How to Start an Engineering Club for Middle Schoolers
Where do two trends in library services — STEM programming and services for tweens — intersect? At my library, it’s Engineering Club, a program for fifth through seventh graders that promotes creativity, teamwork and experimentation through design challenges. You might think a program with this much payoff requires a lot of work and planning, but it is actually one of my least time-consuming programs. In this post I will share my resources, tips and a sample program so you can get your own Engineering Club up and running.
Face Your Fears
If this is your first time doing a STEM program with tweens or teens, you may have some anxiety about putting a program like this together. Don’t let it stop you! Here are three common fears about STEM programming and some motivation to help you get past them so you can start planning.
1. You Don’t Have to Be the Expert
As adults who work with kids, we get really accustomed to being the expert in the room, which can make STEM programming seem very daunting for someone without a science background (like me). Luckily, in Engineering Club there are no experts! Rather, you and the tweens can learn and discover new things together.
2. You Won’t Have Trouble Finding Projects
With an internet connection and my resource list at the end of this post, you will have no shortage of projects to go with your club. If anything, you’ll have too many to choose from! I found myself overwhelmed by the number of possible projects, so I turned part of that job over to my club members. Read the section below called “Wrap Up and Vote” to see how. Involving them in the decision process gives tweens ownership of the program, and it will make your planning easier.
3. You Don’t Need Special Supplies
On a limited supplies budget? Don’t worry. Most of what you need to run Engineering Club projects can be found in your supply closet, recycling bin or at the dollar store. For this program, I intentionally stay away from anything too expensive and anything that comes with a hefty instruction booklet. The program is meant to promote creative thinking, not instruction following.
I hope that soothed some of your anxiety about planning your club. Now for the fun part — planning and executing the program!
Timing and Registration
You’ll decide what day and time work best for your community and your staff schedule. During the school year, I hold Engineering Club once a month on a weekday evening. During the summer, I do the program weekly, which can be intense but also a real bonding experience for the participants.
When the program is monthly, I require advance registration for four sessions at a time. To me, it’s important to have the same people at several meetings in a row; it helps them work better together and form friendships. I have 10 spots in my club and a short waitlist. You can decide the right number according to your space, materials and comfort level.
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With a date set and registration going, it’s time to start planning. Here are the basics of what you’ll need for every club meeting:
- Name tags and markers or pens
- Snack (optional)
- Project printouts
- Project materials
- Tables or other space to work
- A helper (optional but highly recommended; teen volunteers are great for this)
Here’s my usual schedule for an Engineering Club meeting:
- Pre-meeting Setup
- Set up the programming space 15 minutes before the start time. Make sure you have ample space for the project you’ll be doing, preferably one table per three to four participants. Set up an additional table with all the materials.
- Arrival, Snack and Name Tags
- Since my club happens in the evening, I provide a snack in case kids are coming straight from another activity. I also require everyone to wear name tags. It is essential that you know everyone’s name and that they learn each other’s names for working together.
- Guidelines, aka Helping the Kids Face Their Fears
- You had to face your fears before planning this program, and now it’s time to help the tweens do the same. At the beginning of each Engineering Club session, we go over the following guidelines:
- This is for fun, not a grade. Many kids, particularly high achievers, have grown accustomed to everything in their life counting toward something. Engineering Club counts toward nothing! It is just for fun, so encourage the kids to relax.
- Get ready to fail. In Engineering Club, the projects almost never come out right on the first try, nor should they. There is always some kink to work out or material to swap out, or you might just have to trash the whole thing and start all over. This is a hard one for the perfectionists in the group, and I’ve had my programs end in tears when a project doesn’t work out. Remind the kids it’s for fun and that failure is awesome! Like real engineers, they should keep working to correct what went wrong and can turn failures into discoveries.
- Talk to each other. Scientists work together. They learn from others’ ideas, failures and successes. At first, I forced the tweens to work in groups, but some of the introverted kids were miserable. So, I changed our guideline to: you can work by yourself, but at some point, you have to explain your project to someone else and listen to her explain hers. This is still tough for some kids and may take some encouragement, but it is an important part of the learning process for the group.
- Concept Introduction and Materials
- I know I said you are not the expert, but it is good to have a very basic grasp of the concepts of your project. Most project plans come with some brief background on the science behind the project. During the introduction, you can give your club members a quick rundown of the concept, maybe a fact or two and/or some context about how it’s used in real life. Then you’ll show them all of their materials. At minimum, you’ll need the materials called for in the instructions for the project, but I strongly encourage you to provide additional materials for them to experiment with.
- Challenge Project
- Unfortunately, you won’t have the input of your club members to help you narrow down your project for the first meeting. I suggest starting with something simple, like seeing who can build the tallest tower out of newspaper. To do the challenge, you’ll need the following:
- lots of newspaper
- rolls of masking tape, one per every three to four participants
- Divide the kids into teams of three or four. Give each team a stack of newspapers and a roll of tape. The objective is to build the tallest tower they can, using only newspaper and tape. It’s up to each team how they achieve that goal. This is a good icebreaker activity (do not tell them that!) that happens to employ some engineering principles. When they are finished or you run out of time, have each group show off their creations.
For future projects, you might have an instruction sheet for each team. Reinforce that the instructions are just a baseline. Encourage them to experiment by using different materials or by tweaking the design.
For example, my club once made rubber band-powered cars. I gave them the official materials, but I also gave them a second option for wheels: plastic bottle caps. They could choose to go with the original design or try out the bottle caps. Then they could compare with others to see how the two were different and which was a better material.
- Wrap Up and Vote
- Stop all projects five to 10 minutes before your program is scheduled to end so your participants have time to clean up. Save any unused materials or send club members home with some stuff to continue working on. Spend the last few minutes voting on next meeting’s project. I ask for suggestions from club members — a specific project, material or concept they want to learn more about — and maybe throw in a few of my own. Then they vote. I take the top two most popular ideas and see what I can find for us to do next time using the resources below, and I make sure the project fits within the bounds of what I can do with my space, materials, etc.
On to the Next
When every last stack of newspaper and roll of masking tape is put away, you’re done with your first meeting! And if you are anything like me, you will be jazzed and ready to start planning for the second.