Teaching SolidWorks to Young Children

SolidWorks is a CAD program, stated to be the world’s most popular, used widely in the manufacturing industry, and it’s a program I teach to Kindergarteners. You might be wondering, Why teach SolidWorks to young children at all when free programs such as Tinkercad exist? Well, initially I had a very specific purpose for teaching SolidWorks, and it can summed up with the following: LCFF→ LCAP→ Community Engagement Plan→ Linked Learning→ Career Pathways→ Career Exploration.

Let me explain.

The lab out of which I teach, our elementary school makerspace, which we call the iSTEAM Lab, was envisioned and built with a certain end in mind. The iSTEAM Lab was built to fulfill a need which our school district became aware of through the state of California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The LCFF basically is a state policy/funding law which affects how school districts spend money. According to the LCFF, each California school district must have a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which incorporates all stakeholders including parents, community members, and students. The LCAP must state how the school district plans to meet goals and address state and local priorities. In my school district, the San Bernardino City Unified School District, we designed a Community Engagement Plan to meet LCAP requirements. Our Community Engagement Plan includes 9 strategies that are designed to meet the goals of: each student developing and pursuing an academic and career plan based on his or her interests and talents; each student demonstrating independent initiative, civic responsibility, and community pride; each student developing creativity through mastery of fundamental knowledge and applied skills; and each student enjoying learning throughout life by learning how to learn. Of these 9 strategies, which include titles such as “Applied Learning,” “Learning Beyond the Boundaries,” and “Network of Alliances,” Strategy 6 is titled “College and Careers.” Detailed in this strategy is our district’s plan to: transform high schools and the student experience by implementing a District wide system of Linked Learning pathways, built upon K-8 experiences that ensures college and career readiness upon graduation; establish a system of communication so that community, District, and school site Strategy Leaders are actively engaged in the work and can articulate the District’s vision; create an infrastructure that supports development, quality, and sustainability of college and career pathways; have 100% of District students participating in high-quality pathways that focus instruction on academic and industry standards, as well as 21st-century demands, and are equitably accessible to any interested student; and assess progress and revise plans using processes and systems that support a culture of continuous improvement for District college and career pathways. Clearly stated here in our Community Engagement Plan is our commitment to career pathways through what’s called Linked Learning. From the Linked Learning Alliance website, “Linked Learning is a successful approach to education based on the idea that students work harder and dream bigger if their education is relevant to them. The Linked Learning approach integrates rigorous academics that meet college-ready standards with sequenced, high-quality career-technical education, work-based learning, and supports to help students stay on track. For Linked Learning students, education is organized around industry-sector themes. The industry theme is woven into lessons taught by teachers who collaborate across subject areas with input from working professionals, and reinforced by work-based learning with real employers. This makes learning more like the real world of work, and helps students answer the question, ‘Why do I need to know this?’” In order for this strategy to work at an elementary school, our school, Bing Wong Elementary, has begun a flagship “Career Exploration” program. The iSTEAM Lab was built to pave the way for the rest of our school’s Career Exploration focus. The iSTEAM Lab was built specifically to allow students the opportunity to explore careers in the manufacturing industry. The manufacturing industry is a dominant industry in our region of California, and our school district has identified it as such, thus creating a manufacturing pathway at our local feeder secondary schools, Curtis Middle School and Indian Springs High School. My program in the iSTEAM Lab at Bing Wong Elementary is designed in alignment with the curriculum of the manufacturing pathway that is being taught at Curtis Middle School and Indian Springs High School. So, all of this to explain why I am teaching SolidWorks to children as young as Kindergarten. SolidWorks is the industry standard 3D modeling software in the manufacturing industry and the program my colleagues at the secondary level are teaching their students. Whew!

Now that I’ve explained the initial and technical and valid reasons why I teach SolidWorks to young children, I’d like to share why I continue to be passionate about teaching SolidWorks to students and why I would want to teach it to young children regardless of any LCFF, LCAP, Linked Learning, or any other district or state or organizational reason to do so.

I want to make clear that I have no background in engineering. I have never taken any engineering classes. I have never been formally taught SolidWorks. Most of what I have learned about using SolidWorks, I have learned through personal trial and error, YouTube, and from mini lessons from friends and colleagues who know more than I do. When I was first introduced to SolidWorks and struggled through completing a simple tutorial (when I say struggled, I mean STRUGGLED, like wanting to throw my computer across the room kind of struggled), I left the experience thinking “Why would I ever want to put young children through what I just went through? I could make this on Tinkercad so much easier…probably…I think….”

Turns out, I could not make it easier on Tinkercad. I did not have the precise sketching and dimensioning tools that SolidWorks has. I didn’t have the ability to sketch on one plane, and then go sketch on a different plane at a different angle and still have everything align well together. I couldn’t sketch separate parts and then put them together in an assembly to see if they would actually fit together (which turns out to be so helpful when designing 2D pieces that will be laser cut and then pieced together into a 3D object). I couldn’t transfer all of my sketches over to a drawing/blueprint so students could deconstruct my work. I couldn’t have my students slice their part and analyze it’s interior structure. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to run the sustainability simulation as I taught students about the impact mass producing their product would have on our environment.

Student using Solidworks

A 5th grade student using SolidWorks to design a part for her independent project.

Now, I may be wrong. Like I said, I’m no expert in engineering, nor 3D design, nor have I had a heck of a lot of time using Tinkercad or SolidWorks or any other CAD modeling programs. But as I spend more and more time with both Tinkercad and SolidWorks, the more I am convinced that Tinkercad is a nice place for my young students to get an introduction to 3D modeling, but SolidWorks is where I want to be spending most of my time teaching 3D design. The students are beginning to organically love studying and sketching blueprints. They are making math connections more quickly by using said blueprints. They are feeling more authentically like the engineers I am always telling them they are. They are feeling more authentically like the artists I am always telling they are.

Some examples of SolidWorks projects I have done or are working on with my young students include:

  • Designing tetrahedronal kite connectors and then 3D printing them to build kites with straws and tissue paper (3rd grade project)
  • Designing coin cell battery and LED light holders and then 3D printing them (4th grade project)
  • Sketching birdhouse pieces as separate parts, then creating an assembly to piece them together, and finally laser cutting the parts out of wood to build the birdhouses (Kindergarten project)
  • Sketching shadowbox pieces as separate parts, then creating an assembly to piece the shadow box together, and finally laser cutting the parts out of wood to build the shadwoboxes (5th/6th grade project)
  • Designing parts to make a hydraulic scissor lift kit and analyzing environmental impact of manufacturing the kits (5th/6th grade project)
3D printed LED holder

4th Grade students used SolidWorks to design a coin cell battery and LED holder.

Lasercut shadowbox

5th and 6th grade students designed these parts in SolidWorks, then laser cut them, and finally assembled them into a shadowbox.

In summary, if you are teaching 3D design or 3D printing, I’d recommend attempting to get funding to purchase some educational licenses of SolidWorks as it is a powerful program that allows for powerful teaching moments, even with young children.