Texas Tech University

Engineering, Education Professors Develop Interactive Game Geared Toward Enhancing Elementary Curriculum

George Watson

July 17, 2017


The game, available for free download to Apple devices, supplements the educational process begun in children’s books authored by Michelle Pantoya.

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Michelle Pantoya is constantly stopped when out in public, whether it's at the grocery store or somewhere with her own children, by other parents who recognize her from her work as a children's book author.

The series of books co-authored with Emily Hunt introducing young children to the wonders of engineering have become very popular. She even has parents sending her photos of children who are barely old enough to read with one of her books, whether it's “Pride by Design,” “Engineering Elephants” or “Designing Dandelions.”

Michelle Pantoya
Michelle Pantoya

“Emily Hunt and myself have always felt very passionate about inspiring the next generation of engineers,” said Pantoya, the J.W. Wright Regents Endowed Chair and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering within the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering.

“We have always felt that young children don't always know what engineers do. The books are designed in a way that engages them by asking questions they can answer and teaching them the very basics about what technology is with sort of a rhyming prose.”

As popular as the books have become, however, Pantoya and Hunt knew that books alone weren't going to give young children the full picture of what engineers do or completely inspire them to pursue engineering as a career. With today's interactive technology at the fingertips of children well before they enter school, they both knew a hands-on activity centered around engineering for children was necessary to further promote the profession.

So, with the help of a program called Engineering is Elementary (EIE) through the Museum of Science, Boston, Pantoya, Hunt and Texas Tech College of Education professor Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz have developed an interactive game for Apple devices called “Cheers for Engineers.” The game was part of a proposal that received a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how various tools are used in the classroom and how children respond to those different tools.

 Pantoya & Hunt
Emily Hunt and Pantoya

The EIE is responsible for establishing and maintaining engineering curriculum in elementary schools across the country, but Pantoya said the curriculum lacked a computer interaction component. Pantoya's study has combined her books, activities from the books, hands-on activities from the EIE curriculum and now the computer game to study how children's engagement and content understanding are affected by the different modes and tools of learning.

“Now we have this wonderful supplement for kids,” Pantoya said. “They don't have to be in school. This is an iPad game that is totally free so anyone can download it on their Apple device. The game is readily accessible, and that is one of the big things crossing that boundary between formal (in the classroom) and informal learning and seeing if we can make learning more fun.”

Designed from Dandelions

The game is modeled after the premise of “Designing Dandelions,” which tells the story of two aliens, Mitch and Bells, who crash land on Earth and use the engineering design process (EDP) outlined by the EIE to get back home.

Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz
Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz

The EDP is a series of steps engineers use to develop a solution to a problem. The EIE EDP – Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create and Improve – can lead to more than one solution to a problem.

Inspired by seeing how the dandelions near their crash site disperse their seeds through the air, Mitch and Bells use discovery and problem solving through the EDP to construct a replica to launch their ship back into space and return home.

Designed for children ages 4-10, “Cheers for Engineers” follows the same storyline and EDP outlined in the book. Children earn rewards for completing a level, with music, songs and professional voiceovers. Every completed level, which also goes through the EDP, helps Mitch and Bells get closer to being able to launch their ship into space.

“What I love about the game is that once the child goes through the levels, they not only deepen their understanding of the EDP, they also realize that what seems to be an obvious solution is not always the best solution, and it really pushes them to think of multiple uses for objects,” Aguirre-Muñoz said. “This design feature will help us develop students' creative-thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Pantoya hopes the computer game can become part of a child's life the same way the books have, where kids don't just read a book once. A favorite book is read over and over again, and her desire is for kids to think of this computer game in the same way, thus increasing their exposure to engineering.

“Those are the kinds of repetitions that, even if they are subliminal, strike an important chord in a person and will have an effect on their whole life,” Pantoya said. “Exposure is the key.”

Click here to visit the App Store.

Increasing Understanding of Engineering

The computer game is part of a larger project to understand how children respond to various learning tools, whether it's books, hands-on activities or computer games.

“We know that very young children need multiple and ongoing hands-on tools to understand complex ideas and processes,” Aguirre-Muñoz said. “The EDP is a very complex process. The game offers children multiple opportunities to test and re-test their growing understanding of the EDP.”

Pantoya, Hunt and Aguirre-Muñoz want to observe the various levels of engagement with the computer game to see how children respond compared to their response levels with books or other activities.

“I don't want to say there's no literature on how young children respond to engineering via games, but it is limited,” Pantoya said. “I think the real push and impetus to create this game was through Zenaida. She wanted to start adding this component and see how the kids' engagement levels differ and how that different engagement level affects content understanding.”

Development of the game also helps Pantoya and Aguirre-Muñoz in their desire to help further the EIE's curriculum. By being able to independently research many of the EIE's components in comparison with their books and the game, they can see how it all potentially works together in various functionalities or modes to improve on how young children perceive engineering.

“The game helps young children develop a more accurate conception of what engineers do, and that is an important first step in thinking about engineering as a career and, hopefully, eventually pursuing it in the future,” Aguirre-Muñoz said.

Pantoya said both she and Aguirre-Muñoz have participated in training at the Museum of Science, Boston and are certified to be EIE teachers, which allows them to implement the EIE curriculum in classrooms. That training, Pantoya said, helped them develop the game and will help them make whatever changes are necessary in the future.

“So far, the EIE has not given us any additional feedback or changes they would like to see made, but we have followed the teachings of how to implement the EDP,” Pantoya said. “They have been quite happy with that. Anything we can do to disseminate the EDP to young children using the EIE pedagogy is embraced by them.”

Pantoya said if the game gains popularity with children, she hopes to expand it to older children, which would expand on the EDP in more in-depth terms. She said the EIE is looking to extend its original curriculum past elementary-age children and into middle schools, and she feels the game can be modified to complement that curriculum the way it does now for elementary-age kids.

She also hopes “Cheers for Engineers” becomes part of future books. She already plans for a back page in a future book, “Optimizing an Octopus,” to include information on the computer game.

“Emily, Zenaida and I share a passion to prepare the next generation of engineers, and we do that by teaching very young kids and getting them familiar with the idea of engineering,” Pantoya said. “Studies have shown that if children don't think about the possibility of a certain career, they will likely never pursue it.

“It's things like this that keep me into this and keep me writing more books. If I can connect with just one child or change their way of thinking to open up their mind to a whole new realm of possibilities leading to a very satisfying and fulfilling career, that is rewarding to me.”

Cheers for Engineers:
Guide for Parents and Teachers

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