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Out Of The Box

Toddler engineering


Teaching Boolean logic to the babalog? It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Exposure to these and other engineering concepts in kindergarten may be the right way to nurture tomorrow's great innovators.

Are our social processes actually leading to creativity destruction rather than nurturing the genius we are born with? Yes, says Vijay Govindarajan, the Earl C Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. The answer is using everyday analogies to teach pre-kindergarten children engineering concepts, suggests Govindarajan who is best known for his contribution to the revolutionary concept of reverse innovation that is redefining consumer behaviours across the world. He and Manish Tangri, associate director (New Business) at Intel Corporation, explain how tots can be taught
In 1968, innovator and thinker George Land gave eight tests of creative thinking to children between three and five years old. He found that 98 per cent of them scored in the creative genius category. When the same children took identical tests five years later, only 32 per cent scored that high. Five years later, it was down to 10 per cent. Two lakh adults over the age of 25 have taken the same tests and only 2 per cent scored at the creative genius level. In his co-authored book Breakpoint and Beyond, Land says that the "socialisation process restricts the natural creativity of our thinking potential by assigning value judgments... our proficiency in expressing our creativity gradually drops off as we learn to accept others' opinions, evaluations and beliefs".

Has the education system done enough over the last 44 years to capture the imagination of our children, stimulate their curiosity, sustain their creativity, and facilitate innovation? To nurture the 'genius' we are born with, we need to start at the beginning and teach engineering concepts to pre-K children, ages 4-5, through everyday analogies.


Contrary to common wisdom, engineering is fundamentally a creative endeavour. Engineers file a vast number of patents every year. Understanding engineering concepts earlier in life can motivate children to learn the "how and why" of the world around them and inspire them to build a better one going forward. Children inspired to get answers to "how and why" on their own also realise a great sense of accomplishment in satisfying their curiosity. As the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupêry put it, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea".

Exposure to engineering concepts early in life can help children observe, test, and rearrange existing elements of the world around them and generate new ideas and solve problems in their own way. Children can then leverage these concepts across disciplinary boundaries, given their natural tendencies to learn by association, analogies, and stories.

Thomas Edison, one of the greatest innovators in history, extensively used analogical thinking, applying concepts from familiar domains to unfamiliar domains. For instance, writing about his work on what would become the motion picture camera, he described it as "an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear" (Innovate Like Edison).


No doubt there are multiple ways to nurture creativity. However, there exists the problem of "creativity destruction" ie the social processes that stamp out creativity, as children get older. We need more than one approach to solving this problem within the context of our education system.

Children today have unprecedented access to information and resources to sustain creativity such as Google search to answer questions, YouTube to express themselves, iPhone games to engage with, and Facebook friends to socialise with. How can we do our part in providing them with fundamental concepts early enough - before the creativity destruction process kicks in? By picking a few fundamental engineering concepts and translating those concepts into learnable, fun lessons using everyday analogies and play.


The concept of reversibility is important in chemical engineering and is teachable at almost any age. Some processes are reversible and others aren't. Show a child a cube of ice from the freezer that turns into water at room temperature and then back into ice when put back into the freezer. A child can understand that this is a reversible process driven by change in temperature. On the other hand, pointing to the oxidisation of iron, such as "rust" formation on the engine of dad's old car, can show an irreversible process where removing oxygen doesn't result in original iron.

Through hands-on exposure, children can now begin to understand that some things they do are reversible - such as tearing a paper in half and then gluing it together, but others are not - such as throwing the same paper into a campfire.


Can a four-year-old design the logic for a vending machine that dispenses chocolate milk or strawberry milk, such that the child can have at most one of two choices but not both at the same time?
This requires understanding Boolean logic - a fundamental building block for digital and computer programming, which some engineering students may see for the first time in their third year of engineering.
Boolean means two. Looking at the world through Boolean eyes everything has two possibilities. Think of a door with two locks on it. "Open" and "close" are the two possible positions for the locks and the door. Boolean AND behaviour means that only when all locks (first lock AND second lock in our case) are "open", the door will "open". We first train the child to recognise Boolean AND operation through everyday analogies. "Open" and "close" could also easily be "yes" and "no" instead. So, if the child wants to go
play in the yard, both mom and dad must say
"yes" (open), for him to go play. The child's mind will soon understand that to get a favourable result, all things must happen together, (the concept of AND) in a favourable way. To reinforce this concept through play, we could create an electronic toy block called "Mr All ON" with two onoff switches and a light bulb that turns on only when both switches are on.

Once children master the AND behaviour, we could give them the following electronic toy blocks to learn about other Boolean concepts: "Mr Any ON" exhibiting Boolean OR behaviour: light up if any switch is 'on'. "Ms OPPOSITE" exhibiting Boolean NOT behaviour, where the outcome is always opposite that of the input. It lights up when the switch is 'off'. "Mr ON-OFF" that lights up only when first switch is 'on' and second is 'off' "Mr OFF-ON" that lights up only when first switch is 'off' and second is 'on'.

These toy blocks would be combinable, allowing outputs from one to feed as inputs to another. Together, they form the basis of designing circuits and allow children to explore their creativity through various combinations.

Thus equipped, children can now design the logic circuit for a dual-switch vending machine that can dispense strawberry milk or chocolate milk such that the consumer can have at most one of two choices, as opposed to being able to press both buttons at the same time and fool the machine into dispensing more than one.

First, children could be walked through pictorial configurations of switches to understand what situations correspond to an "On" dispenser:

Similarly, children can discover the answer to a two-switch circuit, one at the bottom of the stairs and other at the top of stairs that controls their home's staircase lighting.


Exposure to such concepts can foster capabilities for creativity - a platform that children's imagination can build on. Like Apple did not envision the hundreds of thousands of applications the iPhone App Store would give rise to, one cannot envision the limitless possibilities that children might create. If they could do Boolean logic at pre-K, then they might be able to file patents in middle school.

A byproduct of understanding these concepts is that children can use their naturally associative minds to learn in other contexts. For instance, reversibility is a key factor in decision-making where more is at stake for irreversible decisions. Another byproduct is developing logic as a guiding force for analysing how to bring ideas to life.

In conclusion, society does not have to kill off the creativity that children are blessed to start out with. Our goal should be to capture their imaginations, provide fundamental capabilities for them to sustain and express their creativity, encourage them to seek answers on their own, and stimulate their curiosity so they can resist social pressures to conform or blindly accept others' opinions and judgments. After all, nurturing an early passion to pursue engineering, science, and technology is one of our best hopes for building tomorrow's great innovators.

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Reader's opinion (1)

J PFeb 28th, 2013 at 02:06 AM

Isn't that too young ?

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