PBS in the Classroom

Engineering for Good: How to help students be good stewards, and thoughtful scientists

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As a science educator, not only do I want my students to be curious about natural phenomena and understand the process of science, I also want to cultivate in them an interest in caring for the environment. The Next Generation Science Standards are the first national standards to include a significant focus on human impacts on the environment. I often discuss and research the causes and effects of climate change with my students, and how other human impacts, like pollution, alter the Earth’s ecosystem. 

These discussions have sometimes left my students feeling angry and hopeless about the future. What can they do? They can celebrate Earth Day on Saturday, April 22, but if you’re looking for a good sustainable way to engage students in these issues, there is a great curriculum to consider: KQED’s “Engineering for Good.”

Engineering for Good

KQED’s Engineering for Good provides an opportunity to propel students towards solutions about the plastic waste problem, while also honoring the origins of Earth Day, which focused more on water conservation and air pollution.

Engineering for Good spurs creative thinking and a love for technology by challenging students to construct engineering solutions to help reduce the impact of plastics on the environment. The unit introduces the engineering design process through a challenge activity, discussion and animated video. Then, students engage in the engineering design process to solve the plastics problem. The curriculum incorporates videos from KQED’s “Engineering Is” series, which highlights different components of the engineering design process and shows how scientists and engineers work together to solve real-world problems. Students have the opportunity to prototype solutions and iterate on their design with the help of their peers. The unit concludes with what was my students’ favorite part of the project— a way to communicate their work through video.

But it’s not just fun—the content is deep. Students gain a lot of knowledge about an everyday material they use: plastic. The curriculum provides a detailed introduction into plastic that is tackled with a group jigsaw so students do not feel overwhelmed by the information. The jigsaw also opens the opportunity to practice academic group work. Providing guided support around annotations and summary helped my students apply reading skills learned in Humanities classes, which is a nice bridge to different academic areas. The follow-up activity of constructing an infographic provides an opportunity for visual and English language learners to synthesize what they have learned in a creative way.

Not Just Thinking Outside the Box – What is the Box?

The Engineering for Good curriculum pushed my students’ creative capacities in ways they had not been asked before. Engineering is an innovative process that requires not just thinking outside of the box but also defining the box. The curriculum asks them to define the problem, criteria and constraints, which is an achievable task when brainstorming in small groups, leading discussions and voting together as a class. From there, students move into the brainstorm space – or should I call it the “brain drizzle.” Some of my groups could list 10 or more ideas for solutions to the problem, but others came up with one or two. The groups that were successful chose a problem they really cared about and did not feel self-conscious about sharing their solutions with the group. I suggest that you prime your kids with out-of-the-box riddles or puzzles to get their creative juices flowing and do not forget to reiterate that there are no limits (except for the constraints they set for the problem).

Next comes the really fun part – prototyping. Give your students a lot of time to build (and rebuild) and provide constructive feedback to each other along the way. During the build process, issues popped up and were resolved through questioning and discussion. When it came time for critiquing, students offered specific feedback by using sample sentence starters like, “Can you explain…?” and “I like [this] part of your prototype because…”

After the process of iterating, students produced a video about their solution. KQED Teach (KQED’s online professional learning platform for teachers) provides some great initial inspiration for students by suggesting ideas for ‘basic shots’ to use—from there, students use their own imagination to create videos. This was a highlight of the project, especially after we all shared the videos with each other.

In reflection, KQED’s Engineering for Good challenged my students and me. It provides the opportunity for educators to discuss human impact on the environment, and gives students tools to become critical problem solvers and effective stewards of our natural environment.

Engineering for Good is a two- to three-week, project-based learning unit for middle school science classrooms focused on using the engineering design process to develop solutions for negative impacts of plastics on the environment.

KQED Learning provides educators and young people multimedia content, experiential activities and professional tools to create learning environments of the 21st century by promoting civic engagement, creative expression and problem solving using digital media.

Cyatharine Alias is a 7th-grade science teacher at Summit Public Schools: Denali in Sunnyvale, California. She strives to find ways for students to realize their responsibility in taking care of the environment.

Cyatharine Alias

Cyatharine Alias Middle School Science Teacher

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