Engineering in Elementary School

ALI Staff | Published  March 22, 2024

Integrating engineering concepts into elementary education is a crucial topic in this day and age.

It's about preparing students for a future where technology and engineering are central.

Exposure to engineering concepts at a young age boosts STEM learning and builds a problem-solving mindset, which is key for tomorrow's innovators.

Engineering makes the world of technology clear and interesting to young learners.

It turns complex ideas from math and science into practical, real-life projects. This process sparks creativity and encourages working together, teaching students the value of learning from mistakes.

This approach doesn't just make their learning journey richer; it gives them the tools and critical thinking skills they'll need in the 21st century.


Read this blog to:

  • Understand why it’s critical to start engineering education early.

  • Explore the benefits of engineering and how to put it into practice.

  • Learn about the DIVE-IN method as a great way to include engineering in elementary classrooms.

  • See an in-depth example of the methodology in action with an exciting engineering project.


We aim to make engineering education open and accessible for every student in your class, school, and district.

As we look into how engineering can shape young minds, we invite educators and school leaders to think about their part in growing the next generation of engineers and problem solvers.

Let's discover how we can make engineering an integral and exciting part of elementary education, offering a lively and diverse learning experience for our students.


Students Working on Suspension Bridge

The Importance of Teaching Engineering in Elementary Schools

Teaching engineering in elementary schools is crucial.  It prepares students for a future filled with technology.

Introducing young learners to engineering concepts boosts their excitement in STEM and builds their problem-solving skills, which is key for future innovators.


Benefits of Early Exposure to Engineering

  • Sparking Interest in STEM: Engineering shows how STEM fields connect. It turns learning into an adventure.

  • Building Problem-Solving Skills: Students face engineering challenges head-on. They learn to ask smart questions and find creative answers.

  • Spark Interest in Science and Math: Engineering in schools makes science and math real. Students see how what they learn fits into the world around them.

  • Enhancing Critical Thinking: Engineering teaches students to think ahead, weigh options, and decide on the best course of action with available information.

  • Creating a Foundation for Future Learning: Engineering starts young learners on a lifelong STEM journey. It opens up future career paths, making it a key part of education.
Engineering creates benefits that reach far beyond the classroom. By infusing engineering lessons and activities into early education, we give our students the tools they’ll need to succeed in their future and create the next wave of problem solvers and innovators. 


What Does Engineering Look Like in Elementary School?

Elementary engineering classrooms are hubs of discovery and innovation. Students are budding engineers, diving into projects that resonate with their lives and the world around them.


Characteristics of Engineering Classrooms

  • Dynamic Learning Environments: Classrooms are alive with the sounds of construction and collaboration. Pupils engage in hands-on tasks, often in teams, navigating through the design process.

  • Inventive Problem-Solving: Every challenge is a chance to think outside the box. Students explore a variety of solutions, understanding that multiple approaches can lead to success.

  • Links to the Real World: Assignments connect with everyday challenges. This connection makes learning meaningful, showing students the value of their contributions.

  • Blending with Other Disciplines: Engineering intertwines math, science, and language arts. Students might calculate the materials needed to build or articulate their design journey through writing.


Encouraging Inquiry and Innovation

  • Pursue Big Ideas: Students encounter questions like, "How can we improve our schoolyard?" spark projects that encourage expansive thinking.

  • Learn from Setbacks: Every stumble is a stepping stone to deeper understanding. The classroom culture uplifts trial and error as part of the learning journey.

  • Value Teamwork: Projects are collaborative ventures where sharing and refining ideas is part of the process.


The Educator's Role

  • Encourage Discovery: Educators support students' explorations, providing resources and encouragement while stepping back to let discovery happen.

  • Promote Reflection: They prompt students to consider their successes and hurdles, fostering a habit of thoughtful evaluation.


In these busy classrooms, engineering melds seamlessly with the broader curriculum, enhancing every learning experience.

This method readies students not only for potential STEM pathways but also equips them with the skills to navigate life's challenges.

They learn the power of approaching problems with determination, creativity, and cooperative spirit. 


DIVE-in Method of Teaching Engineering

The DIVE-In method reshapes how elementary-aged students encounter engineering, offering a dynamic, hands-on approach that mirrors real-world engineering processes.

This method unfolds through four key phases: Deconstruct, Imitate, Vary, and Explore.

Each phase is designed to build upon the last, fostering a deep understanding and appreciation for engineering from the ground up.


