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The “E” in STEM: Clarifying What Engineering Education Means for K-12

When it comes to “STEM”, many people have a strong sense of what the “M” and the “S” represent in the context of K-12 education. However, there is less understanding, and often confusion, about what is meant by the “E” and the “T” in K-12 education.

In this set of discussions, we attempt to shed light on the meaning of engineering education at the K-12 level. We asked engineering experts and educatorsboth in-school and out-of-schoolto share with us their thoughts about one or more of the following questions: What is engineering and what are the essential components that you feel ought to be included in K-12 education? What is the value of engineering education at the K-12 level? What are some examples of promising practices in K-12 engineering education?

Christine M. Cunningham
Founder and Director, Engineering is Elementary

Children are born engineers—they like to design their own creations, figure out how things work, and take things apart. Could this natural curiosity be tapped to teach engineering principles in elementary schools, alongside math and science content skills? Could we create a curriculum that interests and engages all students—including girls and boys, children of all races and ethnicities, children from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and children who are most likely to be “at risk”? And, could we do so in a way that is readily accepted and implemented by elementary school teachers who are often uncomfortable with science and engineering topics? Those are the questions a group of education innovators at the Museum of Science in Boston set out to explore. 

In 2003, a small grant launched our journey to introduce engineering into elementary education. Convinced any efforts needed to be based in the realities of the classroom, we began by convening a group of elementary teachers and administrators and solicited their perspectives and advice about how to proceed through candid, informative discussions. This process led to some encouraging findings: we learned that elementary teachers would be amenable to incorporating engineering concepts and activities into their classrooms provided they were closely connected to topics that they already taught. In 2001, Massachusetts had expanded its content standards to include engineering as part of the science and technology frameworks. Moreover, the new engineering frameworks would be tested as part of the state assessment of students in the 5th and 8th grades and as an option in the 10th grade. However, at the time, there were few, if any, engineering curricula for the elementary level. That absence of curricular materials created the perfect opening to develop new, innovative materials. 

Rooting our efforts in the teachers’ call for engineering integration, our “Engineering is Elementary (EiE)” curriculum developers explored how engineering concepts reinforce elementary science topics. They identified 20 commonly taught core science topics and associated each with a field of engineering; for example, insects with agricultural engineering, simple machines with industrial engineering, and the water cycle with environmental engineering. Because we wanted to set each unit in a larger context and connect to language arts and social studies, and because elementary teachers are generally very comfortable teaching reading, the units each begin with a child’s illustrated storybook in which a child somewhere in the world confronts a problem. S/he solves it with the help of an adult engineer who introduces the child to the engineering design process. The subsequent three lessons help children to learn more about the focal field of engineering and culminate in children engaging in the same engineering design challenge as the story’s protagonist. For example, in the insects/agricultural engineering unit, students are challenged to design and create a hand pollinator for a flower. 

Two principles guiding the EiE curriculum’s development are that it must be inviting and engaging to students “at risk” or traditionally underrepresented in STEM and that the materials work in elementary classrooms of all sorts. To ensure these features are present, the materials undergo a rigorous testing process. In the first year a group of 15 regional teachers pilot test each new unit. Revisions are made based on student assessments, teacher feedback, and classroom observations. Then a second, national round of field testing occurs with approximately 60 teachers from 5 states. More student and teacher data are collected, and changes are again made to the instructional materials. Overall, it takes the EiE staff about 3,000 hours to develop each unit, which is 6-8 hours of classroom lessons.

After 7 years of design, development, and rigorous field testing, EiE is now a robust 20-unit engineering curriculum for elementary schools. Because elementary engineering is a new discipline for teachers, schools, and districts, EiE has also focused on supporting teachers’ implementation efforts through professional development. Using a train-the-trainer model, EiE trains and works with “Hub site” partners who offer workshops for regional teachers. This model of dissemination has been effective; beginning as a small program in Massachusetts, EiE is now used by over 20,000 teachers in 50 states plus the District of Columbia and has reached nearly 1.7 million students. Funding for this supplemental program generally comes from federal grants, industry grants, or local community or parent groups and foundations. 

