Building objects with sticks and Legos is an entertaining way to test engineering principles.

Activities for Children Interested in Engineering

by Jo Pick

Many children are natural engineers, as evidenced by their desire to build objects and take objects apart to see how they work. By encouraging those activities in elementary school, we can strengthen children's early interest in engineering. Budding engineers also might enjoy participating in one or more of the contests that are designed for them and are held throughout the country.

1. Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision Competition

The Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision competition invites students to study and come up with an interesting technology in teams of two to four students, and predict how that technology will change in 20 years. Winning ideas explored by elementary school students in the past include smart desks and first aid kits, shoulder pads with cooling systems, hairbrushes that can detect and kill lice, trees with solar-powered leaves, and devices that translate hand signs into words. Each entry must contain an abstract, a description of the technology, a bibliography and a project website. The description is limited to 11 typed pages and must include a review of present technology and its history, a discussion of future technologies and necessary breakthroughs, and a description of the design process as well as the consequences of the proposed technology. All participants receive a certificate of participation, a gift and a discount on Toshiba computer products. Winners receive a $5,000 to $10,000 savings bond, an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., or a camcorder.

2. SECME National Student Competitions

The Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering was renamed SECME Inc. to better represent the 17 states, from New York to Arizona, that participate in the program. SECME sponsors four contests for elementary students. In 2013, students in the first contest built a car out of a mousetrap, using the spring as the only source of power. They then ran the car, recording the maximum distance traveled and prepared a one- to two-page report describing the car's design, construction and operation. Students also designed and built a water rocket from a 2-liter bottle, after which they launched the rocket with judges recording the rocket's air time. Participating in a four-month Internet and Science Fair Technology (ISFT) project was a third option. Students worked online with scientists and engineers on applying an interesting technology to a real-world problem, and then presented their results on a website. Finally, Webquest competitors researched and wrote a three- to five-page essay on matters in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that interest them, appropriate careers for them, what university best meets their needs, and how their planning and building experiences have affected their decisions.

3. Elementary Science Olympiads

Elementary Science Olympiads are composed of enjoyable days and competitive tournaments. The ESO manual contains almost 200 activities from which schools usually choose 10 to 16 for a daylong event. Activities include the construction and demonstration of barges, water rockets, missiles, puff mobiles, paper airplanes, pasta bridges, straw towers, rubber band catapults and other feats of engineering. Students also can participate in "quiz shows" about circuits, energy and the properties of matter, the metric system, chemistry, and science in general. Prizes include medals, ribbons and sometimes trophies.

4. FIRST LEGO League Competitions

Each year, the FIRST Committee creates a real-world challenge for 6- to 9-year-olds in the Junior FIRST LEGO League, and for 9- to 14-year-olds in the FIRST LEGO League. Junior LEGO League members, working in teams of two to six children, respond to the challenge by creating a poster illustrating their team's activities, and by building a model out of Lego bricks and moving parts. LEGO League members, working in teams containing up to 10 children, respond to the challenge by completing a set of missions using an autonomous robot programmed with LEGO MINDSTORMS, and by selecting and solving a real-world problem pertaining to the challenge and describing that solution in a live presentation. Children are given nine to 12 weeks to respond to a challenge. Challenge topics have included disasters, climate, energy, biomedical engineering, marine life and vehicles, transportation, and quality of life for the handicapped. Winners typically receive medals, trophies and considerable publicity.

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