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Second-Grade Engineering Class


Engineers test how the profile of a car affects its aerodynamics in a controlled headwind. They repeatedly test and modify the silhouettes to control the drag. This work impacts style, fuel efficiency, and manufacturing costs in the competitive world of auto design.

On one recent day the engineers were all in second grade:

“Look at it go!”
“It’s not working.”
“We fixed it!”
“Go, go, go, go, go!”

Mingled with the children’s voices was the deep tone of BYU Professor Steve Shumway. “We just keep trying. We try until we get it,” Shumway encouraged.

Shumway helped rev up the second-grade lesson from a discussion on states of matter (liquids, solids, and gases) to applied aerodynamics. A car (a solid) interacts with air (a gas) differently depending on its shape. Science came to life.

Foothill Elementary in Orem, Utah, invited Shumway as part of a school-wide initiative to integrate STEM activities and enhance the teaching of science.

“Dr. Shumway has played a critical role in our school becoming a STEM school. He has helped our teachers gain the skills to provide quality science instruction,” said Principal Joseph Backman. “This type of teaching is rich as students work in groups to explore how to solve real-world problems much like an engineer would.”

Lesson study times were scheduled with individual grades, and Shumway checked the week ahead to see what topics they were covering.

After a preparation session with Shumway, BYU intern Roxanne Clark volunteered to teach the lesson. Fellow teachers Jamie Madsen and Kristie Rodas observed while substitutes covered their classes. After the lesson, the teachers and Shumway met to reflect on student reactions, determine if lesson objectives had been met, and consider how the lesson might be improved.

Clark drew the engineering cycle on the whiteboard and explained the project. Students were encouraged to sketch designs before making extensions to their cars.

The car challenge began. Students trimmed and taped index cards to their cars and rolled them down ramps facing a fan. They adjusted shapes, trying to bring their cars to a stop in a marked area.

“You guys were doing engineering design,” Shumway said as the children reassembled.

One student from each of the five teams presented what the group had been able to do with their cars and what they had learned.

“We put one of the pieces of paper on,” Sarah Wong said. “Then that didn’t work, and so we kept cutting off more and more of it, and then we found it was good.”

All the second-grade teachers agreed that the STEM activities help students with teamwork and problem-solving skills. The projects are engaging, and students remember the concepts being taught.

“When they are doing hands-on work is when they are really able to understand the concept,” Clark said. “When they are actually doing an engineering project, they are able to learn it a lot deeper.”

Clark is grateful for Shumway’s help. “He showed us the cool engineering things that are actually possible. Engineering sounds really complex. He showed us how these complex engineering ideas can be taught easily to children—and in a fun way.