From its inception, the project has been research-based. Ongoing evaluation results suggest much greater impacts than what could have been predicted. Initial national, controlled evaluation studies show that students’ perceptions of engineering and technology, their understanding of engineering, and their understanding of science are significantly increased by participating in EiE activities. Furthermore, teaching EiE has changed the way that teachers teach. The design and inquiry-based approach enables teachers to engage in truly open-ended instruction and learning where there is no single correct answer. Our results suggest that integrating engineering concepts and challenges at the elementary level can help to educate the next generation of innovators, designers, and problems solvers.

Linda Katehi
Chancellor, University of California, Davis & Chair, NAE/NRC Committee on K-12 Engineering Education (September 2009)
Robert White
University Professor Emeritus, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University & Chair, NAE Committee on Standards for K-12 Engineering Education (September 2010)

In light of current concerns about the nation’s innovation capacity and ability to prepare and support a competitive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, workforce, it is time to look more strategically at ways to incorporate engineering principles and practices into K-12 education.

Engineers design and invent solutions to human challenges. In a real sense, there have been “engineers” throughout human history, because people have always designed and built tools and other devices. Today, however, the word “engineer” is used in a more specific sense to refer to a member of the engineering profession, which has evolved over the past 300 to 400 years.

The word engineer is derived from the Medieval Latin verb ingeniare, meaning to design or devise. Going back further in time, ingeniare is derived from the Latin word for engine, ingenium, meaning a clever invention. Thus, a short definition of engineering is the process of designing the human-made world.

Another useful way to think about engineering is as “design under constraint.” One set of constraints is the laws of nature, or science. Engineers designing a solution to a particular problem must, for instance, take into account how physical objects behave while in motion. Other constraints include such things as time, money, available materials, ergonomics, environmental regulations, manufacturability, reparability, and so on.

Educating pre-college students about engineering is a relatively recent phenomenon. Studies by the National Academies and others indicate efforts to introduce engineering in K-12 classrooms are on the rise, although the scale of these initiatives is still tiny compared with mathematics and science education, which have a much longer track record in schools. The practice of engineering is design, a creative and iterative process of problem solving. Virtually all K-12 engineering curricula and after-school engineering activities involve students in the design process: identifying a problem to solve, researching what others have done about similar problems, brainstorming solutions, constructing physical or mathematical models to test aspects of the design, and redesigning and testing as needed until the design meets agreed-upon criteria. However, there are few standards for K-12 engineering education, unlike those for mathematics and science education. Even so, there is an emerging consensus on a small number of key engineering ideas and skills students should acquire through K-12 education. These include design, optimization and trade-offs, systems and systems thinking, modeling, and analysis. 

Because engineering design provides concrete applications of mathematics and science concepts, one of the most intriguing potential benefits of engineering education is its impact on student interest and achievement in these other subjects. Data from a small number of studies looking at this connection are encouraging, though more research is certainly needed. Other possible benefits of K-12 engineering education include enhancing interest among young people in engineering as a possible career, boosting technological literacy, and increasing awareness and understanding of the critical role that engineers and engineering play in societies around the world. 

Until recently, “E” has been the silent letter in the STEM acronym.  Now, some young students are beginning to experience the excitement of engineering, and to appreciate how engineering connects to the other STEM subjects and helps solve challenging problems. While we shouldn’t require children to study engineering, a strong case can be made for expanding such opportunities much more widely in K-12 classrooms.

Gary A. Ybarra
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Duke University

Engineering draws on a set of problem-solving skills that enable one to adapt, communicate, and use many different kinds of tools in order to solve authentic problems that lead to useful products to improve human life.

In educational settings, a teaching strategy called “project-based learning” is often used to involve students in solving authentic problems. With project-based learning at the school-age level—whether in formal or informal settings—students learn both math and science, and then apply that knowledge to solve a real problem over an extended period of time. Project-based activities build on previous activities, and each activity is intended to work toward solving a real problem and improving human life.

With project-based learning, students work in teams—as real engineers do. The groups include students with complementary skills, and their interactions lead to engagement and enthusiasm around generating solutions that could have a positive effect in their daily lives. An activity’s final product must meet specific criteria. Students read articles for background material and work together to identify the problem’s constraints (e.g., physical, time, or resource constraints). They capture their own ideas in project notebooks through sketches, equations, pictures, and phrases, which are then signed and dated by other students as a mechanism to establish and recognize value in their work. When a project is completed, students demonstrate a final product to validate its projected performance. With this educational strategy, engineering provides students with an instant connection between math and science and everyday life.

