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Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Isabel Deslauriers is the Director, Youth and Volunteer Experience at Let’s Talk Science

What does it mean to think like an engineer? I am often surprised when meeting someone new – whether in a professional context or not – how often I can guess that they have a background in engineering. It is something about the way they have of seeing and interacting with the world around them and, in some situations, their ability to take apart complex problems and put them back together. And I know I am not alone in this. In fact, Eli Sheldon describes having this same experience while at Microsoft in the article “The Coding revolution” (in Scientific American, Aug 2016):

“Over and over, I saw engineers take an incredibly complex problem, putting the parts in logical order, testing one part at a time to see how that one small change affected the outcome. I watched them, and I thought, “Everyone should know how to do that.”

While I may no longer work in engineering, and may even have forgotten many of the equations, laws, and algorithms I learned in university I have retained a way of thinking that is particular to engineering. And like Eli, I have learned to recognize that you don’t have to be an engineer to learn to think like one. Anyone can learn to do it; and that includes the kids in your life.

Embrace Kids’ Creative Thinking

A favorite and easy hands-on activities with elementary-school aged kids is to introduce them to engineering thinking by making cardstock gliders. Making a paper airplane or rubber band glider is a classic hands-on science activity, but, to make sure it supports creative thinking and the development of an engineering mindset, try getting them to do it without having all the instructions up front.

Having them build the most basic version of a glider – a triangle wing, with a straw fuselage and an elastic taped to the front of the straw without the instructions challenges them to use design thinking and critical reasoning to resolve the challenge in front of them. Once they have designed and built their plans, they can test prototypes - hooking the elastic on their thumb to “slingshot” the plane forward… and watching as it spirals or flutters to the ground. They can then be encouraged to look at how they can improve their plane. What caused the challenges their plane faced? What design modifications do they think would help and why? They key is to encourage them to explore options, try new solutions and test and test over and over until they find the ideal solution.

Testing is critical. It allows them to explore and discover. Try new ideas and see the impact of their decisions on the plane’s ability to glide (or even crash to the ground). Giving kids the space to spend time together testing out their own ideas to improve their planes empowers them to be creative and collaborative – using the knowledge they may already have to find solutions to the problems in front of them. While they may look for guidance and input on their ideas, simply encouraging them to try and try again until they get the result they want is key - because that’s what an engineer would do.

The end result? Left to explore and design kids will use a variety of items to incorporate into their plane design – and won’t feel limited by the instructions on a piece of paper. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is what the child who will grow up to be a true engineer will need!

Encourage Kids Early On

There are plenty of ways for kids to engage in engineering thinking, from early years to high school. With toddlers, it can also be as simple as developing the reflex to tell them “let’s try it out” whenever they have a question about the world around them. There is the classic will it float or will it sink activity, build off this and help them create a little boat or raft. How many marbles will it support?

Encouraging kids of all ages to draw or build inventions is an easy way to get them to think about problem solving and to use what they know, to create something new. The Little Inventors website provides prompts for all kinds of inventions and is currently running an ocean-themed challenge in Canada; the Let’s Talk Science Challenge, aimed at Grade 6-8 students, couples a weekly design challenge with a live science quiz show.

With older children or teenagers, 3D design with free tools such as Tinkercad, optionally coupled with 3d printing, is an excellent way to practice many of the skills that go along with an engineering mindset, such as breaking complex problems into parts, prototyping and creativity. In addition, it helps develop 3D visualization skills, which have been linked to success in a variety of careers including engineering. It’s never too early to start thinking like an engineer, and it can be lots of fun.