Ready or Not, Engineering Is Coming to K-12

A Poor Relation, for Now

As the “E” in STEM, engineering is lucky when it rates as highly in the K-12 school day as it does in the “STEM” acronym itself. Engineering as part of K-12 education is an idea that’s kicked around for about 25 years. But creating dedicated space in formal K-12 curricula has proved a vexing challenge.

However, things are changing. At the annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) last week in Seattle, a bounty of imaginative, exciting approaches to K-12 engineering education was on display. And with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) defined to include “engineering” as a core principle and practice, these approaches now have more room to run than K-12 engineering has ever had before.

What Will Eventually Be

Even if the concept of engineering as put forth in NGSS is a bit vague, the mere presence of the term means big changes are coming. Because “engineering” has become an integral part of the learning standards, the entire machinery of K-12 education will change – that means teacher training and professional development, instructional materials, lesson plans and textbooks, and assessments will have to reckon with engineering as a part of formal teaching and learning practices.

Getting Here from There

As the preeminent nexus for discussions and scholarship about engineering education theory and practice, ASEE has, by definition, much to say about how engineering steps into its new K-12 space. And their shoulder has been at this wheel for quite some time.

In the early 2000’s, volunteer leaders and staff formed the K-12 and Pre-College Engineering Division to provide a forum for gathering and disseminating scholarship and general information about how engineering can be put to work in K-12 education. In 2004, many of the same people organized the first in a series of annual workshops on engineering education for K-12 teachers, featuring hands-on presentations about how to make engineering a real, live part of students’ learning in the classroom. Today, the division is one of the largest at ASEE, and the workshop cycle just completed a 12th successful iteration.

Getting There from Here, Less Clear

Even so, ASEE’s primary business is higher education, not K-12, its constituents college and university faculty members and their schools. K-12 engineering has a ceiling at the society; the Board of Directors recently rebuffed efforts to give K-12 engineering education higher visibility and priority among the society’s strategic priorities. To be sure, organizations are often effective because they stick to their knitting. And as the space for engineering in formal K-12 education continues to grow, other organizations will certainly step forward where opportunities for leadership arise. So flowers will bloom, shoots will turn green, and K-12 engineering education will grow into the shape it’s meant to take.

K-12 Engineering on Display

These larger considerations aside, the action in K-12 engineering education at the ASEE conference was rich and exciting. Below are some of the highlights from our tours around the K-12 workshop and regular sessions.

Among the Non-Profits

The Curiosity Machine. This project of Iridescent, a California non-profit, seeks to connect students with professional scientists and engineers via a beautiful, online multimedia platform. The “machine” poses design challenges for students in any of 12 science and engineering fields. Students watch real-world examples of work in the field, essay a task following a defined design process, and then share their efforts in an online video. Professional scientists and engineers volunteer to provide feedback on how to improve or extend the students’ proposed design solutions. The project boasts participants in the tens of thousands and copious documentation of advances in their interest and learning in science and engineering fields.

Teaching Channel. This voluminous compendium of videos for teachers picks up where most professional development materials drop off. Starting rather than ending with demonstration, the Teaching Channel platform is set up to provide teachers with feedback on their classroom practices, help them learn from watching other teachers tackling similar materials, and guide them in bringing new content knowledge into their teaching. The mantra of the program is, literally, “to blow the doors off classroom teaching.” Addressing language arts, math, and Common Core topics, the site currently features 24 videos about engineering and 19 on STEM topics.

FIRST. Everyone already knows about FIRST. The news was FIRST winning ASEE’s President’s Award for efforts to promote engineering in K-12 education. Legendary MIT engineering professor and longtime FIRST leader Woodie Flowers gave an acceptance speech on behalf of the organization. On the topic of STEM knowledge in a rapidly changing technology environment, Flowers dwelt on distinctions between training and education. Training, Flowers noted, (i.e., imparting command of technical procedures or static content) is in essence a commodity. It can be delivered in any number of ways, even wholly by automated technologies, and is no place for individuals or institutions to lay strategic eggs. The real value lies in educating people, teaching higher-order, cognitively advanced habits of mind, attached to affective experiences. In other words, education means giving people an immersive, emotionally engaging learning experience. He noted FIRST as an exemplar in this arena, but more generally commended the practice to all those in the audience aspiring truly to educate or, failing that, to keep their jobs.

At Colleges and Universities

EPICS. Engineering Projects in Community Service is a long-running program at Purdue University, run by the engaging, imaginative Bill Oakes. It proceeds from the idea of putting students to work on projects serving the needs of under-resourced communities, applying the logic of human-centered design to engineering solutions. In practice, this means closely watching and listening to real people making real use of real things to get a deep understanding of how to make something that will improve the conditions of their lives. In operation since 1995, the program has put thousands of students to work seeing hundreds of community service projects through to fruition.

Novel Engineering. From the inventive folks at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (that’s you, Chris Rogers, Merredith Portsmore, and friends), this program blends engineering and literacy. K-8 teachers use classroom literature – stories, novels, non-fiction narratives – to introduce engineering design challenges. Students are challenged to identify engineering problems, understand constraints as defined in the text, and design functional solutions for the characters involved. The approach builds literacy skills at the same time as it introduces students to the engineering design process. Great fun.

EngrTEAMS. Supported by $8 million from the National Science Foundation and led by Tamara Moore, “Engineering to Transform the Education of Analysis, Measurement, and Science” is an engineering, design-based approach to teacher professional development. Designed to guide a cohort of teachers through a cycle of curriculum development, training in technical concepts and content, and implementation in the classroom, the program will advance science and engineering teaching among Minnesota teachers as well as feed new curriculum content into TeachEngineering, an existing online digital curriculum library.

Other K-12 engineering programs featured at the annual conference:

That’s all for now. Please feel free to share with any interested friends or colleagues.

If you have any items of interest to pass along or thoughts on these, please add a comment or contact us directly.

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.

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