Equal engineering fun for girls and boys kicks off iSchool’s new Aldrin Program

iSchool started its new program at Aldrin Elementary School in Reston, Virginia this week with equal parts engineering and social/emotional skills development.  Our open-ended questions allow for creativity and solve some of the problems plaguing STEM fields.


According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), biases are persistent in schools: “A teacher will often help a boy do an experiment by explaining how to do it, while when a girl asks for assistance the teacher will often simply do the experiment, leaving the girl to watch rather than do.” (Press release 07-108, August 2007). In the same article, the NSF also writes: “Good math and science teachers also recognize that when instruction is inquiry-based and hands-on, and students engage in problem solving as cooperative teams, both boys and girls are motivated to pursue STEM activities, education and careers.” That is certainly what we do at iSchool! In addition, the flexibility that our enrichment programs allow means that we can focus on the process of discovery rather than the memorization of facts. Our activities are often open-ended, without any particular right or wrong answer. With this type of approach its impossible to exhibit gender bias – there is nothing to tell a boy or show a girl.  Everyone – including the Teacher – is in the same boat testing out new ideas and being creative.

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Our introductory activity at Aldrin Elementary School was open-ended, inquiry-based, and hands-on.  It also incorporated our STEAM SEL curriculum – blending science, technology, engineering, arts, math, and social and emotional life skills. We started the class with a discussion about what scientists do – including explore, think, research, cooperate – and then stressed that no scientist ever works alone.  Science is a collaborative endeavor, so respect for each other is critical. To build comfort and respect for their new teammates, we did our signature Creative Introduction, with each students using their bodies and words to introduce themselves to the class.

We also asked students to write or draw about something they are good at, and something that is hard for them to do. Our class is full of students who are good at ice hockey, football, math, art, naming the planets, playing piano, reading, and playing video games. Some find spelling, singing, art, math (only 2!), rainbow loom, and naming the elements on the Periodic Table hard. This exercise led into our signature Scientist Circle activity, which helps children realize that they can be scientists no matter what their strengths are.  The activity is a modified Multiple Intelligence activity – students indicate which activities (representing each type of intelligence) would make them happy. Activities include writing, working outside, thinking quietly, drawing pictures, working with sound, doing math, talking, and using their bodies. This activity also helps students see that there are both differences and commonalities in the group.


Our lesson plan this semester at Aldrin includes building core skills that are important for Scientific Investigation (VA State Science Standard #1). In this first class, we focused on observation, inference, and experimentation. Students were given eight (8) closed containers containing unknown objects. They first tried to identify what was in each container using their background information and biases and by making new observations – sound, weight, smell. I then laid out all of the things that were in the containers (raisins, paper clips, gummy bears, etc.). Using this additional information, students inferred the contents of each container, and after working on consensus with the group, opened each container to see if they were correct.  They saw that additional data can help scientists come to a better conclusion.


Then it was on to the star of the class – experimenting with wrecking balls. This was an open-ended engineering challenge.  Students were asked to build a wrecking ball and stand  that could knock over blocks, hit a gong, or knock over dominoes.  They were provided with tools such as PVC pipe, popsicle sticks, tape, string, and chairs, and were given some basic engineering background on the strength of triangles versus squares.  Some students worked alone and some gravitated towards teams.  In the class of 11 there were at least 4 different designs! Students were so engrossed in the activity that we ran out of time and had to make parents wait.


At pick-up one of the parents asked, “How is iSchool different?” There are many ways that iSchool is different – with our open-ended questions, hands-on activities, and the integration of art and social and emotional life skills into STEM.  We appreciate facts but treasure discovery.  However, the largest difference is our end purpose. We believe that every child is a genius  – and every child can be an innovator and make the world a better place. In thinking of the child who wrote that “Naming the elements on the Periodic Table” is hard – it is my goal not to help that child remember the elements in the right order, but rather to see the Periodic Table – with its myriad combinations of chemicals – as a canvas for creation.  And – for all iSchoolers to realize that no matter who they are or what they are good at – they can create wonders on that canvas. Our approach works, and rapidly. After class we asked some students what they liked and learned from class. One student said, “Things don’t always work the first time and the way you thought they would, and you can only know that when you try.” These students are ready to embrace the open-ended opportunities of innovation!