Stay Pretty, Engineer – Turn Arts & Crafts into Engineering Projects

“Mama, look! I made a car with cardboard!” said Jen, a 7 year old.

“Wow, you’re going to be a great engineer,” replied her mother.

Jen’s Mom celebrated Jen’s effort because she “made” a “car”. A car is a car, but the definition of “make” can be vague. She probably cut cardboard into the shape of a car; she might have constructed pieces of cardboard into a car; or she could have even added an engine to a 3-dimensional cardboard car model and made it move.

All these can be concluded as “I made a car.” But which one really means “I engineered a car”?

How do we, as parents and teachers, put the STEM thinking caps on the children when they dive into a series of cutting and pasting?


Understanding the Difference: Arts & Crafts vs. Engineering

In the arts & crafts projects that children work on, we can turn most of them into engineering projects to practice their computational thinking. But what are the differences between arts & crafts versus engineering?

Arts & crafts focus on the look and presentation of the final products, while engineering takes steps further to weave in the practical factors including the products’ functionality, dimensions, and durability.

For an arts & crafts project, we pick up the paint brushes and dive into our imagination. For an engineering project, we need to understand the requirements, plan, measure twice before cutting, build, and test the product.

Let’s say the project is to make animal face masks for a birthday party. We can simply guide our children to focus on decorating the masks. However, if we push that to be the last priority and make the masks “durable, comfortable, and reusable”, then we have just turned it into an engineering project. In that case, we need to consider the materials we use, the size of the masks, the attachment of the elastic to the masks, etc.

As another example, let’s say we are going to make kites. We can either just focus on making the kites pretty. Or, we can take a step further to discuss how a kite flies. Once we prompt the interest, it is now a whole different project that focuses on making the kite fly – high, long, and/or balanced.

As soon as the engineering thinking cap is put on, besides making the product pretty, we are putting time and effort into other aspects. That makes the projects more well-rounded. It prompts more discussion as well as positive competition amongst the peers when the requirements are used to measure the performance of the final products.

Who’s Ready to Engineer Arts & Crafts Projects? How?

Depending on the projects and the age group, different groups of children would have different readiness towards the engineering perception.

Before Grade 1

We can run the arts & crafts projects as they are. At the end of the projects, ask questions and discuss:

“Why do you think the rubber band on your mask keeps snapping off?”

“How can we make your kites really fly?”

You would hear all kinds of answers, even something like “let’s put wings on the kites to make them fly!” That’s okay. Getting the engineering thinking going is all we need at this point.

Grades 1 – 3

The children are ready to comprehend one or two simple engineering requirements:

“Make the size of your mask match the size of your face.”

“Make the kite light.”

Here you would see children starting to adopt tools like rulers and trying to quantify requirements. They might see unexpected end results because of lack of experience. They might have meant to cut a circle that should be 18 centimeters in diameter, but somehow it came out smaller. This would be a great opportunity to brainstorm ways of improvement.

Grades 4+

The requirements can be planned out before implementation, and the complexity of requirements can increase.

“Sketch the different components of your mask and label the dimensions. Use the dimensions to cut the mask.”

“Based on your understanding of how a kite flies, write a plan for your design and sketch it. Make the kite based on your requirements. After building, test it and improve your design.”

In the older age group, you would start seeing more capabilities in using tools and planning. However, it could still be intuitive for this age group to just dive in and start cutting. We want to be reminding them about the planning that they need based on the requirements.

Once they have a plan or a sketch, guide them through using what they have planned towards constructing the product. Transforming organized ideas on paper into hands-on engineering can be unfamiliar to them.

Can ANY Arts & Crafts be STEM Projects?

The short answer is, “yes, but why?”

There’s no doubt that the children can benefit from practicing their computational thinking while being artistic. But when they focus on the engineering aspects of the product, they could be thinking less of the dog-looking-rhino face that they were going to create for the mask, or they could be thinking less of the color combination of the kite.

While imposing the rigid engineering requirements on their thinking, we want to be mindful about letting the children stay creative and imaginative through exploring art. Their senses develop through making a mess and perspective changes when the mask is accidentally made up-side-down.

After all, art comes out of engineering and patterns show up in art. Make mistakes, engineer, and have fun!


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