How Is Engineering Really Relevant in K-12?


With Next Generation Science Standards now approved in 17 states, the District of Columbia, and numerous local school districts, schools in all these areas face a great challenge in making engineering part of how they teach science from kindergarten to 12th grade.

This post is the last in a series meant to introduce a set of concepts that are both useful in the classroom and central to how engineering is both taught in college and practiced in the field.

“Failure, Design, and Relevance: An Approach to K-12 Engineering”

A wide reach

The filter of relevance takes us out to the widest orbit of engineering’s interdisciplinary connections. From ergonomics, marketing, and operations to politics, ethics, and history, these connections underwrite a bounty of teaching opportunities that arise from introducing engineering into the K-12 curriculum.

STEM integration and beyond

We’ve already looked at a variety of ways engineering can serve as a vehicle for integrating STEM and other disciplines in learning moments.

Failure, and the analysis of data related to failure, connects engineering most easily to the other three STEM disciplines: science, technology, and mathematics.

Design relates engineering to creative arts, language arts, and social sciences like sociology and anthropology.

Finally here, we look at the relevance of engineering to highly varied facets of individual, social, and professional experience. Running a gamut from the quotidian to the potentially world-changing, engineering helps to solve problems and improve lives.

But wait …

To make this claim about solutions and improvements, though, might in fact be obscuring a larger, more fundamental point. Yes, engineering delivers solutions and improvements to our lives. But even more deeply, it shapes almost the entire world in which we live our lives. We are, every day, immersed in the engineered world, to the point that it becomes nearly invisible.

The paradox of pervasiveness

Engineering shapes the places we live, work, shop, and amuse ourselves; what we use to move around in the world, to clean, clothe, and feed ourselves, to talk with and see each other across distances near and far; the tools we use to learn about ourselves, our family and friends, and the world at large.

To say that engineering is relevant to our daily lives is, then, to state something so general and obvious as to be perhaps pointless. Except for this – we don’t really see it.

From the mundane …

A close look at even a sidewalk can illuminate the impact of engineering.

A close look at even a sidewalk can illuminate the impact of engineering.

On the one hand, we take the engineered features of the daily landscape as matters of such common course that they can come to seem like natural, not human-made, artifacts. A sidewalk directs our movement through space not because generations before us have taken a particular path and laid bare the dirt to show the way to those who follow. It directs our movements through space for many, varied purposes related to public and private interests:

  • Personal safety (to separate us from vehicle traffic)
  • Preservation and enhancement of property (to keep us away from people’s houses and to enable grass, trees, gardens, etc., to grow)
  • Useful economic and civic activity (to lead us to workplaces, stores, meeting places, public buildings, and elsewhere)
  • And numerous other purposes, even decorative, beyond that of simply moving from point A to destination B

The sidewalk is, in fact, engineered in a variety of ways to serve these purposes, even as this engineering remains largely invisible and unrecognized.

… to the magical

On the other hand, engineered devices can seem like magic, removed from a sphere in which our own, personal efforts to understand or control them might be imaginable. Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What is typically left out in citations of Clarke’s “Third Law” is the idea that technology is magical only to those unfamiliar with the technical underpinnings that make it work.

If you don't know how technology actually works, seeing the results of it in operation can seem mysterious.

If you don't know how technology actually works, seeing the results of it in operation can seem mysterious.

New ways of seeing

In one sense, then, teaching the relevance of engineering to daily life becomes an exercise in “de-naturalizing” the seemingly “natural” aspect of engineered objects in our daily life.

And in another sense, teaching the relevance of engineering means elucidating the human efforts, knowledge, and skills behind the wondrous tools of technology that extend our inborn physical and mental abilities so far into time and space.



For example

Take, say, a car door. It has to be usable by all shapes and sizes of people, who vary widely in hand size, arm strength, height, and so on.

Car doors must do many things well, all the time.

Car doors must do many things well, all the time.

To engineer a car door, thus, starts with ergonomics, accounting for the form and function of the human body. The handle must announce itself as the place to put your hand and yield to a degree of pressure most people are able to apply to it. It must perform reliably and repeatedly the mechanical operation required for the door to open smoothly and close again with that robust “clunk” that we all look for in cars we might buy.

