SUNDAY, AUGUST 12, 2012 Thinking about thinking …

2nd grade camper in one of our camps asked: “Why plan, can’t we just build?”. This question triggered a thoughtful discussion among STEM educators, professionals and entrepreneurs around the globe.

If you have been through our program, you know that we work on ways to help children think like engineers. So, let me take a moment to describe what it means to think like an engineer.

In two words: critical thinking. Thinking about thinking (or metacognition) so as to actively manage yourself and your learning.

A school teacher recently described an experience where children were tasked with a STEM project to build a chair out of newspaper. However, per this teacher’s account, there was no learning accomplished even though the children built the chair. Why? Children got no understanding of the science concepts (gravity, balancing, forces, etc.) that enable thinking through such a project. Moreover, children missed on the opportunity to learn by trial and error!

Camp_3With roughly 600 children who have gone through STEM for Kids’ programs so far, I have noticed many instances where children choose to not plan or make a paper bridge of their dreams (big and tall) only to realize afterwards that it cannot even stand. There comes the learning … thinking of ways to improve so as to balance the forces, thinking of trade-offs (keep the bridge tall or make it stable given the material constraints), experiencing the role of planning and learning to persevere through all this.

Let’s take two recent stories of greatness: Michael Phelps makes an Olympic medal record and; “blade runner” or the double amputee Oscar Pistorius goes for a shot at the Olympic medal.

What do these people have in common? Both have weaknesses (Phelps almost lost his passion for swimming after Beijing Olympics and the blade runner has no legs!) and strengths (swimming and running, respectively and many more!). But somehow, these individuals figured out a way to rein in their weaknesses and cultivate their strength. This skill is another by-product of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is so critical yet so scarce that Dr. Tony Wagner from Harvard University, a leader in inspiring educational change in the US, describes it as one of the three Cs required to bridge the achievement gap in our education system. [The other two Cs are Communication and Collaboration].

Thankfully, as evident from our global discussion, many educators, STEM professionals and business leaders are thinking of ways to encourage children into critical thinking. Plus, you can expect to see more on critical thinking as states implement the National Common Core Standards in schools.

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