To many, the concept of engineering can be nebulous and daunting. Many students are not exposed to engineering until they reach university and at that point, they decide not to pursue the track as they feel they lack foundational knowledge and expertise in the space. Through her organization, Teaching Garage, an online elementary STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum provider, Janice Lathrop aims to demystify the concept of engineering, engage students in design thinking, and guide teachers without formal engineering training professional backgrounds in delivering engaging lessons at the elementary school level.
During her time as a teacher, Janice realized that her fellow teachers did not have the training or resources to teach engineering courses. At its core, engineering is simply applying math, science and practical knowledge to invent, innovate, design and build. The discipline teaches children how to effectively problem solve, collaborate, and seek feedback from one another, preparing them to be leaders and independent thinkers. Janice found that at the elementary school level, there were no instructional materials that explained the basics of engineering and introduced children to the field. While pursuing her masters of education degree at Harvard University, Janice started a side project where she worked with elementary schools in Boston and Philadelphia to create an engineering and design systems thinking curriculum that encouraged students to use math and science to inspire innovation, test designs and gather data.
The curriculum featured scripted engineering curriculum for elementary school teachers for easy lesson planning and delivery, student-driven hands-on building and prototyping for project-based learning using low-cost, everyday materials, partnerships with industry experts to integrate real industry engineering design challenges into instruction, and a showcase of ten fields of engineering while focusing on the iterative Engineering Design Process.
Originally, she received pushback from school administrators, as they said they did not have enough time in the school day to include a full session on engineering. In response, she created ways to incorporate innovation and design thinking into pre-existing math and science courses, teaching the children the concept of being engineers and creating their own technologies. Teaching Garage teaches students that a technology is simply a tool created to solve a problem or streamline a process. Janice shared an instance where one student was in charge of cleaning the dry erase board as her classroom chore for the day but was too small to reach the writing at the top of the board. She took a pointer and taped the dry eraser to the top, using this tool to reach and erase the previously unreachable areas. She then turned around and exclaimed, “I created a new technology!”, as she used innovation to solve her own problem. The idea that something as simple as a pointer, tape, and dry eraser put together could be considered a technology is exactly the type of thinking that Janice is trying to instill through her organization.
What started as a side project turned into Teaching Garage, the first online elementary STEM curriculum. Launched in September 2014, the organization’s philosophy is to transform student engagement by inspiring innovation during the school day through a comprehensive and exploratory curriculum. The organization partners with industry leaders from school districts, publishing companies, and private, government, non-profit agencies to transform the classroom, teaching students how to learn, not just what to learn.
Essential to Teaching Garage’s curriculum is the idea of design thinking. Design thinking is a solution focused methodology where individuals solve complex problems by creating a preferred future through prototyping, leveraging student’s natural creativity and expanding their way of thinking. In one classroom, one student paper prototyped a google search engine where users draw what they are looking for instead of typing out the search query. While the student did not have the expertise to actually code such a program, he was able to create the end-to-end user experience of what the actual product would look like and understand the idea behind product design.
For Janice, the most fulfilling part of her job is seeing kids learn and discover something that they are excited about. Through her organization, Janice hopes to introduce innovation in education and create engineers to drive economies by solving intractable problems for communities across the globe.