The door has to be made affordably, in large numbers, to a high degree of precision and reliability, and aesthetically consistent with the rest of the car. Besides the nuts-and-bolts engineering involved, to accomplish these tasks requires attention to, at a minimum, managing costs, staffing, production resources, complex systems of manufacture, marketing, and governmental regulations.

The complex life of a simple thing

And yet, a car door seems like a drainpipe-simple feature of daily life. To teach this “history” behind a car door is to show students an unfamiliar, complicated, extensive sequence of considerations, questions, and decisions people have to work through. It is to explore all the different kinds of knowledge and interests they bring to their tasks. And it is to shed new light on a tool we all use with such unconscious expertise and confidence that the object itself never presents itself as anything other than part of the landscape.

The National Academy of Engineering has identified 14 "Grand Challenges" for the 21st century, big jobs to benefit the world that will require extensive engineering contributions.

The National Academy of Engineering has identified 14 "Grand Challenges" for the 21st century, big jobs to benefit the world that will require extensive engineering contributions.

“I’d like to change the world”

At the other end of the spectrum, teaching the relevance of engineering opens up space to discuss potentially world-changing enterprises. The National Academy of Engineering headlined a 2008 project to identify “Grand Challenges for Engineering,” 14 areas of widespread human need and opportunity in which engineering will be required to arrive at a solution:

  • Advance personalized learning
  • Make solar energy economical
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Advance health informatics
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

As noted in the report, these “grand challenges await engineering solutions,” which will emerge from applying “the rules of reason, the findings of science, the aesthetics of art, and the spark of creative imagination” (2).

A teaching paradigm

Teaching the Grand Challenges has become an explicit goal at over 120 engineering schools, participants in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program committed to educating engineers equipped to tackle the challenges.

At the K-12 level,, a searchable online repository of K-12 engineering lessons, offers relevant lessons with “Grand Challenge” tags to assist educators looking for ways to teach related content. And the NAE Grand Challenges K-12 Partners Program, a joint undertaking of North Carolina State University and Duke University, aims to help teachers integrate Grand Challenges content into classroom activities by identifying appropriate learning resources, including curricula and partner organizations.

Off to the great beyond

Besides engineering-related content, the challenges can launch discussions into domains like history, geopolitics, philosophy, ethics, or almost any other field under consideration.

  • What is the importance of roads and bridges to, say, industry? Governments? Families? The military? How have they changed? Who owns them?
  • Who wields authority in cyberspace? Why would we want to protect it? From whom? How?
  • Who owns an individual’s electronic health information? Under what terms should it be made accessible to public, private, or third-party entities?
  • How far should we pursue the development of artificial intelligence?
  • Can crimes be committed inside virtual reality?

The ever-expanding capacity of engineers to innovate and invent new technologies continually presses upon us not only questions about what we can do but also questions about what we should do. The myriad touchpoints between engineering and the different facets of our lived experience, whether individual, local, national, or global, provide a framework for almost boundless learning opportunities.

In summary

This approach to K-12 engineering through the angles of failure, design, and relevance is meant to be a starting point. The audience for it is educators considering how – or if, for that matter – to make engineering part of their teaching efforts. We have tried to present ideas, rather than practices, to help people make more informed judgments about what specific programs or approaches might work in their own particular circumstances.

A multitude of topics and disciplines can be brought into classroom learning through the filter of engineering and the three concepts of failure, design, and relevance.

A multitude of topics and disciplines can be brought into classroom learning through the filter of engineering and the three concepts of failure, design, and relevance.

An assumption about most K-12 educators’ lack of training and familiarity with engineering has led us to believe this kind of help could be useful. As with so many changes in K-12 education, teachers and administrators are being asked to bear the burdens of plotting and implementing NGSS change largely on their own. They are not getting all the time, money, and support they could use to make change happen most effectively. This approach, our "hack" for NGSS and K-12 engineering more generally, is offered as a rough-and-ready option, a way for educators to get started.

Engineering is a foreign subject matter to most teachers. Yet it is a monumental force in our lives and certainly belongs in the K-12 learning environment. We hope our thoughts presented in these recent weeks make it easier to see engineering as a presence in both these realms.

As always, thoughts and comments about what you agree with or not are most welcome.

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Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering books, Dream, Invent, Create, What’s Engineering?, and Start Engineering.