3 Reasons for K-12 Engineering You Just Can’t Argue With

In June 2015, Liz Parry (5th from left) visited with President Obama and received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math, and Engineering Mentoring.

In June 2015, Liz Parry (5th from left) visited with President Obama and received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math, and Engineering Mentoring.

Quite a record

Elizabeth Parry knows whereof she speaks, when it comes to K-12 engineering. Active in the field since the 1990’s, she has:

  • Helped build The Engineering Place at North Carolina State University into one of the leading K-12 engineering centers in the country.
  • Helped numerous schools, like Brentwood Elementary in North Carolina, to raise levels of achievement and engagement by putting engineering at the core of their learning frameworks.
  • Published and presented hundreds of times in scholarly venues.
  • Started and scaled mentoring programs involving engineering undergrads and grad students.
  • Held multiple leadership positions in the K-12 engineering education community.
  • Launched dozens of outreach programs.
  • And generally been one of our best, most helpful friends, always eager to share ideas, broker new contacts, and work towards the best, most inclusive way forward for the entire K-12 engineering field.

Liz’s work has not gone unnoticed. She became a Fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education in 2016. And in 2015, she earned the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math, and Engineering Mentoring.

The vision thing

As with almost everyone who manages to sustain a high level of accomplishment and effectiveness, Liz can put forth her vision in clear, succinct terms. Proof comes in her three-part answer to the question, why should students, at every pre-college level, study engineering?

Studying engineering, Liz argues, helps students:

  • Learn to solve problems in collaboration with others.
  • Analyze data and make decisions based on reason instead of emotion.
  • Find the learning and growth opportunities available in failure.

For education, career readiness, and preparing kids to be citizens in a society we can all be proud of, this vision should persuade anyone.

We asked Liz to share how she came to these principles and what her experiences in K-12 engineering education have taught her. Her answers, in edited form, follow.

When it comes to engineering, be not afraid

START ENGINEERING:

Engineering can seem technical and foreboding for people. How do you make the topic work for students, and teachers for that matter, who don’t have the math and science knowledge that goes into college-level and professional engineering? 

LIZ:

Well first, it’s extremely important to help the general public, including teachers and students, understand that math and science – while important TOOLS for engineering – do not even begin to define it.

Will every kid grow up to be an engineer? Nope, nor should they be. A successful society depends on a variety of skill sets. But will everyone who learns how to engineer be a better citizen? You bet.
— Liz Parry

Engineering ignites my passions because it’s the art of problem-solving.  It’s the balance between what is and what could be.  It’s risk-taking, but based on strong content knowledge not only in math and science, but in English language arts, social studies, and the arts.  So that’s what I convey to the students, teachers, parents, and others I come in contact with: engineers must use all these skills as they practice the art of problem-solving. 

How effective, for example, would an engineering solution be if I were not able to effectively communicate it?  How useful or innovative would it be if I did not understand cultural, economic, and historical implications?  The reason I love engineering so much is it calls on ALL my abilities – the whole suite of them – because when you are innovating, there is no script. 

Finally, I am not sure the world in general, or even many practicing engineers, fully understands that engineering relies on collaboration, communication, creativity, ethics, optimism, and the ability to think in terms of systems.  These “habits of mind” can be appealing to anyone, and while, yes, you must have strong tools to employ such as math and science competency, it’s just so much more.

Engineering requires teamwork, communication, planning, and persistence in efforts to solve problems and improve people's lives.

Engineering requires teamwork, communication, planning, and persistence in efforts to solve problems and improve people's lives.

START ENGINEERING:

What are the benefits of studying engineering for pre-college students? What do they learn from studying engineering that they don’t learn from other areas of study? 

LIZ:

First and foremost, how to fail. Giving children the opportunity to try and fail – in a limited, intentionally constructed way – is a great learning opportunity.

When I begin to work with a school, I tell them my goal for their students is that they leave that school for the next level with three primary skill sets: 

  1. They are problem-solvers who can work productively with other people.
  2. They can analyze data and make decisions based on reasoning instead of emotion.
  3. They can fail, and recover from it – because humans fail! 

If we treat failure, as we do NOT in education, as an identity or end state, we kill spirits. But engineers plan for failure – and doing engineering early and often with children is a way to help them grow resilience and problem-solving abilities.

Will every kid grow up to be an engineer? Nope, nor should they be. A successful society depends on a variety of skill sets. But will everyone who learns how to engineer be a better citizen? You bet.

The new kid on the K-12 block

START ENGINEERING:

Engineering has not traditionally been part of K-12 curricula. How did engineering even become part of the pre-college learning world? What changed? Who’s been working for this change?

