The Foundation of Children Engineering in Virginia

 “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” ― John Dewey

Learning by doing in Virginia’s public schools has a long history and can be traced back to 1903 in Richmond City Public Schools under the leadership of Dr. Julian A. Burruss, who later served as president of James Madison University (JMU), and Virginia Tech. Dr. Burruss’s college preparation in engineering enabled him to engage children in instructional experiences that caused them to think and solve problems though practice. The beliefs of John Dewey and Julian Burruss have been cornerstones in the foundation of the Children’s Engineering movement in Virginia.

In the early 1980’s George R. Willcox, Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), traveled to Trenton State College and to several elementary schools in Newark, New Jersey to observe a nationally recognized curriculum called Technology for Children (T4C). The curriculum was developed by Elizabeth Hunt through funding from the Ford Foundation. The T4C curriculum was modified, in collaboration with by Dr. Robert Worthington and Dr. Robert Thrower, for use in New Jersey and later dissemination to schools nationally. These visionaries believed all children should understand their human-designed world.

Following the visit to the T4C schools, Thomas A. Hughes, Jr., VDOE state supervisor for technology education, initiated a project to develop instructional materials to integrate the study of technology into the Virginia Standards of Learning. George Willcox was appointed project director. Bob Mills, VDOE supervisor for general education was appointed co-director.

The project resulted in the development of an instructional resource guide titled Industrial Arts in the Elementary School in 1983. The resource guide focused on providing technology-based experiences that undergirded attainment of the instructional standards in grades 1-5. In 1998, the guide was revised to reflect the growing emphasis on the study of technology and was re-titled Technology Education in the Elementary School.

In 1991, the Virginia Technology and Engineering Education Association (VTEEA) appointed a special committee that was given two primary responsibilities: (1) establish an elementary school affiliate council, and (2) offer staff development programs across the Commonwealth for elementary school teachers. The initial committee chair was Cindy Etchison, Dranesville Elementary School, Fairfax County. During this same period the International Technology Education Association (now known as the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association) established an elementary school teacher-of-the-year and program-of-the-year awards recognition program. In 1995, Cindy Etchison was recognized as the first Virginia teacher of the year by this program.

During this same period, a collaborative effort was established between the VTEEA and colleagues in New Jersey and the United Kingdom (U.K.). Dr. Ron Todd, while at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ), used funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to implement two cumulative initiatives, now known as the UPDATE Projects. The conceptual foundation of both projects reach back to the early years of the past century, but were strengthened and expanded by insights gained through the study and experience of consultants and contributors to these projects, most notably by Dr. Karen Todd, Jim Durkin, Dr. Pat Hutchinson and Dr. Elizabeth Hunt, mentioned above.

The first initiative, titled Project UPDATE (Upgrading Practice through Design And Technology “Engineering” Education), ran from 1991 through 1996 and focused on developing classroom learning materials that reflected a Design, Engineering and Technology (D&T) approach. The UPDATE leadership team turned to technology education colleagues in the Virginia Department of Education to identify two potential Project schools with interested teachers and strong principals/instructional leaders. Two teams were established, one in Rockingham County at Ottobine Elementary School with David Burchfield as principal and one at Cooper Elementary School in Hampton with Bill Cawley as principal. The Rockingham county teachers included Linda Harpine, Carole Welch, Susan Pollard, April Cave, and Jerry Ridgeway. The Hampton teachers included Kathy Nugent, Deborah Ballard, and Patti Fazzi. These instructional leaders and their teachers joined a select group of colleagues from five other states to engage in a challenging and exciting four-year effort in developing D&T materials for their students and their school settings.

The second NSF initiative, Project UPDATE/TEI (Teacher Enhancement Initiative), was implemented at TCNJ from 1994 through 1999. The participating teachers worked with teacher educators from the U.S. and the U.K. to (1) use and modify the DE&T oriented materials to make them developmentally appropriate for their students, and (2) work as members of teacher/trainer teams to prepare other teachers to use the DE&T approach to integrate and enrich student learning.

