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What is engineering? How to introduce kids to a world of invention and problem-solving

Child with hard hat with thumbs up gesture
Child with hard hat with thumbs up gesture
March 25, 2022

Written by Isabel Deslauriers, Director, Youth and Volunteer Experience at Let’s Talk Science

I loved science growing up. I also loved taking things apart to understand how they work, and coming up with my own inventions. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood how I could transform these things that I loved into a potential career. Once this clicked into place, I aligned all my efforts in school towards a future in engineering. Today, I share my passion and experience of engineering with kids of all ages.

It is challenging to try to describe engineering to children and youth in a nutshell. Engineers are people who went to school to learn about science and technology, and then use what they learned to invent new things and solve problems around them. However, there is so much science and technology in the world, that it’s impossible for any one person to learn all of it. There are so many kinds of engineers… electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, software engineers, the list goes on.

So where to start?

Kids learn best by doing and experiencing, so, whenever possible, engage them in engineering thinking themselves. This could mean creating inventions together, or designing a simple glider, boat or bridge. Once kids have experienced the engineering design process themselves, they can explore career connections and start to consider their own future path.

Airplane Design Showcases Various Engineering Careers

One of the best examples of how different areas of engineering all work together is in airplane design. In fact, looking at how airplanes are designed and built offers a great example of the work of a variety of engineering specialties. It takes many different kinds of engineers to come together to design a new airplane.

When exploring the various areas of engineering, and using the airplane example, start with some simple explanations that are tied to areas of design and operation that are easy to understand.

Electrical engineers design, construct and deploy electrical systems. These engineers design the lighting and heating, or figuring out how signals are sent from the pilot’s controls to the moving parts of the airplane.

Mechanical engineers design things that move. They might be involved in designing a variety of parts on an airplane including how the ailerons and rudder move, or improving an airplane’s aerodynamics as it moves through the air.

Chemical engineers might be involved in designing the chemical plants that produce things like airplane fuel, paint, or the high-temperature rubber needed for the wheels of a plane.

Civil engineers build and design large structures like airports, runways, and the roads around airports.

Computer and software engineers might design pilot training simulators; some of the systems they use to control the airplane, and even the onboard entertainment system.

Environmental engineers might be involved in studying how airplanes and airports impact the environment and solving problems related to that.

When using airplane design as an example with kids, ask them to think about the different components of the plane itself. Ask them to think about what goes in to building an airplane. Ask them what part of the plane they think they might be interested in designing? And what area of engineering they think they would need to study to be able to do that. Here are some ideas how to explain the different areas of engineering to kids.

As we celebrate National Engineering month this March, take the opportunity to speak to your kids about the different areas of engineering. Expose them to a variety of career options and encourage them to choose a path that connects to their interests, skills and values.

Explore more engineering careers with the kids in your life. For older youth, check out some of the Let’s Talk Science career profiles of engineers.