The range of issues students can explore through project-based learning is endless. As a way to focus some activities, Duke University and North Carolina State University recently created a National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges K-12 Partners Program. This program builds off the 14 grand challenges facing the world that the National Academy of Engineering identified in 2009—including reverse engineering the brain, providing clean water, preventing nuclear terror, and securing cyberspace. The K-12 Partners Program includes university-based schools of engineering that have National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars programs coupled with K-12 schools and community based organizations, such as 4-H. The mission of the K-12 Partners Program is “to create an awareness of and involvement in the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges for the K-12 community in order to (1) strengthen the STEM pipeline; (2) develop technical literacy and motivation needed to be successful as a society in solving Grand Challenges; (3) educate the populace on the engineering mindset and the role of engineering in addressing Grand Challenges and improving the quality of life.”

In this program, students must perform five components to make the partnership happen. They must work collaboratively with their classmates to identify a grand challenge to address and specify how they will solve an engineering problem focused on the Grand Challenge. The student teams then build a product or process under well-defined constraints. They must share it with others by teaching them how their product works. And they must demonstrate an understanding of its cost/benefit trade-off. By tapping into children’s natural curiosity and desire to explore, the engineering problem becomes a challenge to be met. By thinking critically about a real problem and its solutions for an extended period of time, students experience the deep satisfaction of solving a complex problem. The pedagogical approach shifts from the current mode of rote memorization of facts to guiding discovery through using a set of skills, thus shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student.

Working to solve authentic engineering problems like these builds student self-esteem and appreciation for their peers, and it is especially powerful with students whose innate skills may not be tapped by the current array of traditional courses. Furthermore, a solid understanding of engineering provides an excellent foundation for any career pursuit. Engineering leads students to believe that they can change the world, beginning now.

Oscar Porter
Executive Director, MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement)

For more than 40 years, MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) has been providing academic enrichment services from pre-college through university levels to educationally disadvantaged students with the potential to excel academically and graduate with STEM degrees. At the K-12 level, MESA’s goal is to engage students in the broader math, science, and engineering arenas. However, given MESA’s historically strong bond with colleges of engineering and its postsecondary MESA Engineering Program, engineering has always been a significant area of emphasis. 

Founded in 1970 by a high school math teacher and a petroleum engineering professor, MESA uses four promising practices that advance K-12 engineering education. First, hands-on activities combine discovery with academic rigor. Through hands-on activities, students build a variety of science and engineering projects and then compete at local, state, and national levels. Each project is accompanied by an extensive curriculum that allows teachers to use the projects to reinforce important math, science, and engineering concepts. In addition to building their projects, students undergo oral examinations in which they present their processes of design, testing, and refinement, and they are quizzed about their knowledge of the math, science, and/or physics principles behind the activity. Students are also required to submit a technical paper and an academic display that charts their progress. Examples of projects include: using mousetraps to build race cars that are tested for speed, stopping accuracy, and load-bearing capacity; using manila folders or balsawood to create bridges that are evaluated for load bearing; designing and launching balsawood gliders judged on distance and/or hang time; and creating windmill structures that transfer energy from a wind source to accomplish a defined task. Tests become more difficult as students progress from middle to senior high school, and judges are usually industry volunteers or college students (including MESA alumni). 

Second, MESA provides extensive support systems based on partnerships. Partnerships include developing a community of like-minded student peers who want to excel academically; encouraging parents; supporting outstanding science and math teachers in low-performing schools who are committed to student achievement; communicating across and among different levels of K-12 and higher education (both public and private); and facilitating interactions with and among high-tech industry partners. 

Third, MESA provides its advisors with professional development through conferences and regional and local workshops that are developed with strong input from MESA teachers. They include industry-sponsored activities and curriculum; peer-led workshops based on best practices; and in-depth presentations on effective ways to use hands-on activities to reinforce key math/engineering/science concepts. Because of the participation of MESA advisors in the planning, the offerings address teacher needs more directly and are relevant to those educators working in schools with limited resources. 

And fourth, MESA offers ongoing, accessible support services that meet students’ diverse needs. MESA is able to do so because of the strong partnerships it has cultivated at the K-12, community college, and public and independent four-year institution levels. MESA is able to bring representatives from all these education segments to help students succeed wherever they may be. 

