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Precursors To Engineering Thinking (Pet)

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Assessment of K-12 Engineering Programs and Issues

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1169.1 - 12.1169.11



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Paper Authors

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Sean Brophy Purdue University

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Demetra Evangelou Purdue University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Precursors to Engineering Thinking (PET) Project: Intentional Designs with Experimental Artifacts (IDEA)


Children’s play naturally employs skills of observation and experimentation that lead to the development of intuitive models for how things work. These spontaneously occurring activities are precursors to engineering thinking that we recognize as preparation for future learning. We are engaging in a research agenda to explore the learning progression [1] of engineering thinking in young children’s development, to identify opportunities for expanding their thinking, and to foster interest in engineering. Literature on early childhood development documents how students’ cognitive abilities develop over time. However, little research has been done to document how these activities relate to activities that require engineering thinking.

Engineering thinking relates to transforming our world; it uses what we know and observe to imagine and reconstruct the world, with the intent of improving our lives. We associate engineering thinking with creative problem solving, involving the balancing of multiple constraints to achieve an appropriate solution. Therefore, engineering thinking employs many learning goals for education, including development of cognitive skills associated with creative problem solving, sensitivity to others’ perspectives, generating new knowledge and willingness to persevere toward a goal. We have observed young children continually display these qualities in their informal play.

We have several questions that motive our research into this area of informal play, learning and development. We want to better understand why children want to construct with blocks, what they construct and how do they use them when they are done. We also want to understand how students’ natural powers of observation and kinetics help to build their intuitions of physical properties that govern our world. In addition, we are interested in understanding the process associated with how learners construct with blocks. We believe the process, not just the end product, can inform our understanding of how children development goals, problem solving strategies, and intuitions about how the physical world behaves.

A review of the literature suggests that developmental theory and empirical research firmly support the assumption that objects and their use by children constitute a universal part of development and learning. In addition, our own preliminary observations conducted in the context of collaborative exploration with preschool teachers supports our understanding of the use of manipulative objects and artifacts as vehicles of early learning. This work will lay the foundation for describing engineering thinking in young children and its implications for the design of learning environments and processes from a developmental perspective.

While this study seeks to enhance our understanding of the relationship between children’s free play activity and engineering thinking, it will also be used to explore research questions that pertain to method. What are appropriate ways in which engineering thinking can be made visible to researchers and teachers? For this study we employ a mixed method cross-sectional research design with a phenomenological perspective in attempting to understand specifically “what is it

Brophy, S., & Evangelou, D. (2007, June), Precursors To Engineering Thinking (Pet) Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--3011

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