Engineering remains opaque
As an area of study and work, engineering remains mysterious, according to surveys of what students (elementary and middle school) and teachers know about the field. And engineering graduation rates suggest we’re not making much headway on the question. From 2003 to 2013, the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded in engineering went from 4.6 percent to 4.7 percent.*
A changing mix
Within these numbers, though, the demographics have changed. Increasing 23.3 percent, from 6.9 percent to 9.0 percent, Hispanics have taken an outsized portion of the overall number of people earning engineering degrees.
Heeding a call?
Even if undergraduates overall have not responded to the appeal of engineering study and work, are college-going Hispanics getting the message? People are certainly working hard to deliver it. For example, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers supports dozens of on-campus programs for undergraduate Hispanics working on degrees in the field.
The message, of course, works on many levels. Engineering dominates every list of best-paid jobs for new graduates.
It serves a broad menu of national interests. Innovation driven by engineering helps grow the economy and provides a competitive advantage for American companies. Engineering also drives improvements in medical technologies, enhances comfort and convenience in everyday life, and fortifies our national security infrastructure.
The field also offers intrinsically interesting opportunities for intellectual growth, across skill sets both “hard” – math and science – and “soft,” like communications, teamwork, and strategic thinking. Whether graduates enter the engineering field or not, they are well prepared for success in the workforce.
Does the 23-plus percent rise in Hispanic engineering degrees indicate a greater response to these signals? Or is something else going on?
In fact, a step back from engineering degree statistics to the larger context of overall bachelor’s degree attainment suggests something else
Counting all undergraduate degrees from 2003 to 2013, Hispanics’ share increased from 7.5 percent to 10.5 percent, a 28.6 percent increase. The 23.3-percent increase in engineering actually falls notably short of this mark. And at 10.5 percent of undergraduate degrees in 2013, Hispanics finished college far below the 21.5 percent of the 20-to-24-year-old population that they represent.
Not only is there headroom for Hispanics to fill in engineering, higher education in general represents an enormous field of potential growth.
What’s in the way
The challenges they face in finishing college are varied: tuition and other costs, under-resourced schools, stresses of first-generation college attendance, under-developed support networks among peers, at school, and at home, to name a few. Add to these obstacles the language barriers faced by those coming from homes where English is not the first language, and it becomes clear how to explain this notable under-representation.
Educators have long understood the linchpin role that gaining language skills at a young age plays in preparing students for college success. Strong correlations, for example, connect reading above grade level in 3rd grade to college readiness and eventual degree attainment.
Where to go now
So the path forward is clear. Nurturing the growth that Hispanic students are starting to show in college achievement in general starts with elementary school reading skills. And building these skills while at the same time presenting an accessible, engaging picture of all the ways engineering shapes and improves our daily lives could turbo-charge this growth. This approach can fire childrens' imaginations with all the ways they could participate in important, interesting activities that make the world a better place for all of us.
What we’re doing
Our new bilingual edition of Dream, Invent, Create seeks to accomplish just this goal. Dream, Invent, Create/Sueña, Inventa, Crea works for grades K-5 by using whimsical illustrations and simple, fun language to show students (and their parents and teachers) all the possibilities they can find in engineering study and work.
Already on the National Science Teachers Association Recommends List, the book describes 16 different engineering fields in both poetry and prose and includes learning activities at the end. It presents engineering with an eye towards inspiring young readers to imagine themselves changing the world by putting engineering skills to work on the areas they care most about.
How it can work
The book offers unique value by building both students' reading skills and their knowledge of a career option with great opportunities for them.
- Teachers can use the text to infuse engineering content into vocabulary-building exercises, reading comprehension, and efforts to cross Spanish-English language barriers.
- A 175-page Teacher's Guide is available, too, making the book adaptable to almost any length of time available for use in formal learning environments.
- At home, children and parents can read the book together to learn about engineering.
- And outreach programs can make use of Dream, Invent, Create/Sueña, Inventa, Crea to introduce engineering to Spanish-speaking student groups.
Building towards a future in engineering
We’re excited about offering this book as a way to plant engineering aspirations in the imaginations of kids for whom language skills might be a barrier. And we think the book can actually help bring an engaging, accessible message about engineering to the rest of these students’ families, as well.
Let us know what you think. And please share with any interested colleagues or friends.
*All statistics come from the National Science Foundation 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators, which offers varied and pure delights for technology and education policy wonks.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.