Children's Engineering Initiative

Digital Fabrication as the Centerpiece of Elementary STEM Education

There is no question that the nation’s need to foster advanced learning in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) is a fundamental challenge for education. Schools have begun to address this challenge through curricular reform and teacher preparation. These efforts largely have focused at the middle and secondary school level, and for the most part concentrated on the separate STEM disciplines.

The Curry School of Education’s Children’s Engineering Initiative takes a more integrative and transformative approach – by focusing on the elementary grades and placing engineering at the center of an integrative approach to problem solving, analysis, planning, and innovation that draws on math, science, and technology.

Changing How STEM Is Taught in Elementary Schools

“Our plans for this transformative learning space center on digital fabrication as the mechanism for integrating the STEM disciplines in an elementary school classroom.”

The Curry School of Education’s Children’s Engineering Initiative aims to fundamentally change how the STEM disciplines are approached in the nation’s elementary classrooms and how teachers are prepared and supported to facilitate student learning and development in this new learning space. Our plans for this transformative learning space center on digital fabrication as the mechanism for integrating the STEM disciplines in an elementary school classroom.

Digital technologies can now translate electronic designs into physical objects through computer-controlled fabrication systems. Digital fabrication is a project-based learning activity that maps to skills in mathematics (e.g., geometry; computation), science (e.g., content knowledge in the area of fabrication; experimentation), technology (e.g., hardware; software-hardware interface; computer programming) and engineering (e.g., complex problem solving, planning, analysis, application of knowledge), all in a project-based team setting.

By integrating these various domains in a highly motivating application, digital fabrication facilitates learning and developmental skills and student engagement in an activity that also maps to advanced learning standards. By integrating digital fabrication into the curriculum and learning settings of elementary school classrooms and by creating the teacher preparation and supports necessary to implement with fidelity, the Curry School’s Children’s Engineering Initiative is an agent of fundamental transformation capable of fostering far more advanced and innovative performance in the STEM disciplines among young people.

The Curry School Children’s Engineering Initiative will, for the first time, create an infrastructure that makes digital fabrication practical and scalable in elementary classrooms, with an eventual goal of scaling through secondary school. The goals of this phase of the project are to:

(1) increase elementary teachers’ competence and interest in teaching STEM content, specifically the mathematics that underpins engineering proficiency, through introduction of digital fabrication in preservice and inservice teacher education and math content courses, and

(2) increase elementary children’s competence in mathematics while simultaneously increasing their interest in engineering and STEM careers by engaging and supporting teachers.

Students will have the motivating and satisfying experience of taking their concepts from mind’s eye to physical form. This new model-building approach will engage a broader population than by traditional paper-and-pencil methods. This infrastructure will incorporate the latest thinking from the National Academy of Engineering concerning balancing scientific inquiry with design experiences.

Four Essential Components

The infrastructure developed to accomplish this goal will include four essential components of

  * hardware
  * software
  * an online digital fabrication library and collaborative space
  * a curriculum.

Teachers’ enjoyment of materials creation will be used to introduce engineering design concepts and associated mathematical content. Based on this experience, teachers will introduce engineering and mathematics to elementary students in an engaging context. This engaging context, in turn, will support the development of crucial attitudes, skills, and concepts that encourage and support interest in STEM-related careers.

This initiative will investigate whether an engineering design curriculum based on digital fabrication can successfully increase teachers’ engagement with engineering, mathematics, and related competencies. The project also will examine whether increased teacher engagement and competence produces a positive impact on students, boosting their performance and engagement with engineering and mathematics and, subsequently, students’ interest in STEM careers.

Implications for the Future

The Curry School of Education’s Children’s Engineering initiative will encourage experimentation, design, and creation with an emergent technology that has substantial implications for society and the workforce of the future. To address these questions, the Curry initiative has formed a coalition bringing together two colleges of engineering, two colleges of education, a commercial publisher, and a non-profit educational association to form a unique non-profit / for-profit consortium that collectively offers expertise in digital fabrication, children’s engineering, and more than 30 years experience in the integration of technology into teaching practice.


Through a pilot project conducted this spring by the Curry School of Education, some local elementary students have decided that “Fab@School” refers to both the new digital fabricators in their classrooms and to the fabulous fun they had using them. The Fab@School project, which encourages engineering design projects aided by computer-controlled die cutters, is led by Glen Bull, professor of instructional technology, and Robert Berry, associate professor of elementary education. READ MORE

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Glen L. Bull

Associated Faculty