LIZ:

The National Science Foundation has had a huge part in getting this started. Through programs such as GK-12 (Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education), NSF prioritized (and funded) university efforts to grow the pipeline.

The NSF's GK-12 Program brings graduate and undergraduate students into contact with K-12 students to show them the excitement and rewards available in studying engineering and other STEM disciplines.

The NSF's GK-12 Program brings graduate and undergraduate students into contact with K-12 students to show them the excitement and rewards available in studying engineering and other STEM disciplines.

ASEE was also a huge player in this, with their push – led by one Eric Iversen (editor’s note: shucks) – to begin holding teacher workshops in connection with our annual technical conference. From those early funding programs and workshops has grown a division of nearly 800 professionals in engineering education.

In the past three years, the ASEE Board of Directors recognized the import of tending to the education of engineers in the P12 sphere, forming a Board-level committee on the topic, which I lead. My team has worked hard to assess the organization and develop a strategic plan, which is now in place and the basis for our current year of focus on P12 through our theme, “Commit to P12: When Engineering Begins.” 

At our annual conference in Columbus, OH, next June, for example, we will have a teacher workshop, a street fair community event with hands-on engineering make-and-take activities for local families to enjoy together, and a slate of activities and technical papers on research and practice in P12 engineering education.

So ASEE has long been a leader in this area. It’s amazing progress!

What is this “E” in STEM you speak of?

START ENGINEERING:

STEM education has grown to prominence in people’s thinking about K-12 education over the last 15 years or so. What STEM actually is, of course, can depend on the angle from which you approach it. What role do you see engineering, the “E” in STEM, playing in the idea and application of STEM education? 

LIZ:

For me, “STEM” is meaningless – as are STEAM, STREAM, STREAMS, STEM+C, etc. – what we are really talking about is a comprehensive, rigorous, and relevant education for ALL students. We teach students for 12 years in 50-minute segments of specific subjects, and then seem completely surprised when they can’t synthesize their knowledge the day after graduation! It’s not fair and more importantly it’s not strategic. 

So for me, “STEM” (if we use the term) has not only hands-on, inquiry-based science, but relevant mathematics and computational thinking and liberal use of instructional technology. And it also has a meaningful and sustained use of engineering design challenges with a goal of creating new technologies (products, processes, and/or objects) to solve real-world, relevant problems. 

BUT, it also includes research, writing, speaking, analysis, understanding of historical and cultural contexts, local/state/national/global issues (depending on grade level), creativity, collaboration, ethical considerations, and the opportunity to not only fail but also time to improve. And yes, all of this can be done down to the lowest grade level – engineering educators work with teachers to do this every day. Engineering is SO much more than applied science and/or simple “build” exercises, SO much more.

And ahead of us …

START ENGINEERING:

K-12 education is always a site of contentiousness and change. And we’ve seen many changes recently in the landscape of K-12 education, with adoption of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in over a third of states, Common Core curricula in reading and math rolling out, a burgeoning of interest in computer science, new federal policies giving states more leeway in content, assessment, and accountability, and much else. What does the future hold for K-12 engineering in this kind of environment? What are barriers to further development? What’s helping it grow? 

LIZ:

The future for P12 engineering is bright but maybe not for the expected reasons. The reality of schools is it’s all about the tests. All of this makes it very difficult to get real and substantive change.

BUT, in an era of both excessive testing and alarming growth of behavioral and mental health issues in our children, we as a society are beginning to realize we can swing back some and still be accountable.

Learning from failure is one of the central tenets of engineering.

Learning from failure is one of the central tenets of engineering.

Engineering, when done right, can grow skills in children that allow them to cope, to learn how to collaborate, to learn that failure is not typically a “mistake” but rather a temporary place, and it’s what you do when it happens that really matters. 

The barriers are the old guard, those who are protective of the “way it’s always been” and “it worked for me.” We have seen this very much in the Common Core effort and then again in NGSS. So we as a profession need to help others understand what skills we can grow by including meaningful engineering (i.e., create, not build), and we need to collaborate to produce robust research to back up what we are purporting. 

And finally, a big barrier is politics. The ability to analyze data objectively and then use it to make decisions is a lost skill set. This has got to change. I am an idealist at heart, and believe we can mount a collective action to make these changes.

Working on now

START ENGINEERING:

What would you like to see happen? What kinds of things are you working on to consolidate and advance the place of engineering in K-12 education? 

