Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Engineering — The Silent "E" in K-12 Education

What is the future of precollege engineering education in the United States? What learning opportunities do engineering curricula provide to students? How can policy-makers bring meaningful changes to this country's educational programs? These are just a few of the questions addressed in the new NAE report, Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects.

Read more, in the October 2009 issue of Today's Engineer.

(UPDATE August 2017: IEEE-USA revamped Today's Engineer into a new publication and many of its older articles no longer appear in its archives. The article appears in full below.)

Engineering -- The Silent "E" in K-12 Education

By John R. Platt

What is the future of pre-college engineering education in the United Stares? What learning opportunities do engineering curriculum provide to students? How can policy-makers bring meaningful changes to this country's educational programs?

These are just a few of the questions addressed in the new report, Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects, released last month by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council's Center for Education.

The report, developed over the course of two years by a team of educators and policy makers, found that the teaching of engineering in elementary and secondary schools is still very much a work in progress. This, it seems, is in spite of the recent focus placed on science, mathematics and technology in K-12 curriculum.

The committee also set out to discover what engineering curricula already exist, what methods have been used to provide teachers with skills to teach engineering, how engineering education interacts with other science-based curricula, and that impact engineering education has on students.


The report finds that science and technology education in the United States has so far mostly focused on science, technology and mathematics -- commonly abbreviated as "STEM," even though the "E" in STEM stands for engineering.

"A major unintended finding of this report is that engineering is the 'silent E' in STEM," says Greg Pearson, Senior Program Officer at the National Academy of Engineering. "What the committee came to realize, after lots of research, digging and workshops, is that despite the increasing national attention to STEM education, nearly all of the major references almost always referring to science or mathematics or the two in combination, but almost never to T and E."

The report also found that, in practice the T -- technology -- often relates to computer technology, not technology education.

"We're not pointing this out because we're suggesting it isn't there and needs to be recognized," says Pearson. "We're not calling for another phylum of content. We're suggesting something different and more problematic: a more integrated approach to how all four of these STEM components exist in work and career environments. Interconnection, integrated STEM, is something that this report discusses briefly, and will hopefully generate a lot of discussion."

But despite its silence, the E does exist, it just ins't talked about as much or as well understood by the public, or even by the education field. The report actually found that a growing number of K-12 students in the U.S. are experiencing the open-ended, problem-solving process of engineering design. More importantly, data compiled by the committee suggest that these design-oriented experiences can improve student interest and achievement in science and mathematics, increase awareness of engineering as a profession and the work of engineers, boost interest in pursuing engineering as a career, and increase general technological literacy.


The report defines engineering as "design under constraint," where the constraints include the laws of nature, cost, safety, reliability, environmental impact, manufacturability, and other factors.

According to the report's findings, teaching "engineering" in early grades may involve simple design-oriented tasks "such as the construction of a balsa wood bridge." Engineering education in later grades could involve more open-ended design projects, which could also include the application of mathematics or science concepts to solve specific problems.

The committee found that teaching using the design process -- "the engineering approach to identifying and solving problems" -- offers numerous advantages for students and form an effective education strategy. According to the report, the design process is "(1) highly iterative; (2) open to the idea that a problem may have many possible solutions; (3) a meaningful context for learning scientific, mathematical, and technological concepts; and (4) a stimulus to systems thinking, modeling, and analysis."


The report finds that teaching kids to think like engineers also offers numerous benefits. Engineering education should therefore, according to the report, focus on engineering "habits of mind," a term which encompases values, attitudes and thinking skills. "It's a way of looking at the world," says committtee member Jacquelyn Sullivan of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Specifically, engineering habits of mind offer students a vareity of critical skills, including systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, communication, and attention to ethical considerations.


An interesting element of the committee's discoveries is that STEM education works best when all aspects of the acronym are considered. "Engineering design provides the context for kids to learn science and technology," says Sullivan. "The design process is a great framwork, and it's the key thing that differentiates engineering from science."

But Sullivan reminds us that K-12 students are neither mini-adults nor college students, and that any incorporation of engineering in K-12 must be developmentally appropriate. In other words, no calculus at too early an age!


According to committee chair Linda Katehi, Chancellor of the University of California, Davis, "Engineering in K-12 should be thought of as 'education for all,' not education for a select few. STEM literacy equals a linking of ideas. It helps prepare students for life in the 21st century."

"At least in a preliminary way, we find there is some reason to think, at least in certain cases, that engineering design activities and thinking can improve student interest and improve success in science and mathematics," says Pearson. "There are strong clues that teaching in an engineering way with engineering design which makes science and mathematics relevant to concrete problems and can improve student interest and achievement. We are recommending additional research on that connection."

Committee member Al Gomez of Sun Prairie High School, Wisconsin, put it best when he said that STEM education should allow teachers to "focus on everyone, not just on making more engineers."


The report contains a number of recommendations about how to best incorporate STEM education into future curricula, and who is going to need to be involved to make it happen. "Ultimately, it's going to be policy makers and leaders at schools of engineering and throughout education, as well as at the White House, Congress, and state level who need to engage in this issue, and we hope that they do," says Pearson.

Among the report's recommendations: "Foundations and federal agencies with an interest in K–12 engineering education should support long-term research to confirm and refine the findings of earlier studies of the impacts of engineering education on student learning in STEM subjects, student engagement and retention, understanding of engineering, career aspirations, and technological literacy."

"STEM education in K-12 ensures training of a reliable workforce that can compete in a global economy," says Katehi. "The consequences are measured in decades, not weeks or years," she says, meaning the effects of this report's findings could be feld for many years to come.


The National Academies' report is available online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12635