Electrical Engineering and the Kindergartner

So, for the first time, I attempted to introduce Kindergartners to Electrical Engineering (EE).  These Kindergartners go to school with my daughter, Maddie, at the excellent Waynewood ES, just south of Washington, DC.   Now, to be fair, we just started with the basics, but I had been looking forward to seeing if this age, as a group, could get anything out of EE, or if, we’d instead just have a shared exercise in frustration.  I had already exposed Maddie to some of the core EE concepts and she was able to grasp them, but I happen to think she is exceptionally bright (no bias here), and more importantly, she gets exposed to this stuff all the time. So how would this group of kids, so young, respond to their first dose of EE?  I had about 50 minutes with them to find out.

How do you get young kids to do grown-up engineering?  Firstly, don’t think of them as short grown-ups.  They are pretty smart, but very ignorant about how the world works, so you’re starting with a blank canvas.  Most Kindergartners don’t understand atoms, let alone electrons, so start easy and don’t overcomplicate things.  I’m reminded of some advice I got shortly before my son was born.  I read that you should answer every question your kid will ask, but the wisdom comes from knowing what to leave out.  Be accurate, and precise, but don’t loose them.
  •         Kindergartner question: Why is the sky blue?
  •         Worst Answer (it’s wrong): We’re seeing a reflection off the oceans.
  •         Bad Answer (it helps nobody): Leave me alone.
  •         Better Answer (accurate, but overwhelming): Photons from the Sun travel along different wave lengths, some of which are more highly absorbed and/or refracted.  Blue becomes the predominant color to reach our eyes.  
  •         Sort of good, but not helpful answer (Socratic, but not informative): Why do _you_ think it’s blue?
  •         Best answer (accurate, and at the right level): It has to do with how light from the Sun goes through the air.  It’s pretty, isn’t it?
When I teach the full Electrical Engineering class to the older students, I’ve found that real foundational concept that we need to get across is to understand circuits: what one is, when will they work, what is keeping it from working?  Although we touch upon the theory of electricity, I haven’t found the concept very helpful in, say, debugging why your bristle bot won’t work.  We need the theory of circuits – at the grade school level.
I use a story something like this, all the while demonstrating with a live setup:
  So, the electric current starts here at the positive terminal, or where the plus sign is.  Now, Mr. Current wants to go out for a walk and return back home.  He goes out the front door, the positive side, and has to return through the backdoor, the negative side.  Mr. Current goes along down the wire, which is kind of like a road for him, and he’s always looking around for the easiest back to his home.  Since Mr. Current is just out for a nice walk, he doesn’t does not want to any work while he is out, he just wants to enjoy his stroll.  If he has to do some work in order to get back home, he will, but only if he doesn’t have any choice.  As Electrical Engineers, we want Mr. Current to do some work for us, like making our LED light up, so we’ll arrange the roads, or wires, so that the only way for him to get home is for him to go through our LED which he’ll light up as he passes through.  Our LED is like a bridge, where at the middle of the bridge, in order to pass, you have push your way through a big door which lights up our LED.  The door is really heavy and hard to push for somebody that was just out for a nice walk.  If Mr. Current can find a short cut home without pushing that heavy, he’ll take it.  Our job it to make the only way home to be through our LED bridge, doing the work need to light up the bulbs.
The highlight of my day was when one of the grownups said that my story even helped her better understand how electricity and circuits work.

I gave the kids conductive play dough.  I call it Lightning Dough, which makes up a Squishy Circuit.  This gives a viscereal medium to work with and get the kids out of the metal-wire mindset.  Squishy Circuits are just really fun – a great way to start.

The biggest challenges involved handling such a large group, 24 kids, and doing so much in just 50 minutes.  As expected, several kids didn’t get the initial concept and they just need a little one-on-one time, which is hard with group size and time constraints.  When I do it next time, I’ll better prepare the other adults on how they can help groups of kids work their problems, further distributing the work load.
By the end of class everybody got their circuits working.  A bunch of them needed help, and they undoubtedly need to practice more, but they weren’t totally baffled by the process.  Having two extra adults was quite helpful letting us reach all 24 kids before the end of class.  At this point, the kids probably have more questions than answers, but once again, I’m gathering even more evidence that these kids can do amazing things if us adults can just give them the opportunity.
I’m always fascinated about what concerns kids.  Today, I warned the kids not to wipe their eyes after playing with the play dough, since it might make their eyes sting.  This fascinated many, and terrified others.  One poor boy, whose eyes were apparently suffering from allergies, was over anticipating the horrors of play dough in the eyes – he bravely fought back the tears.  Others wanted to discuss elaborate scenarios of when it might be OK to wipe their eyes even after the Lightning Dough been handed out:
        Concerned girl: Coach JJ, what if I have the play dough but my hands are still clean and I really have to wipe my eyes.  Could I have I lift my safety glasses and wipe them?
         Me: [Pausing for patience] – Ok everybody, just don’t wipe your eyes!
If you’d like your kids to get experience Electrical Engineering (any grade) – I can recommend a few options:
  • If you live in the DC metro area, and would like a free Introduction to Electrical Engineering (any grade) at your school, just use the Contact Us form and we’ll work something out.