How do you identify a child’s engineering potential?

We often talk about the importance of inspiring the next generation of engineers while they are very young, but how do you identify young engineers and how can you capitalise on their potential?

Curiosity is a trait found in most young children, as they begin to learn about the world around them and test their own abilities. This is particularly true of engineers, and can be seen in young children asking how things work – is your child particularly keen on dismantling items and re-assembling them? Their curiosity may not result in a successful reconstruction the first time round, but as children investigate problems and come up with solutions – or even improvements – they are demonstrating their potential as an engineer.

Other traits demonstrated by potential engineers are open-mindedness (to the many and varied solutions they may discover); resourcefulness and creativity (to find those solutions and overcome challenges); the ability to work in teams; and to be able to follow instructions.

Any number of simple tasks can be devised to test and encourage these abilities in children, starting with stacking cups and building blocks for very small children, and moving on to more complex hands-on activities as they grow.

At the Rochester Bridge Trust we use our bridge building activities to bring these skills out. As with all good activities, we begin by demonstrating the principles of the challenge we’re about to set, giving the children knowledge about the subject and encouraging them to think about and around the principles involved in bridge building, such as forces and materials.

Next comes the fun part. The children start designing their bridges for strength and stability, drawing plans before creating their structures.

At this point we really start to pay attention. Civil engineering is an incredibly varied career, so not all people do all jobs, but one of the common elements is plans and the ability to design and/or interpret them. Not all potential engineers will begin by drawing up a perfectly scaled and labelled plan, but the way they approach this task can tell an observer a lot: is the child giving thought to how the structure will be made? Does the plan give an idea of scale? Or are they treating it as more of an artistic exercise?

Once the children have outlined their plan, the construction begins. We usually provide items such as paper, sticky tape, string and lollipop sticks, but a range of materials can be used. The key thing is to offer children a mixed – but finite – selection of materials to work with and to see how they are used together. Do they find flaws in their plans and adapt? Or do they resolutely stick to the initial concept? Is construction methodical and organised? Or is there more of a free for all?

While watching these tasks you can see how children work as a team, managing tasks (and potentially each other) to complete the challenge. It’s also possible to see how individuals react, with less academic youngsters often given a chance to shine during this part of the task, as their understanding of complex concepts is demonstrated in a practical manner, rather than through theory – depending on the path taken, engineering can be about work on paper and/or getting out and doing.

We’ll look at the traits of a young engineer in more depth as time goes on, but now you have a basic idea of what to look out for, take note next time you’re in the company of children – could one of them be a bridge builder of tomorrow?

  • Our free bridge building lesson plans, Learning about Bridges, are available for anyone to download on this website. If you are from a school or community group, the Trust also offers small education grants to facilitate STEM learning.

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