Groton school pilots engineering curriculum for kindergarten

Kindergarteners Amanda Cedeno, left, and Idelisa Gonzalez try to pick up objects from water during an Engineering is Elementary lesson at Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. (Erica Moser/The Day)
Kindergarteners Amanda Cedeno, left, and Idelisa Gonzalez try to pick up objects from water during an Engineering is Elementary lesson at Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. (Erica Moser/The Day)

Groton — Amanda Cedeno picks up a curious-looking device — a large popsicle stick taped to a large clothespin that is clipped to a curved sheet of foam.

Asked about it, she replies, "This is foam. It's working. See?" and proceeds to use the device to pick up a bottle cap out of a container of water that also includes cotton balls and metal nuts.

Amanda is only in kindergarten, and already she is learning what engineering means. After the activity, she goes to the carpet and sings with her classmates, "We are engineers, we are engineers, we can solve problems, we are engineers."

On Thursday was the sixth of seven lessons that Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School kindergarten teacher Debbie West taught as part of the kindergarten piloting for the Engineering is Elementary curriculum, which was developed by the Museum of Science in Boston.

The school has been teaching Engineering is Elementary curriculum at higher grades for a few years, but West's class is now one of about 30 in the country — and the only one in Connecticut — piloting the new kindergarten curriculum.

Engineering is Elementary provides pilot teachers with a teacher guide, materials and $200 stipend, curriculum project manager Katy Laguzza said.

West, who has been teaching at Catherine Kolnaski since it opened a decade ago, applied for the competitive pilot program in the spring and heard back in October.

In the hands-on lessons, her students have learned how to define a technology, how different materials curve and fold, and what materials hold up in water.

"Their vocabulary now is amazing," she said. "It's not so much creating a product but getting them to understand the engineering design process."

West said that one student, Michael Arrick, pointed out that a door down the hall wouldn't stay open and said he thinks they could engineer a fix for the problem.

Principal Christine Dauphinais said the expansion of the curriculum is helping build a pathway for students as the two middle schools convert to intradistrict magnet schools, one of which will be focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM programs.

Christine Cunningham founded Engineering is Elementary 14 years ago to expose students not only to the natural world but also to the man-made world.

"I like to say that students are born engineers," Cunningham said, adding, "We have this natural proclivity toward problem-solving and designing, but traditionally we haven't supported that in K-12 education."

For kindergarten, Engineering is Elementary is piloting both a trash collectors unit — the one being taught at Catherine Kolnaski — and one about designing a shelter for a dog.

Cunningham expects the curriculum to be released in the summer of 2018.

"All of our engineering activities that we design set a problem in a larger context, because in the real world, you're trying to do something," Cunningham said. "You're trying to design a bridge that spans a particular river, or clean up an oil spill."

Engineering is Elementary curriculum in general is funded by corporations, the National Science Foundation and individual families, Cunningham said. The kindergarten curriculum is funded through reinvesting money from selling its materials for first through fifth grades.

e.moser@theday.com

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