While MESA is a statewide program in California, it has been replicated in several states[1] with a strong track record of success. MESA currently serves 15,187 pre-college students at 316 schools in 94 districts in California. MESA also operates programs at community colleges and colleges of engineering and computer science at four-year institutions. At the K-12 level, 70 percent of MESA’s high school graduates (most of whom come from among the lowest performing schools in the state) go directly to college after graduation, compared to 48 percent of their California counterparts. Compared to 13 percent of their California counterparts, 58 percent of MESA high school seniors are eligible to attend the University of California. Of MESA’s African American, Latino American, and American Indian high school graduates, 41 percent are eligible for admission to the University of California (UC). In contrast, of California high school graduates from these groups, only 6 percent are eligible for UC. And of MESA high school graduates, nearly 60 percent went on to postsecondary education as math, science, or engineering majors. 

For the last 40 years MESA has provided a program based on discovery and rigor, extensive partnership networks, professional development for math and science teachers, and support services. MESA plans to provide this same solid base of support for thousands of additional K-12 students who will achieve in STEM studies, go on to attain degrees in math-based fields, and change the face of the engineering work force over the next 40 years. 

[1] MESA pre-college programs have been established in Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. The Pennsylvania state legislature is currently considering a bill to establish MESA in that state.

Thor Misko
Director of Post Secondary Relations and Training, Project Lead the Way

All students can benefit from educational programs that engage them in creative problem solving and provide them with the skills used by engineers, regardless of the career paths they pursue.  For young people who want to make a difference in their communities and the world in which they live, programs that focus on practices engineers use to solve challenges in diverse industries like communications, entertainment, energy, health care, and transportation can also expose them to engineering as a highly rewarding career.

Since 1997, Project Lead The Way (PLTW) has served as one such program, igniting the spark of imagination, innovation, and learning in a diverse group of middle school and high schools students across the country. PLTW engages more than 350,000 students -- from large to small schools in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas -- in a hands-on and project-based engineering curriculum. The courses set students on a path to college and career while showing them how critical engineering is to solving many of the local and global challenges they see around them. Though many PLTW students do decide to purse STEM studies in college, the skills that they gain prepare them for any career path they choose.

PLTW offers a rigorous and relevant sequence of courses that are most often offered as electives and complement required classes in science and math. The principles learned in traditional classes are brought to life and put into practice through projects in civil engineering, aerospace, biomedical sciences, robotics, and other fields. Students learn that multiple, viable solutions often exist to solve problems in the projects undertaken in these courses. They must identify, understand, and interpret the constraints (for example, available resources, technical limitations, cost, and safety) of a project and ultimately select the best design method to build a viable product. They develop vital critical thinking skills from evaluating their options and choosing one that best meets specific requirements.

PLTW courses, while open to all students in a range of schools, are generally geared toward the top 80% of a school’s student population. Because of its focus on engineering, it attracts students with strong interest in the STEM disciplines, as well as others who don’t explicitly express an interest in STEM but are interested in the problem-solving nature of the classes. Differentiated instruction provides students with multiple methods to learn course content and skills and to solve course problems and challenges – an  approach that is responsive to individual students’ learning abilities.

Evaluation of PLTW student outcomes indicates a wide range of positive outcomes for longitudinal growth in math and science, development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, preparation for post-secondary education, and national graduation rates. For instance, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study in 2009 looked at PLTW students who began middle school (sixth grade) at lower proficiency in math, reading and science and with lower attendance rates than a control group of non-PLTW students. The report shows that by the eighth grade, those gaps had been eliminated.

PLTW also helps students think through career paths and engineering in particular. PLTW’s studies show that 9 out of 10 PLTW students surveyed at the end of their senior year say they have a clear sense of the types of college majors and jobs they intended to pursue, with 6 out of every 10 indicating that they plan to pursue a college degree in a STEM field. Nationally, only 2 of 10 students make that assertion.

Studies also show that PLTW students continue to achieve as they transition to college. Through PLTW’s affiliate network of colleges and universities, both the performance and retention of college students with PLTW experience are measurably higher when compared to their peers from non-PLTW schools. And, once in college, students who took PLTW courses in high school persist in STEM fields. At the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), for example, first-year retention (freshman to sophomore) of former PLTW students was 91.9%. Nationally, only 55% of enrolled, undergraduate engineering majors complete their degrees, but RIT saw four-year retention (freshmen to senior) of 81.3% amongst PLTW students. Other schools such as Arkansas Tech University, Oklahoma State University, Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering and San Diego State University have reported similar retention rates among former PLTW students in STEM majors.