Deconstruct: Understanding the Basics 

The journey begins with "Deconstruct," where students, acting as "student engineers," break down a prototype.

This phase is foundational, allowing students to see the inner workings of a device or system firsthand.

They engage in active observation and analysis, taking measurements, drawing diagrams, and recording observations.

The hands-on exploration in this step is vital for developing a basic understanding of engineering principles. It teaches the importance of observation and documentation, essential skills for any engineer. 


Imitate: Replicating to Learn

After deconstructing, students move to the "Imitate" phase, using their observations to replicate the prototype.

This step reinforces their understanding by putting theory into practice.

By building an exact replica, students solidify their grasp of the design and function of the original model.

This phase is not just about copying; it's an exercise in precision, attention to detail, and following complex instructions. It introduces students to reverse engineering, showing how engineers often work backward from the finished product.


Vary: Encouraging Creativity and Innovation

With a solid understanding of the prototype and replication experience, students now enter the "Vary" phase.

They are encouraged to modify their replicas or use their newfound knowledge to create something new.

This phase applies creativity to engineering principles, encouraging students to think outside the box.

Changes in design, materials, or function can lead to different outcomes. Students learn that engineering is not just about following a blueprint but about innovating and solving problems creatively.


Explore: Applying Knowledge in New Contexts

In the final phase, "Explore," where students use their skills, knowledge, and creativity to design and build something entirely new.

This phase challenges them to apply what they've learned in novel situations, fostering a deeper understanding of engineering as a dynamic and creative process.

It's an opportunity for students to become true innovators.

This step emphasizes the importance of experimentation, critical thinking, and the application of knowledge.

The DIVE-In Method provides a comprehensive platform for engineering principles while encouraging creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

By guiding students through its four steps, it not only educates but inspires, preparing the next generation of engineers and innovators. 



Stringed Instrument Engineering Activity: DIVE-in Method In-Depth

An image of a stringed instrument engineering project


Let’s look in depth at an engineering activity using the DIVE method.



In this step, the teacher helps students understand the instrument and how it works by closely examining a model.

  1. Present the Problem: The facilitator brings a completed stringed instrument model to class. This model is what the students will aim to understand and eventually replicate.

  2. Discussion: The facilitator leads a discussion about musical instruments, focusing on how stringed instruments produce sounds and why people make music.

  3. Observation: Students gather around the model to observe. They look at what materials are used (like cardboard, rubber bands, and dowels) and how these materials are put together to make the instrument.

  4. List Making: After observing, each group of students makes a list of all the materials they need to build their own version of the instrument. They should include everything from the size and number of cardboard pieces to the number of rubber bands and dowels needed.

The aim is for students to get a clear picture of what they need to do to build their own stringed instrument, starting with understanding all the parts and materials involved.



During this phase, student engineers take the crucial step of recreating the stringed instrument they previously deconstructed. This process is straightforward and focuses on applying their observations to build a replica of the prototype.

Gathering Materials

  • Based on the detailed list created during the Deconstruct phase, student groups receive all necessary materials. This includes everything from cardboard parts to rubber bands and dowels, ensuring they have everything needed to start building.

Building the Instrument

  • With materials in hand, groups assemble their version of the stringed instrument. They rely on their notes, drawings, and measurements to guide the construction process. The use of glue and masking tape helps bring their designs to life.


Reflecting on the Process

  • After completing their instrument, each student reflects on the experience by filling out a Project Reflection Document. This includes self-assessment and peer feedback, encouraging a deep dive into what they learned and how they applied it.

  • The facilitator then brings everyone together for a group reflection, using the reflections to assess understanding and engagement with the project.


This phase is about more than just building; it's a hands-on learning experience that reinforces the students' understanding of engineering principles through the act of creation.



In the "Vary" phase, student engineers are encouraged to creatively modify their stringed instruments.

This phase is about innovation and applying what they've learned to make something unique.


Brainstorming for Innovation

  • Student engineers brainstorm ideas for modifying their instruments in their journals.

  • The facilitator then leads a whole-group brainstorming session, noting all the innovative ideas students come up with.


Ideas for Variation

  • Substitute: Consider replacing parts like cords or the tuning hardware with alternative materials.

  • Combine: Adding features or integrating parts from other projects to enhance the instrument.

  • Reconfigure: Changing how strings attach or the instrument's orientation.

  • Resize: Adjusting the instrument's size, making it bigger or smaller.

  • Material Change: Exploring the use of different materials for the instrument's body.


Group Selection and Building

  • After brainstorming, students pick the variation that interests them the most and form groups based on these choices.