Concurrent with the 1994 VTEA Summer Conference held at the Richmond Hyatt, the VDOE sponsored an Elementary School Technology Education Workshop though JMU. The workshop was led by JMU professor, Dr. Arvid W. VanDyke, who drew upon initial DE&T leaning materials developed by the Project UPDATE teams. This seminal workshop would later be recognized as the beginning of the annual summer workshops for elementary school technology education across. Three of the teachers that attended the workshop were Kathy Nugent, Deborah Ballard and Patricia Fazzi, Cooper Elementary School, Hampton. They thought they were attending a computer workshop only to later discover the workshop was about the study of design, engineering, and technology with an emphasis on ensuring that children develop a degree of technological literacy in grades K-5. Over time, a professional partnership developed involving these teachers, Bill Cawley, Dr. Arvid VanDyke, George Willcox as well as other Project UPDATE teachers that would contribute to the establishment of the annual Virginia Children’s Engineering Convention, with the first convention being held April 18-19, 1997, in Hampton, Virginia.

Building upon the success of the 1994 effort, workshops were held across the state to prepare teachers for integrating the study of technology including design and the engineering process in elementary school classrooms. These workshops were provided by UPDATE teachers, who had been prepared as DE&T Trainers. These Trainers provided regional workshops, initially in Danville, Fairfax County, Hampton, Loudoun County, Richmond, Rockingham County, and Virginia Beach. The ongoing success and expansion of these workshops across the state is due, in large part, to the commitment and involvement of the Virginia teachers. Particularly important are those teachers who continue to move up through roles of workshop helpers to assistant trainers and eventually become full-fledged DE&T Trainers.

As an example, Linda Harpine participated in the first UPDATE Project and was involved from 1991 through 1995 in the development and testing of DE&T materials. She continued her preparation as an UPDATE Trainer through the summers of 1997, 1998, and 1999. Linda was recruited into the UPDATE Projects because of her exemplary teaching and peer leadership. Linda’s hard work paid off and with the support of her school colleagues, as well as the other Rockingham UPDATE team members, Ottobine Elementary School, Rockingham County, was featured on the cover of the first edition of the ITEA’s Technology and Children Journal.

As Children Engineering and DE&T practice grew in acceptance, the leadership teams in the VDOE technology education and Project UPDATE collaborated to provide training to more teachers in Virginia. The kickoff of this dissemination of DE&T practice was implemented during the summer of 1999 when the VDOE sponsored an elementary school technology education workshop at Mary Mumford Elementary School, Richmond. The workshop was organized collaboratively by Dr. Ron Todd and Russell Bennett. The training was led by Linda Harpine and Virginia Whiting, the lead teacher at the school. Approximately 25 teachers from across the Commonwealth participated in the workshop.

A hallmark in the continuing development of DE&T training and practice took place in 2002, when Virginia Whiting, Marcia Hickey, and Linda Harpine established the Children’s Engineering Educators (CEE), LLC. The CEE provides training workshops for public and private schools, home schooling associations, and public and private organizations that focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

In 2003, George Willcox and Virginia Whiting developed a plan to expand the professional development opportunities and resources provided during the Virginia Children’s Engineering Convention and throughout the year. The convention has grown to over 700 attendees annually. Considerable credit must be given to Marcia Hickey, who served as convention director during the hectic, core growth years.

And as they say, “the rest is history!” However, be assured that the history of “children’s engineering in Virginia” will be revisited in future editions of the Children Engineering Journal.


This article was compiled from historical documents provided by the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Children’s Engineering Council and from reports to the National Science Foundation by the Project UPDATE leadership team. Added insights were gained through interviews with individuals involved in children’s engineering that stretch back over the past two decades.

Many people who have made this important educational journal a success may not have been cited in this initial edition of the Virginia Children’s Engineering Council history. We apologize for the omission of those who deserve to be recognized. Therefore, we request that you let us know of individuals, who should be included later, particularly as this article is Article I in a series about the contributions of children’s engineering educators.

George R. Willcox is the author of “The Foundations of Children’s Engineering in Virginia” and a founding member of the Virginia Children’s Engineering Council along with Co-founders Patricia Fazzi and Linda Harpine. 2010-2017©

VCEC Updated: 2/25/2017 ©