The importance of getting children aged 4-11 to ‘tinker’

Julie Wiskow is a primary school Science Lead. Her introduction of 'tinkering' has led to 30% of students wanting to pursue engineering-related careers.

We use the word ‘inspiring’ a great deal in manufacturing and there is a risk of it being overused – but not in the case of Rode Heath Primary School, which is lighting a beacon that will guide pupils of today and tomorrow into a bright future in manufacturing. Julie Wiskow explains their approach.

Y3 Learning about pulleys - image courtesy of Rode Heath Primary School.
Y3 Learning about pulleys – image courtesy of Rode Heath Primary School.

My passion for engineering started when I took part in a MOOC (massive open online course) run by the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco, which I discovered via Twitter (@TinkeringStudio).

I spent part of my 2015 summer holiday learning how to ‘tinker’ – playing with paper circuits, making scribbling machines and experimenting with conductive thread. I was quickly hooked and couldn’t wait to try out some of these activities on my new class.

Thinking with your hands

That same September, along with my Year 3 colleague John Randall, I joined the Tinker Tailor Robot Pi project led by Lynne Bianchi of Manchester University.

This project was in its second year and involved like-minded teachers from schools in the Greater Manchester area.

We were working together to introduce ‘Engineering Habits of Mind’ (EHoM) to children, through the notion of ‘tinkering’ – what I like to think of as ‘thinking with your hands’. It fitted in very well with the work I had been doing over the summer.

As part of the project, we began to hold ‘tinkering’ sessions with our Year 3 and 4 children at Rode Heath. This involved presenting them with a series of practical activities, which had a defined engineering output.

The children were not only actively problem solving, but also learning to adapt and refine their designs as a matter of course – skills that are very relevant to the rest of the curriculum.

After a relatively short time, the children were beginning to use some of the habits learned through their tinkering in other areas of the curriculum, particularly related subjects like science and computing.

They were much more willing to unpick and start again if something was not working successfully. Also, starting with a blank sheet of paper and having the resilience to problem solve creatively was becoming less frightening. Indeed, many children who struggled in other areas of the curriculum shone while tinkering – a great way of boosting their confidence.

This article first appeared in the May issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

Engineering log books

Every child at Rode Heath Primary school – from Reception up to Year 6 – has their own Engineering Log Book.
Every child at Rode Heath Primary school – from Reception up to Year 6 – has their own Engineering Log Book.

I spent considerable time talking to engineers about how they did their jobs and it appeared that they tended to record ideas in an engineering log book. We tried this idea and it proved to be so successful that we decided to take the idea of EHoM further and independently developed our own Engineering Log Book to give to each child from Reception up to Year 6.

Our Log Book is a series of engineering levels through which children will progress as they rise up the school. Reception children will start as technicians and move towards achieving the role of senior engineer by the end of Year 6.

The log books contain tables of competencies at the back which children will need to meet before they can move on to the next engineering level. These are based on the UK Standard for Engineering Competence, which have been rewritten into ‘I can’ statements.

The project is a great success with parents – it makes their children enthusiastic about coming to school and they talk constantly about what they have been doing engineering wise – which is quite unusual!

I have also noticed that more children seem to be visiting science museums than ever before and there was a stage when I was sent numerous photos of different types of bridges that children encountered with their parents – a project we were doing in Year 4.

Funding and partnerships

Funding is tricky, and up until now has come from awards that I have won (Rolls-Royce Science Award, ERA Foundation Award).

I recently persuaded Jacobs UK Ltd to sponsor the printing of 3,000 of our Log Books, branded with a Cheshire East logo, which are now being deployed into schools in our local area. Jacobs engineers are also helping me to develop some cross-curricular resources.

We have strong relationships with Solvay UK, Siemens and STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) in Warrington, and have established activities such as a visit for the Year 5 class to Solvay’s factory in Warrington; a Lean Lego Challenge run for the Year 5s and Year 6s by Siemens in Congleton and an annual design competition.

Companies are generally very happy to give up their time, but do not, in my experience, tend to offer much financial support. Having said that, we are in the process of purchasing a double-decker bus to kit out as a static STEM bus in school and have secured £500 from BAE Systems.

Engineering Raspberry Pi Computing Keyboard Laptop - image courtesy of Pixabay.
Rode Heath pupils regularly receive learning based around Raspberry Pi technology – image courtesy of Pixabay.

I am hoping to persuade other companies to follow suit once the bus is on site. The initial outlay of £3,000 has been paid by our Parents Association and will be match-funded by the school. This will be a venue where teachers from other schools can come for STEM CPD and bring classes of children.

Our links with STFC resulted in the loan of a bank of apprentice engineers last year, who helped us create a set of lessons for the Year 3s, covering fundamental mechanical engineering principles from levers through to gears and pulleys.

We also have an excellent relationship with Pete Lomas, who regularly comes into school with Raspberry Pi technology, and Joseph Birks, who invented the Crumble Controller – a tiny programmable circuit board which we are introducing to our partner schools.

The younger the better

I believe what we are trying to achieve at Rode Heath is different from other offerings. Instead of trying to squeeze engineering into an already crowded curriculum, and meeting the resistance of overworked teachers, we are suggesting that engineering can be incorporated throughout the curriculum.

Just hosting the occasional engineering event doesn’t embed engineering into children’s psyche. By getting them to think and work like engineers using EHoM in all areas of their learning, they will hopefully develop lifelong skills that will be useful whatever career they choose.

At least 10 schools in Cheshire East are about to dip their toes in the water. They have requested Engineering Log Books for their pupils and we are putting together a series of CPD events, starting with physical computing workshops, to assist them on their engineering journey.

Much of the effort to encourage children into engineering is targeted at higher education. This is missing a fundamental opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of children aged 4 to 11, at a time when they are most open to, and are able to take on board, new concepts and ideas.

If we want to get engineering principles and problem-solving skills hard-wired into our society, it is critically important that we start to do it at this formative stage in children’s learning.

If you were to ask children at Rode Heath what they would like to be when they grow up, I believe at least 30% would say something related to science or engineering. And girls are just as enthusiastic as boys!


Julie Wiskow is Science Lead at Rode Heath Primary School in Cheshire. She is also an education consultant with Wiskow Associates. You can learn more about the Think Like an Engineer Project here.