How Engineering is Elementary is Bringing More Awareness to STEM: Christine Cunningham’s Story

McGraw Prize winner Christine Cunningham has a lot to be proud of right now. Cunningham is the Founding Director of Engineering is Elementary (EiE), which helps children from 1st through 8th grade develop an engineering and technological literacy.

As one of the first programs of its kind, EiE, headquartered at the Museum of Science, Boston, is setting new standards for how students learn about science and engineering in the classroom.

Getting Started

For as long as she can remember, Cunningham found herself interested in the field of education, specifically in how people learn about the world around them. “I had always planned to be a teacher. I truly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work in education,” Cunningham recalls. “Over time, I became interested in the field of science education and how the topic was being taught in school.”

After high school, Cunningham attended Yale University where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. From there, Cunningham went on to receive her PhD in Science Education from Cornell University.

Cunningham worked as the project director for the Women’s Experience in College Engineering (WECE) project for three years. The project was the nation’s first longitudinal, long-scale study of the factors that support young women pursuing engineering degrees.

Upon completing the WECE project, Cunningham began working as the Director of Engineering Education Research at the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education Outreach. In the position, she had the opportunity to learn more about how engineering could be integrated into science, technology, and math in professional development for K-12 teachers. These professional experiences would help Cunningham acquire the knowledge and experience she needed to begin development of Engineering is Elementary.

In 2003, Cunningham joined the Museum of Science, Boston as a vice president, where she and her team began brainstorming and developing Engineering is Elementary. Cunningham remembers being met with some resistance in the beginning stages. “When my team and I began this work, we were met with criticism. People would say, ‘teach engineering in elementary school? Never going to happen.’ This motivated me to demonstrate that children can learn about it,” Cunningham explains. Cunningham and her team launched EiE in 2003.

Engineering is Elementary

As part of the National Center for Technological Literacy at the Museum of Science, Boston, the mission of EiE is to support educators and children with curriculum to develop engineering literacy.

Cunningham found that children had a natural ability to solve problems around them, a necessary skill in engineering. With this in mind, Cunningham was focused on ensuring the EiE materials allowed children to tap into their own curiosity of the world around them, while developing their skills as natural problem solvers.

“When you watch little kids at play, they are naturally trying to figure out the world around them. They like to make things and tear them down until they find what works, like you would with engineering. Unfortunately, most of us were never taught anything about the engineering world as kids, but what we want to do is encourage them to use that natural problem-solving process to tackle any challenge and persist through failure.”

EiE’s classroom curriculum has proven successful as well. Teachers who use EiE in their classrooms have reported that their students are able to develop 21st century skills, including collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. Students who learn through the EiE curriculum have also showed higher gains in science learning, improved attitudes about the value of science and engineering in daily life, and greater interest in science and engineering careers.

For the Future

 Because of the success in the classroom, EiE is now used in all 50 states, and has reached an estimated 136,000 teachers and over 13.3 million children since its creation, and Cunningham and her team are hoping to reach more students in the future. With demand for EiE’s curriculum still growing, the team has begun working on a number of initiatives to help bring the curriculum to children of all ages.

To compliment the organization’s elementary lesson plans, Cunningham and the EiE team are developing an engineering curriculum for preschool called Wee Engineer, as well as EiE for Kindergarten, which will be used in the kindergarten classroom. In addition, the team is putting together a suite of resources that support English learners as they engage in EiE’s curriculum. Cunningham is confident that the initiatives will bring engineering education to more students of every age in classrooms across the nation.

Cunningham also looks forward to spreading awareness of the work that Engineering is Elementary is doing, and how it can greatly benefit future generations. To recognize her for the continued work in elementary education, Cunningham was awarded the 2017 McGraw Prize in Education in the K-12 category. In Cunningham’s eyes, winning the McGraw Prize will not only help bring more attention to what EiE is doing, but can bring in more funding for the future.

“Receiving the McGraw Prize is an honor. I am most excited because it helps us spread the word of engineering on the elementary level. We are able to prove that what we do is an innovative project, which will eventually allow more students to be introduced to Engineering is Elementary,” Cunningham explains.

Cunningham’s passion for elementary engineering education has given children nationwide the opportunity to learn more about solving the problems they face in the world. Although she hopes that EiE’s success will encourage more teachers to implement engineering lessons in the classroom, Cunningham is thrilled to know that the curriculum has already made a substantial impact.