  • Groups gather materials provided by the facilitator, and start building their instrument variation.


Reflection and Sharing

Upon completing their variation, each student fills out a Project Reflection Document, assessing their own work and then getting peer feedback.

  • The facilitator brings everyone together to share their projects and reflections.

  • This phase pushes students to think like real engineers, using creativity and problem-solving skills to innovate. It's a hands-on lesson in how engineering is about more than just following instructions—it's about imagining and creating new solutions.



During this phase, student engineers embark on a journey to invent something entirely new, leveraging the knowledge and skills they've acquired.

This final step is about pushing boundaries and applying their learning in innovative ways.

Brainstorming New Ideas

  • Initially, students brainstorm individually, jotting down their innovative ideas in their journals.

  • A group brainstorming session follows, led by the facilitator, to pool individual ideas and inspire further creativity.


Creative Challenges

  • Adapting Solutions: Students are prompted to think about how the string vibration mechanism in their instrument could solve a different problem apart from making music.

  • Inventing New Solutions: They're also encouraged to conceptualize a completely new method for making music, diverging from the stringed instrument model.


Material Gathering and Group Formation

  • After brainstorming, students select their preferred project idea and form new groups based on these interests.

  • Given the open-ended nature of this phase, students are encouraged to source materials from home or the school in addition to what's provided in class.


Building and Reflecting

  • With their materials ready, each group sets out to build their innovative solution.

  • Upon completion, every student completes a Project Reflection Document, assessing their own work and then exchanging feedback with peers.


Sharing and Evaluation

  • The entire class reconvenes for a reflection session where groups share their projects and insights.

  • The facilitator evaluates each project using the Project Reflection Document Rubric, focusing on the creativity, application of knowledge, and teamwork demonstrated.


This phase embodies the essence of engineering—using science and creativity to invent solutions to real-world problems.

It's a culmination of the DIVE-In Method, showcasing how elementary students can not only understand engineering concepts but also apply them in imaginative and meaningful ways.


Further Engineering Projects to Explore

Exploring the DIVE-In Method through the Stringed Instrument project offers just a glimpse into the world of elementary engineering.

Let's expand our horizons with more engineering adventures.


Balloon Boat

An image of a balloon boat engineering project

The Balloon Boat project invites student engineers to dive into the history and mechanics of maritime transport.

Starting with a prototype, groups deconstruct and then recreate their own balloon-powered vessel, exploring the principles of air propulsion.

As they reconstruct their own balloon-powered boats, students delve into the physics that allows objects to float and move.

Students experiment with the size and shape of their boats and explore different materials to see how these changes affect buoyancy and speed.

This hands-on activity is not just about constructing a boat; it's an exploration of the principles that govern its movement. Students are then challenged to invent new methods of propulsion, applying their understanding in innovative ways.

This project is a deep dive into physics, fostering creativity and problem-solving skills in young engineers.


Light Switch

An image of light switch engineering project

The Light Switch project introduces students to the fundamentals of electrical circuits by guiding them through building a simple switch.

This exploration starts with understanding how electricity flows and the crucial role switches play in managing this flow in everyday devices.

Students are then encouraged to rethink switch designs, perhaps by changing how the switch is activated or using unconventional materials to alter its functionality and appearance.

The journey continues as they conceptualize devices that could be operated by a switch, expanding their grasp of electrical circuits and their real-world applications.

This project melds technical electrical knowledge with imaginative design, igniting curiosity and innovation.


Lock Box

An image of a lock box engineering project

The Lock Box project immerses students in the engineering design process, with a focus on the mechanisms that protect our valuables.

After taking apart and replicating a basic lock box, they're prompted to reimagine its design and functionality.

Students explore how different locking mechanisms can provide various levels of security or ease of use and consider the impact of the box's size on its utility.

The project progresses as students are invited to devise new ways to safeguard items or to tailor a lock box for a particular treasure, applying their insights into materials and mechanisms.

This engineering project not only imparts engineering fundamentals but also fosters a spirit of innovation in security, prompting students to ponder the purpose behind the lock. 


Engineering the Future

Engineering in elementary schools does more than teach learners about technology.

It opens up a world of creativity and future careers for our youngest students while building critical thinking, teamwork, and creativity skills.

This journey isn't just about making things; it's about preparing young minds to think like engineers, ready to tackle tomorrow's challenges.

Let's keep encouraging our students to explore, innovate, and dream big as they build their path in the world of STEM.


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