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College of Education

The “Contraption Room:”

STEM in the preschool classroom

By Nikki Baldwin, assistant lecturer
Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education

The University of Wyoming Early Care and Education Center recently embarked on a new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) project called the “Contraption Room.”

Preschool teachers and UW College of Education graduates Jaclyn Klinginsmith, Adina Bitner and Rhianna Kipper and I were inspired by early childhood educators who are introducing STEM in preschool classrooms in innovative ways. Last spring the team began a project to enhance STEM opportunities for children embedded in children’s naturally occurring play experiences.

One outgrowth of this project was the creation of a special space where more recycled materials and loose parts could be made available for children and teachers to work with, outside of the constraints of already crowded classrooms. With the help of families, an available room in the center was redesigned and outfitted with plentiful recycled materials and loose parts, and the “Contraption Room” was born.

This space has a specific purpose: facilitating preschoolers’ application of engineering principles to plan, design and create projects that are shared with classmates, teachers and families.  

In the Contraption Room, teachers introduce and help children apply six steps of engineering design in a developmentally appropriate way based on children’s interests, questions and creative use of materials.

When children enter the Contraption Room, they first have the opportunity to explore and learn what materials and tools are available to them. Next, they brainstorm ideas of “contraptions” they could build alone or with friends. An important next step in this process is when children represent their ideas in a drawing to plan their creations. Once the design is complete, teachers are available to assist children with building their projects.

Throughout the process, children evaluate and test their work, returning to the planning and design phases in a cyclical process until the work is completed to their satisfaction. The design process can last one session, or may extend for several weeks.  Once a project is complete, children share their work with their peers in the classroom and bring projects home to share with family.  

Sharing the entire process with others is a key component of the design experience. When children return to the classroom, they present their drawings, describe the process of design and building, and then show off the final products. They also describe challenges they faced as they worked, and how they solved problems as the projects progressed. Rhianna Kipper explains that “one great part of the Contraption Room is the opportunity for children to fail, and work through challenges and to learn that this is all part of the creative process.”

How have the children responded to the new space?

“My kids think it’s a really special place. It’s almost a rite of passage to get to go there.” Adina Bitner says. “They take visits to the Contraption Room really seriously. They understand that they are doing real work with real tools. This kind of engagement is a little different from what we see in the regular classroom.”

“It has been exciting to see how different children respond,” Jaclyn Klinginsmith says. “Some are very quiet and focused and prefer to work on their own, while others engage in lots of discussions, asking questions and sharing ideas.”

After only a few months, we can see that we have only begun to tap into the potential of the Contraption Room. Children are starting to bring projects and questions from home to work on at school. We also have plans this upcoming year to facilitate more group design opportunities, and to include parents and guest mentors into the Contraption Room.  

ECEC staff members already have shared ideas with visiting programs in the area and will present on their work in a conference this fall.   

Early Child Center Robot


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