ICYMI: The Summer in K-12 Engineering Education

Seasons of change

Kids are trading bathing suits for backpacks. School buses are motoring around the neighborhood. And dusk is starting to curtail the time available for after-dinner walks. In just a few weeks, you’ll be starting to think about – yikes – the holidays!

But. Before summer slips entirely away, we thought we’d return to a regular publication schedule with a review of the season’s activities in K-12 engineering.

Meetings of minds

Two big meetings kicked off the summer in K-12 engineering: the mid-June ASEE Annual Conference and the U.S. News STEM Solutions meeting shortly thereafter. We came away from both meetings excited about the energy and creativity driving the highly varied ways people are working to bring engineering more prominently and usefully into K-12 science and math learning.

Apparent in our summaries of both the ASEE meeting in Seattle and the U.S. News meeting in San Diego, approaches to teaching engineering have become increasingly integrated with existing K-12 subject matter areas and pedagogies. The focus of K-12 engineering education, especially in the elementary years, has turned towards design thinking and engineering “habits of mind,” as the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) puts it, and away from content labeled under traditional engineering disciplines (civil, electrical, mechanical, etc.).

This trend is much to be desired, as the disciplinary approach often presupposes a grounding in physics and math that is beyond the learning of all but the most advanced high school students.

Besides the great learning and many interesting contacts, STEM Solutions generates rich, entertaining Twitter exchanges at #STEMSolve.

Besides the great learning and many interesting contacts, STEM Solutions generates rich, entertaining Twitter exchanges at #STEMSolve.

Besides showcasing inventive approaches to K-12 engineering, the meetings also catalyze networking and relationship-building contacts. But meetings end, and many of these contacts never get the follow-up attention they need to flower.

LinkedIn to engineering

Launched August 17, the NAE's new K-12 engineering website is off to a strong start, signing up hundreds of new members and attracting thousands of visitors already.

Launched August 17, the NAE's new K-12 engineering website is off to a strong start, signing up hundreds of new members and attracting thousands of visitors already.

Into this breach, the NAE went live with an exciting online project at the end of the summer, LinkEngineering. This website, a kind of LinkedIn for K-12 engineering, is an online community-building effort to connect and promote exchanges among PreK-12 educators and experts in the engineering education field.

Both a repository of information and a channel for enabling ongoing user-user exchanges, LinkEngineering could become fertile ground for shared intellectual capacity and practical know-how to grow in the K-12 engineering education field. Indeed, in the first week of operations, 130 new members signed up to use the site.

This is key. The field remains an environment of diverse, creative but often unconnected, local efforts. No one organization exists for “K-12 engineering educators” to affiliate with and announce themselves to others working in the same space.

As such, peer-peer learning and relationships flow through ad hoc, sometimes ephemeral networks. Potentially great ideas and approaches never get disseminated at scale or worse, just vanish into the ether before being captured and presented for wider use.



Network effects needed

Engineering is gaining a beachhead in formal K-12 science learning. But the research base for learning, teacher training, and curriculum and materials development is only just taking shape. And it is fragmented, distributed across the journals and websites of multiple learning communities (e.g., ASEE, NSTA, NARST).

In the realms of advocacy and public relations, the “E” in STEM gets very short shrift. The National Center for Technological Literacy does yeoman’s work around Washington, DC, but even their name obscures the “engineering” focus of the good work they do.

And the dominant message about K-12 engineering in the media, if my Google alerts are any indication, consists of universities’ press releases about engineering summer camps getting picked up by local newspapers.

None of these observations is offered up as criticism, to be sure. Talented people are working hard and effectively from within their institutional positions. But the institutions to nurture and promote the growth and visibility of K-12 engineering education are just not in place.

Evolving policy environment

Well, moving on. Helpful to engineering taking on a larger role in K-12 education were some policy developments of the summer.

As noted above, engineering is increasingly becoming a part of formal K-12 learning. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) include engineering as a core concept and set of practices within the K-12 science learning framework that it envisions. Three states adopted NGSS-based learning standards over the summer – West Virginia, Arkansas, and Iowa – bringing the total numbers of such states to 15, plus the District of Columbia.

Even where states are unlikely or slow to adopt, local districts have stepped in to make NGSS-based standards part of their own approach for moving towards more fully integrated STEM teaching and learning practices.

NGSS adoption has suffered from competition with Common Core standards occupying the attention of state and local education groups. Even so, there is reason to think that NGSS adoptions, both state and local, will continue.

All the 26 states represented in developing the standards have committed to carefully considering adoption, and even in other states, districts are clearly aware of and interested in making what use they can of the NGSS approach.

What the feds are doing

At the federal level, both the House and Senate have passed fairly STEM-friendly versions of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The primary driver of federal K-12 education policy, the bill is now in conference, as representatives from each chamber are meeting this month to try and work out difference between the two bills.

S. 1177 passed the Senate by a wide margin.

S. 1177 passed the Senate by a wide margin.

The Senate bill, S. 1177, the Every Child Achieves Act, provides stronger support for STEM learning, retaining dedicated funding for K-12 teacher training in the area, explicit license for states to integrate engineering design skills and practices into science standards and assessments, and making STEM learning eligible for 21st Century Community Learning Center grants.

On a lighter note

Summer is a time for fun and games, of course. We would be remiss if we didn’t honor this side of the season, as well.

Our new, 20-page coloring and activity book, published this summer. Click on the image to find out more about it.

Our new, 20-page coloring and activity book, published this summer. Click on the image to find out more about it.

Working to reanimate the spirit of the old MacGyver TV show, the NAE has spearheaded a competition to develop pitches for another engineering-centered show, this time with a female lead. The competition has proceeded to the point of identifying five winners selected for support in developing pilot episode screenplays. As they say, stay tuned for more.

And finally, closer to home, we finished up work on a project of great fun – What’s Engineering? - a 20-page coloring and activity book for preschoolers and early elementary-school students.

A delight to produce, the book has also proven entertaining and educational for kids. We hope you’ll take a look at the overview and pages we have up for inspection, and send us any comments you might have.

Please feel free to share with any interested friends or colleagues.


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 eiversen@start-engineering.com

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.

Lead photo courtesy of Dr. Wendy Longo, used by permission.