Solutions and re-solutions for education

Posts Tagged ‘Elementary school’

Solving Lives: Managing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on January 23, 2011

How do you deal with uncertainty and ambiguity in your life? We can’t avoid them. They’re part of being human. If we’re fortunate, we’ve had enough positive experiences with important others early in life that we perceive the world as a safe and welcoming place. We hold representations of people we love and have loved inside us – our family members, friends, teachers and others. We draw on our attachments to these people – our internal representations of them – for support and comfort when we try something new or take a risk. In this way, our attachments to important others help us flow with the uncertainty and ambiguity of everyday life.

When engineers are presented with a problem, they rarely have complete clarity about the problem or all of the information necessary to solve it. Smart engineering teams spend considerable time at the beginning of a project gathering as much information as possible in order to define the problem and create a shared representation of it inside each team member and for others to see in the form of words, pictures and/or mathematical equations and graphs. Team members draw on each other’s skills and ideas as each of them reduces for herself and for the group the ambiguity about what is needed. Once the group has tackled ambiguity and defined the problem, team members brainstorm possible solutions. Then each one of them uses systematic methods to reduce uncertainty about each possible solution enough so that the team members can agree on a best solution to try.

Engineers can never eliminate uncertainty in a solution, but they can systematically reduce it to tolerable levels. My insightful friend with several engineers in her life notices that we use this approach to solve and re-solve our lives as we live them. These can be adaptive skills for work and life.

I have worked in enough high needs schools to know that many students come to preschool and elementary school without secure attachments to important others who provide the child with an internal sense of stability. For these children, managing the uncertainty and ambiguity that goes along with school-based learning can be overwhelming, and that overwhelmed feeling can inhibit their performance in school. Teachers and administrators who are sensitive both to children’s emotional needs and cognitive needs can provide all students practice dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty by adopting engineering team challenges as part of the school’s curriculum. Interesting and meaningful challenges invite all students to engage in a variety of roles, and the systematic nature of the engineering process enables the teacher to contain the uncertainty and ambiguity of the tasks to levels tolerable for students. In this way, cognitive and emotional learning can happen together.

Fear and curiosity…like oil and water in the brain

Coming up…
The difference between school science and school engineering
Engineering in the strength-based classroom


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Engineering, Emotion and Education

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on January 21, 2011

Hello and welcome to my blog. I’m at the beginning of another iteration of my work life, and I’d like to share this exciting time with you. Here’s a synopsis of where I’ve been so far: ten years as an aerospace engineer, four years as a provider of informal science education to preschool and early elementary school children, ten years as a teacher and K-12 science coordinator for private and public schools, then five years as a university-based provider of science outreach services and support to K-12 schools.

I’ve left my world of work to write my Ph.D. dissertation. My dissertation topic – the jargon-lite version – is “the mental models elementary school teachers have of what engineers do.” I chose this topic because of a combination of a happy reconnection with someone from my engineering past (you’ll have to return to read that story) and my own experiences over the years talking with elementary school teachers about what I used to do as an engineer. In addition to my own curiosity about the topic, I have a pragmatic motivation. It’s likely that our new national science education standards will contain design/engineering standards that elementary teachers will have to teach. We owe it to teachers to help them teach engineering with curriculum and professional development designed to bridge the gap between the teaching and engineering professions. I’m passionate about this. As any competent engineer will tell you, how you frame a problem determines the nature of the solution. In order to bridge the gap between the two professions, we must first understand it. My dissertation work will help us understand that gap.

I’m equally passionate about combining social and emotional learning opportunities with K-12 engineering education. Engineers have been networking their knowledge and learning in the service of design and innovation long before the internet and Web 2.0 applications existed. It’s what we’ve been trained to do and is an integral part of engineering practice. Granted, knowledge sharing among engineers is decidedly more technical than social, but engineering knowledge is socially constructed nonetheless. Engineering education offers a natural context for social and emotional learning in the K-12 classroom. What do I mean by social and emotional learning? That takes me right back to the preschool/early childhood iteration of my career.

Every one of us, young or old, wants to feel valued, like we belong to a community, and like we have some power over our circumstances. These are basic emotional needs. When engineers are creating a new object or redesigning an existing one, they form teams of people who contribute differently to the engineering process. Each member of the design team is valued for her unique perspective and contribution to the team’s process. They form a shared identity around the object they are designing (i.e. the widget group). Their collaborative efforts bring something entirely new into existence, which can evoke powerful feelings of agency.


Solving Lives: Managing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Coming soon…
The difference between school science and school engineering
Engineering in the strength-based classroom

Posted in K-12 Engineering Education, Social and Emotional Literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »