Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

What is an engineer?

There are the bridges and the ‘bots, of course. And, increasingly, there’s the silently implied “software” preceding the word. The list goes on. Geomatic engineers work with systems that collect spatial data on land and water. Audio engineers mix sound. Packaging engineers, true to name, design packaging. According to one site, there are 35 different engineering degrees.

So what is the common denominator? And which parts of this nebulous field are relevant for learners?

It all comes down to the way engineers think. Engineering is about identifying a problem and using a combination of creative and technical skills to address it. In some cases, this means building a more efficient vacuum cleaner or fixing bugs in a computer program. But the applications of this kind of problem solving don’t stop there. Engineer-like thinking is deeply beneficial when it comes to civic and community engagement—and, on the flip side, social consciousness can do a world of good for the engineering field. Let’s call it problem solving for society.

The task of making something can be elevated to ask: Why are we making it? And for whom? These principles of engineering are part and parcel to the concept of design thinking, an engineering approach that demands social awareness. Or, as Pittsburgh’s Mickey McManus, chairman and principal of MAYA Design, told us, “It’s simple: We can make strides or we can make crap.”

Engineers who are aware of their surroundings and in tune with the hopes and needs of their communities will become equal parts empathetic and entrepreneurial.

“I had always learned about problem solving,” David Kelley, founder of the design thinking firm IDEO, said in an interview. But his education at Stanford taught him “it was just as important to worry about figuring out the kind of human needs that were worth working on, and then doing the problem solving.”

In a world where one can make anything quickly and cheaply, McManus would argue, we need to get beyond only making things. We need to make the things that are useful to our communities.

“In design thinking, observation takes center stage,” writes Fast Company. Engineers who are aware of their surroundings and in tune with the hopes and needs of their communities will become equal parts empathetic and entrepreneurial. Design thinkers break away from the status quo to discern what kinds of products and systems will better address the problems they observe.

Kids have a leg up when it comes to design thinking and conscious engineering. Young learners are less entrenched in the current system, and they are naturally curious.

“I’ve always had an interest in K-12 because I really think that’s where to start,” Kelley said. “What happens with kids is that they’re wildly creative when they’re younger and then … they kind of opt out. If you want to make a big change, get all the kids thinking of themselves as a creative person. They’re just going to have that openness that will allow them to come up with new and different ideas.”

So what does design thinking look like in the classroom?

At Studio H, a program that began in North Carolina and moved to California, middle school students follow a project from earliest inklings to full production. They always use design thinking to identify a problem or opportunity in their community, figure out a solution, and engineer its manifestation. Recent examples include beautiful roadside farmers market stands along a school bus route, and a 3D-printed library for their new campus.

Here in Pittsburgh, South Fayette High School wanted to find a way to keep kids safe on the way to and from school, and BusBudE was a born—an app the kids coded using the MIT App Inventor. BusBudE texts parents when their kids have hopped on the bus and when they have gotten off.

The Ellis School couches its STEM education in the 4Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, and context. That doesn’t mean the all-girl student body is lacking in the mechanics; middle school students can immerse themselves in Carnegie Mellon University’s Hummingbird Robotics kit and enter urban engineering competitions, and high school students can take courses in mathematical modeling and engineering design.

Yet their work is informed—and likely made more interesting—by an understanding from an early age of how their projects can fit into their daily lives and provide solutions.

Kelley jokes that engineers don’t have the reputation of being “people people” but says that certainly does not have to be the case.

“My experience has been that when engineers really feel that something would be important to people, would have meaning in people’s live, that’s highly motivating and it makes them work really hard,” he said.