Iowa State engineers recently judged roller coasters designed and built by fourth- and fifth-graders at The Downtown School in Des Moines. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Trinect supports science and engineering learning in elementary schools

Iowa State University is on the cutting edge nationally of integrating engineering in elementary schools as recommended by the Next Generation Science Standards.

Trinect — a five-year collaboration between Iowa State and the Des Moines Public Schools — is wrapping up its second year of bringing classroom teachers, student teachers, and engineers together in “triads” to improve students’ learning. The project is funded by a $4.5 million National Science Foundation grant.

Initial results from 40 triads over four semesters are statistically significant and promising. Teachers and their young students are developing a better understanding of engineering, while engineers are learning how to better communicate their craft. The partnerships have opened up a whole new world of discovery.

“Students’ ideas are very much being bantered around, debated, and tested in ways that we haven’t seen,” said Joanne Olson, a professor in the School of Education who is the principal investigator of the project. “We see a lot of interesting and innovative experimentation with teaching going on that is resulting in some really powerful learning experiences for the kids. That’s been amazing to watch.”

At The Downtown School in Des Moines, 9- and 10-year-olds recently demonstrated their learning after working with an engineer. They showcased roller coasters they designed and built in class using materials such as pipe insulation, ice pop sticks, duct tape, cardboard, foam, hot glue, and paper. They applied concepts about kinetic and potential energy.

“It’s that real-life application. They can really relate it to what’s going on in the world,” said Downtown School teacher Erika Buckner.

“We’re building their knowledge of what engineering is and other concepts they will use in the future,” said student teacher Patrick Chubb, an Iowa State senior in elementary education. “This gives them an opportunity to see what engineering is and if it’s something they want to pursue, they can start pursuing it early before they go to college.”

The project taught students to have a growth mindset. At first, they made a lot of errors. Their plans didn’t initially match the roller coasters they built, and they were not happy when they had to tear them down.

“They’re problem solvers and they’re seeing the value in trying something, but understanding on a first attempt, it’s not always going to be perfect,” Buckner said. “Understanding that and knowing that a failure or something that doesn’t work in the beginning is really just learning, so you can learn a lot more from mistakes than doing things right all the time.”

A panel of Iowa State engineers ultimately judged students’ roller coasters on their plan, design, creativity, and understanding of science concepts.

Trinect is not only engaging kids in conversations about engineering with a societal end in mind. It’s also teaching students how science can further their understanding of the natural world.

“This whole project is not about, ‘Let’s just shove engineering into the curriculum,’” Olson said. “It’s how to respond to the standards in a way that respects both the science and the engineering for the distinct yet connected disciplines that they are. There are lots of things that we’ve learned about the world because we’re curious, because we’re innovative, and because we have an innate desire to design.”

Less than 1 percent of current teachers in elementary schools have taken any coursework in engineering, Olson said. Through Trinect, Iowa State is launching a new era of outreach that aims to provide teachers and their students with better access to that content knowledge.

Ellen Nightingale, an Iowa State graduate student in civil engineering, worked with The Downtown School students. She said the experience challenged her to focus on her audience, tailor how she communicates, simplify her ideas, and deepen her own understanding so she can better explain concepts.

“I think it’s very difficult to ask for teachers to teach engineering without giving them the resources necessary to properly teach it,” Nightingale said. “Teachers have a very constrained schedule. I think it’s a good program at connecting people in engineering with the development of the curriculum so children are getting quality content.”

Iowa State is working on a plan to continue supporting science and engineering learning in elementary schools once funding for Trinect ends. A sustainability plan calls for an open course at Iowa State that would help STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals learn how to better communicate their expertise to the public. Those professionals would be paired with future teachers in a four-week practicum experience working in local schools.