“Teaching engineering is more than just building - it’s about creating creativity and inspiring innovation, problem solving, and informing students about what engineers do.”
Cassie Rivaldi, a K-8 engineering specialty teacher and K-12 SWE Educator member, teaches engineering to all 1,200+ K-8 students at Feaster Charter School. She has been teaching engineering for four years now, ever since Feaster built an on-site Engineering lab based on the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab. With very little existing curriculum, Cassie has created her own lessons and uses individually-paced, project-based learning in her classroom. Her students learn how to work in teams, build projects, and use discussion boards to give and receive feedback.
Interview of Cassie Lyn-Santos Rivaldi, M.Ed. S.T.E.A.M., K-8 Engineering Teacher at Feaster Charter School in Chula Vista, CA, by SWE Members Amelia King and Debra Kimberling.
Teaching engineering gives the students opportunities to learn new skills and have experience in a field that they may not be exposed to otherwise. By helping teachers to implement properly, the quality of the student experience is much higher. Most teachers are nervous about teaching engineering because they don’t know what it is, so it’s intimidating. They don’t know what to teach as there isn’t much curriculum out there.
I like to integrate NGSS standards through their engineering assignments. It’s a great way for students to have exposure to a variety of career opportunities. There is so much opportunity with the science standards to create hands-on learning opportunities for the students. Many students are kinesthetic learners, so it creates more equity in accessing the curriculum.
Advice to Teachers
To teach engineering, teachers need to understand the Engineering Design Process (EDP) well. Make sure that they identify a clear and concise problem statement. Eliminate the “No” from their vocabulary and replace the “No” with “why?”. Make sure that the EDP is taught as a cyclical process, not linear. Many times I see teachers miss the mark because they teach it as a linear process.
The example I use when explaining how EDP is cyclical to teachers is the iphone. When Apple designs a new iphone, they don’t start from scratch each time they do a release. They look at the previous version, look at the problems with it, and go through the cycle of drawing, prototyping, and re-designing each time. This is across multiple disciplines of engineering that follow a similar process. The process may be inherent in some engineers’ thought process, but when teaching to children it helps to show them the steps. What’s fun to see in my class is how the students, as they progress each year, the EDP becomes more fluent and inherent because they’ve had practice working the steps.
Bringing Engineering Into the Classroom
In kindergarten, the students start with basic components of engineering. They learn three dimensional shapes and I introduce components of the design process. I teach the EDP starting in second grade. The student projects fully incorporate their working through EDP in grades 2-8.
Starting in the second grade, the students at Feaster work in small groups of 2-3. By the 8th grade the groups are made of 4-5 students. Students take the free Thrively strength assessment test, which allows them to create groups on their own based on their skills.
If a teacher wants to use EDP and start at the step: Identify the Problem, they write their problem statement (ex. Build a boat using cardboard that floats) so the students practice identifying their problem and the materials they need. They would do some research about boats, come up with some ideas, draw their plan, build their plan, etc. If a teacher is intimidated by the organic building process (it’s messy, lack of building materials, etc.), finding premade directions for a building project and have the students construct it is a great start. The teacher can then start into the EDP at Build the Prototype, and continue on to steps: Test the Prototype and Evaluate & Re-design. Then the students can recognize any problems they see in the design and modify the design in the Identify the Problem step.
The Concept of Failure
Sometimes people get nervous with telling students that their idea didn’t work. But the reality of the situation is yes, not every idea is going to work. The beauty when working with a cyclical EDP is that a failure is an opportunity to evaluate and redesign. This teaches socio-emotional learning skills to students like grit. The students learn to get back at it and keep trying until they can get it to work, or maybe they have to change how they are looking at the problem. I try to teach teachers to take the stigma out of failure and to emphasize the opportunity when things don’t work out. This makes them better students who are able to accept failure and move forward, working hard and asking questions, rather than students who accept failure and fail.
Gender Inclusion in Engineering
Currently, Cassie is the head coach for three FLL First Lego teams, which contain only one female participant. The girls appear interested in joining, but parents often steer them into more female-oriented activities (like dance or gymnastics). Being a female engineering teacher helps the students make the connection between women and engineering but again, parents still assume that engineering clubs are directed towards boys. I’m hoping that by bringing in SWENext and potentially starting a SWENext club, we can help improve the gender diversity in my robotics clubs and influence the Chula Vista school district.
My students are my inspiration. They come to class everyday with questions about everything they see in their world. They ask about things that sometimes relate to a project and sometimes not, but their questions inspire me to keep feeding their sense of inquiry.
The amazing work of Saura Naderi and Ed Hidalgo at Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab also inspires me. They have given all of their students a unique perspective on careers in engineering, an opportunity that many of the students would never have had if not for Saura and Ed.
More about Cassie
Cassie Lyn-Santos Rivaldi is the K-8 engineering teacher for Feaster Charter School in the Chula Vista Elementary School District. She has a Masters of Education in S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). Her role was created four years ago when Feaster created an on-site Engineering lab based on the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab. Her background in Industrial Arts, Project-Based Learning, and Architecture, was a natural fit for this exciting new opportunity. She enjoys helping others with her lessons learned and has presented at the STEAM symposiums and the San Diego Science Educators Conference.
More about Feaster Charter Engineering Lab
The Feaster Charter Engineering Lab (Feaster Charter School, Chula Vista Elementary School District) won the 2015 Classroom of the Future Foundation Inspire Award. This annual Innovation in Education Award recognizes business and the education community around innovation in the classroom. Having an engineering lab in an elementary school is very rare; it is the first in San Diego. This award illustrates the unique attributes of the program that get kids excited about learning. It specifically focuses on program characteristics responsible for increasing student interest and enhancing student learning. Feaster teaches all of its K-8 students how to use engineering to create a prototype with the potential to change our daily lives. Projects are grade specific. For example, second graders are designing and engineering freeze panels that reflect and trap cold air to help save polar bears from global warming.
The maker space, as it's called, is the first engineering lab at an elementary school in San Diego. Students get absorbed in their projects. Learning engineering principles through hands on engagement. Every student at the school takes engineering lab one semester each year where they learn constructive struggle. They learn how to work through those spots they normally would stop and give up.