Students at John B. Wright Elementary School learn how to build a strong tower through the Engineering Is Elementary program.

Third-grade students at Los Amigos Elementary School in Tucson had a dilemma to solve — how to best save a turtle from the polluted Ganges River in India.

After studying the issues, the students worked side by side with engineers from Raytheon Missile Systems to design and build a complex water filter system to clean the river and save the turtle.

It was a real-life lesson in engineering, and part of Engineering Is Elementary, a program of the Museum of Science, Boston, that is supported by Raytheon. Engineering Is Elementary provides information and support to elementary school teachers and engages children as young as 6 in hands-on lessons in engineering.

A pilot program was carried out at Los Amigos and Summit View elementary schools in the Sunnyside Unified School District last fall. It was so successful, Engineering Is Elementary is expanding into schools throughout the Sunnyside district and other local schools, including John B. Wright Elementary in the Tucson Unified School District.

“Teachers and students love the program,” says Christie McDougall, math coordinator for the Sunnyside district. “Their eyes light up when the engineers come in the room, and they are excited about the hands-on learning.”

As we observe National Engineers Week through Saturday, Raytheon reaffirms its commitment to invest in science, technology, engineering and math education — or STEM — through programs like Engineering Is Elementary.

Teaching engineering concepts to young children may seem premature. Many assume these lessons would be better suited for students in middle and high school.

Actually, elementary school is the perfect time to build enthusiasm for engineering, technology, math and science. Interest in these subjects has waned among U.S. secondary school students in recent years. Teachers, parents and all interested parties must strive harder to encourage student interest in technological advancement as early as possible.

For companies like Raytheon, it is imperative that there be a healthy supply of future engineers. That means interested students must be encouraged to develop the skills they’ll need and provided with access to the tools necessary for them to succeed. Working to encourage qualified, innovative and diverse students and employees in STEM industries is critical not only for us but for the future economic vitality of our nation.

Our mission at Raytheon is to protect our war fighters, and engineering and technological innovation are at the heart of what we do. Encouraging the young inventors and innovators of the future now will help us continue protecting the men and women of our military well into the future.

Since 2005, Raytheon has invested nearly $100 million in STEM initiatives through the company’s MathMovesU, a program that inspires a love of math in students. We have committed $2 million to Engineering Is Elementary. Raytheon also supports STEM education through:

  • Scholarships and grants to teachers and students.
  • Involvement in robotics clubs and other hands-on programs in local schools.
  • Tutoring and mentoring programs.

Last year, Raytheon employees in Arizona volunteered 45,000 hours, with an emphasis on education. We are committed to inspiring the next generation of scientists — monetarily by funding programs like those mentioned here, and in person by volunteering in classrooms.

During National Engineers Week and throughout the year, we want to nurture children’s curiosity. What’s the engineering behind building a water filter powerful enough to save turtles, or a rocket to the stars, or even a new video game? Fostering that curiosity today may lead to the inspired technological innovations of tomorrow.

Bernie Merwald is vice president of engineering at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson. His boyhood interest in rockets led to a career that began with a degree in electrical engineering.