and Mars habitats, all the while balancing the fun of art or science fiction with more mundane concerns about joint stresses and friction.

There are powerful reasons for helping kids better understand that engineering is tied in to their daily lives in ways they didn't even realize - and that it's not a scary concept. Christiy Budenbender, a NASA engineer and manager of NASA's outreach through LDAPS, says that when the grant was established in 1995, America's waning market share in aerospace manufacturing was much on NASA's mind -and it wanted to do what it could to reverse it.

Ms. Budenbender notes that hundreds of schools have inquired about the program since hearing about the successes of LDAPS. She, like Rogers, drops in on classrooms every two to three weeks, showing children how to build versions of the machines that fascinate them.

"You lose a large percentage of the audience in Grades 5 to 8," she says. "So we start at kindergarten, and by [middle school], they have expertise and a strong interest level."

Many of those who drift away are girls and minorities - something NASA hopes to change. Terri Green, a science teacher for Grades 1 to 4 at Lincoln who has been coordinating LDAPS for the past three years with another teacher, says there's no question that girls and boys approach Legos differently at the start of Grade 1, as boys typically have spent a lot more time with them. By the third grade, "girls are competing as strongly as the boys," she notes, underscoring the benefits of an early start.

But challenging kids' fears isn't the only hurdle. Few elementary teachers have to study math or science, let alone engineering, in any depth as part of their certification program. That lack of familiarity, as well as the extra effort required to integrate it into a curriculum already chock-full of requirements, can be a deterrent.

"Teachers already have a full day," says Martha Cyr, director of the Center for Engineering at Tufts University and a professor in the mechanical-engineering department. Too, she adds, "people don't know what engineering is, and they think it's extremely difficult." It's also time-consuming, requiring special workshops and ongoing efforts to integrate such projects.

Dr. Cyr tries to show teachers how much engineering they're already doing. Indeed, relatively few, once turned on to the idea, turn back. Cyr is hopeful that more will warm to the subject, especially as states like Massachusetts move to include engineering in math and science frameworks.

A duck, or a hot rod?

As class draws to a close at Lincoln, children share results. They toss out ideas for a team that can't get their duck to waddle. One duck is dubbed a goose - "Wow, that's enormous," a child observes solemnly - and its creators share the difficulty of building it. Another fowl is a bit of a hotrod, with a heavy motor situated on its tail causing it to rear up.

Amid the sharing, Kearns comments and questions, as does Rogers. His goal has pretty much been met. The kids, despite working for well over an hour on the project, are still paying close attention.

To Budenbender, that kind of experience chips away at biases that keep Americans at arm's length from the discipline. "American attitudes need a lot of work," she says. "Legos are fun, and science and engineering are tools we use every day. This is not revenge of the nerds."

*Send e-mail comments to

newcomba@csps.com. For more information: http://ldaps.ivv.nasa.gov

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.