LIZ:

I’d like to see engineering educators be the ones policy makers go to for solutions to increasing the nation’s engineering and technological literacy.

ASEE is positioned well to do that. Until and unless we establish engineering as a separate entity, we will forever be folded into science or career and technical education as an add-on when in fact it is critical to addressing our national security and future economic success. 

I work with teachers every week. I believe they are the paradigm-shifters in this equation. I also work at the higher education level to both increase the awareness of the need for change in teacher preparation but also to increase the urgency in colleges and universities of engineering to modernize engineering education, make it more inclusive and oriented towards the real world and less of a “death march.”

Expanding the engineering pie

Moving engineering towards a demographic composition that more closely reflects the population at large is an ongoing struggle.

Moving engineering towards a demographic composition that more closely reflects the population at large is an ongoing struggle.

START ENGINEERING:

Engineering has a real diversity problem. Women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are all notably under-represented, compared to their rates of earning college degrees, let alone the population at large. Does K-12 engineering education have a role to play in addressing these issues? How so? 

LIZ:

I can’t tell you how distressing it is when I consider that when I graduated in 1983, colleges were graduating approximately 18 percent female engineers. Here we are 33 years later, at the same level, and the number actually working in engineering even lower (editor’s note: about 11 percent of professional engineers are women). 

Some universities have shown remarkable growth in recruiting diverse student bodies and they are and should be role models. But it’s a real problem. 

So a decision I made about 12 years ago was to focus my personal efforts in two areas: growing engineers from an early age and mentoring.

I have a substantial track record in working with teachers from PreK to 5th grade to incorporate engineering meaningfully into their instruction. Teachers are the paradigm-shifters; you change their practice, they impact generations. 

When all children learn from day one to work productively and collaboratively with other people, to make decisions based on evidence and data, and to see that it’s what you do with failure that matters, they go into middle and high school as confident learners.

They can filter out some of the normal hormonal and social barriers and also persist and INSIST on enrolling in the higher-level coursework that will give them the opportunity to choose engineering as a career. So yes, K-12 engineering can play a key role in developing important skills for good citizens who are engineering- and technology-literate, whether those kids decide to be engineers or not. 

My second focus has been on mentoring – teachers, students at all levels, parents, practicing engineers – we need all hands on deck! Climate in engineering colleges and universities for diverse students is persistently stubborn about change, and we need to be open and honest about how to make substantive improvements. One huge start would be ensuring there are professors who are representative of the breadth of engineering careers: research AND practice, including industry. In addition, there is a critical need for universities to value teaching in a meaningful way. This is critical to changing the climate.

Does it work?

START ENGINEERING:

What have you seen in your work? Has engineering served as an effective vehicle for reaching and exciting diverse student populations? 

LIZ:

I have the great luxury in my professional life that I often get to choose who I work with.  I have chosen to focus on challenged schools – those with high levels of poverty and/or minorities and/or in urban or rural areas or some combination. 

I have seen remarkable changes when I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a dedicated administrator and his/her staff to implement engineering. Yes, test scores go up, but that’s actually the low-hanging fruit! Engagement increases, discipline referrals go down, attendance improves, teacher turnover decreases, parent involvement goes up and, yes, test scores go up. 

What you see when you visit are problem-solvers: students who can work together productively, who can make decisions based on evidence and who, yes, can fail – and then tell you 10 ways they’ll improve it. THAT’s the kind of thinking that changes lives, that allows all children to realize their potential. 

For me, as a child of a truck driver and stay-at-home mom, who grew up in a neighborhood of hard-working, blue-collar families, engineering quite literally changed the trajectory of my life. I am the first and only college graduate in my family – and I got there due to a supportive family, teachers who introduced me to opportunities, and family friends who were engineers who told me about it and encouraged me.  So, yes, engineering is an effective vehicle for reaching and exciting diverse student populations.

And, finally

Liz has been a great inspiration and ally for us at Start Engineering, and we have been grateful for all the field knowledge she has shared with us. Engineering as a topic of learning at all levels of pre-college education owes much of its prominence to efforts she has led and contributed to.

Please share her thoughts with any interested colleagues or friends.

 


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 @StartEnginNow.

Now available! A bilingual version of Dream, Invent, Create, for making engineering come alive in Spanish and English at the same time.

Our Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field. And for any outreach or education program, check out What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide. Our books can help deliver an accessible, engaging picture of engineering to all kinds of K-12 audiences.


Photos: Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math, and Engineering Mentoring, courtesy of The White House; Problem-solving, courtesy Yoel Ben-Avraham, used by permission; GK-12, courtesy of University of Arizona.