10.09    

home |
About |
Contact Us |
Editorial Info |

IEEE-USA |
   feature   


10.09

Engineering — The Silent "E" in K-12 Education
By John R. Platt

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?

In this issue:
K-12 Engineering Education:  A Personal Perspective
IEEE-USA President Gordon Day reflects on his precollege engineering education, and says that, "Putting the “E” in K-12 STEM shouldn’t be limited to the classroom."

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 curricula.

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.

STM vs. STEM

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 isn'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.

Defining Engineering

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."

Engineering Habits of Mind

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 encompasses 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 Interdisciplinary Approach

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!

Education For All

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, 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."

Recommendations

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 felt for many years to come.

For More Information...

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

 

 

Back

 


John R. Platt is a freelance writer from coastal Maine. He is a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, and writes the Extinction Countdown blog for Scientific American.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


Copyright © 2009 IEEE

 search archive

 

reader feedback
  search by date
also in this issue
Career Focus: Circuits & Systems
Cogent Communicator: How to Listen
Backscatter: Toys for Techies
Lessons of the Internet Age: The International Telecommunications Union and the Internet Society
NCEES Model Law Revisions Impact Professional Licensure Education and Experience Requirements
Free IEEE-USA E-Books for Members in December 2014 and January 2015
Your Engineering Heritage: Which Stimulates Innovation More, War or Peace?
World Bytes: American Ingenuity Awards
Tech News Digest: December 2014