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Published April 13 2010

Engineering success: Minnesota students get early exposure to field

Strange things are happening in Greentown lately, and Andrea Langley’s third-graders plan to get to the bottom of it.

After a plea for help from Greentown’s mayor, the students at Moorhead’s Reinertsen Elementary slipped into the shoes of environmental engineers to put a stop to a spate of fishy frog deaths.

And to think that mere weeks ago, one student confesses, she thought environmental engineers did gardening for a living.

Next fall, Minnesota districts will adopt new science standards that require them to teach engineering concepts in kindergarten and through elementary school. Moorhead is getting a head start with a pilot program that introduces kids to a fictional youngster their age dealing with a problem and enlists them to find a solution.

The early exposure to the field can help nip in the bud the idea that engineering is only for boys – super-smart boys, that is.

“If you’re reaching the kids in eighth grade, you’ve already missed the boat,” says Eric Stenehjem, the district’s science, technology, engineering and math coach. “The girls have already decided, ‘I am a girl. I can’t do science.’ ”

In recent years, Minnesota has placed a special emphasis on teaching science and engineering – part of a nationwide push to catch up U.S. students with peers in other developed countries.

In Moorhead, all middle school students now take robotics and design classes, where they create CO2 cars and shoot rockets in the school yard. The high school is looking to expand its engineering electives.

Now, engineering has arrived at the elementary schools. That’s how it was that Rainey Mercil, Adam Stanek and Cody Carroll set out to test the acidity of a Greentown pond sample last week and compare it to data from three years ago.

“Smells like lemon juice,” a suspicious Rainey pointed out right before Adam dipped a slip of paper into the yellowish liquid. The paper turned bright orange – much more acidic, the students established after consulting a color-coded acidity scale.

“No way a frog can live in that pond!” said Cody.

Three classrooms in the district are trying out the Engineering Is Elementary curriculum. The lessons, designed by Boston’s Science Museum, feature kids across the world solving problems with help from engineers – and students.

“They’ve taken the science topics and tied them to the word ‘engineer’ for the kids so they demystify it at an early age,” says Stenehjem.

Eventually, the students investigating the Greentown frog mysteries learn of a river oil spill. In groups of three, fifth-graders in Amy Biller’s Robert Asp classroom carried out cleanups in water-and-sand-filled pans on $20,000 budgets.

They had to figure out if a piece of nylon stocking or a rubber band worked better to contain the spill and if a cotton ball or felt better soaked it up.

“Rather than memorizing a list of facts, they were problem-solving and making decisions,” said Biller. “They became engineers.”

The experience really sent a message anyone could do engineering, including girls, Biller said. “I had girl groups that were just rock stars,” he said.

The district is considering adopting the curriculum across classrooms next year. Third-grade environmental engineers approve. Hands-on projects are fun, they learned.

Also, “I learned that pollution can happen quicker than you imagine,” said Cody. “Our sample was down from 6 to 1 acidity, and it’s only been three years.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529