As Engineering Grows in K-12, Who Will Teach It?

At all levels of K-12, engineering is becoming more and more commonly taught.

At all levels of K-12, engineering is becoming more and more commonly taught.

A feature, not a bug

Engineering is evolving quickly from an anomaly to a feature of K-12 education. For reasons why, see Next Generation Science Standards, enduringly high interest in STEM learning, and diverse social, economic, and political interests.

As a result, a topic that used to surface mostly because of individual teachers’ particular affinity for the field is gaining a foothold in the structures and values of the entire K-12 education system. However, the constellation of questions about how it’s all going to work in actual fact rotates around a central issue: Who is going to teach it?

The road from here to there

Shaping the infrastructure required to install engineering as a viable feature of the K-12 education enterprise involves a series of fascinating, interrelated issues.

Fascinating, complex questions surround how to make engineering a viable part of the K-12 education world.

Fascinating, complex questions surround how to make engineering a viable part of the K-12 education world.

Why teach engineering?

Is it to prepare future engineers and thus primarily vocational? This approach would take in a smaller population of students and involve more technical content.

Or is it for the broader cause of technological literacy, showing all students how engineering is grounded in history and ethics, social interests, and political and economic considerations? Given home and work spheres saturated with technology, this view holds that equipping students with tools to navigate technology-related social, political, and cultural issues is an imperative of good citizenship.

What to teach?

Engineering, as a college major and profession, is highly technical, requiring advanced math and science knowledge. It is also driven by process, the engineering design process, which is primarily a template for applying critical thinking and communication skills to the task of solving problems. A recent Purdue University study found that only four states have arrived at a formulation of “comprehensive” K-12 engineering learning in their standards: Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon. Clearly, we have not reached anything like consensus on what K-12 engineering content should be.

How to teach it?

So, whether content or process, what concepts and facts about engineering should be emphasized, in what ways, and at what stages of students’ learning? How do teachers set up age-appropriate engineering exercises, provide useful feedback to students, and assess which elements of engineering lessons best teach critical features of content?

Answers to these questions, in their varying forms, all have a bearing on the central challenge of K-12 engineering:

Who is going to teach it?

This question is on many people’s minds. In our survey last year of K-12 engineering education experts, for example, addressing why and how to teach engineering, teacher training was cited as the foremost obstacle to engineering becoming widely and successfully integrated into K-12 education.

Obstacles to teaching engineering

Nearly 80 percent of the experts we surveyed identified teacher training as the biggest obstacle to successful integration of engineering into K-12 schools.

Teachers, of course, remain learners throughout their careers. As students, in pre-service education programs, they study content and practice in the subjects they are seeking to teach. Once in the classroom, they continue to hone their craft through in-service training.

Pre-service engineering training

Teacher training programs are working hard to catch up to the fast-growing interest in STEM education, and programs designed to provide general training in K-12 engineering are increasingly available.

At least a dozen schools offer pre-service training specifically in engineering. Reflecting the different ways people answer the questions of what and how to teach when it comes to K-12 engineering, programs take different approaches.

In-service efforts

In-service training addresses the approximately 210,000 middle and high school science teachers, 125,600 vocational-technical education teachers, and 1,726,000 elementary school teachers who make up the potential K-12 engineering teacher workforce. Delivering training in engineering to this cohort is a rapidly growing endeavor.

Teacher training activities for K-12 educators at all levels provide real engineering experiences as well as guidance in how to make it engaging and accessible to students.

Teacher training activities for K-12 educators at all levels provide real engineering experiences as well as guidance in how to make it engaging and accessible to students.

100Kin10 is an ambitious, high-profile effort, begun in 2011, to train 100,000 new STEM teachers in 10 years. Among the over 280 organizations active in the program, 27 have identified engineering as a focus of their efforts. Including mostly universities, the group also features a clutch of STEM-oriented government entities, non-profits, and corporations. Seventeen of the programs focus on in-service training, and 13 work on pre-service efforts.

College and university providers

Engineering programs on campus are big providers of in-service training for teachers. In our 2015 survey of K-12 engineering education and outreach activities on campus, 45 percent of responding engineering programs reported offering some form of professional development activities for teachers.

One example is a long-running, popular program for teachers running out of the U. S. Naval Academy STEM Center for Education and Outreach. Here, teacher education workshops immerse participants in activities showing how to use project-based learning techniques to teach engineering design and applied sciences, all attached to continuing professional development credits. Both on campus and at event sites all over the country, the program reaches hundreds of teachers every year.

Tufts University has launched an online graduate program in engineering education for teachers already in the field. It features one track for elementary school teachers and another for middle and high school teachers, all designed to help educators meet NGSS standards and integrate engineering into ongoing STEM learning activities.

Other players

Outside of academic institutions, several of the large K-12 engineering curriculum providers have evolved extensive teacher-training activities, as well. Project Lead the Way, Engineering is Elementary, and Engineering by Design all conduct sophisticated programs that set teachers up to put the program-specific curricula to good work in their classrooms.

Our classroom bundle includes 25 copies of Dream, Invent, Create and the accompanying Teacher’s Guide, available as a downloadable pdf, all for $249.

Our classroom bundle includes 25 copies of Dream, Invent, Create and the accompanying Teacher’s Guide, available as a downloadable pdf, all for $249.

Our classroom bundle

At Start Engineering, we have been working on assembling the elements of a teacher-training program for elementary-level educators. We offer a classroom bundle that includes 25 copies of our NSTA-recommended book, Dream, Invent, Create, in English or bilingual versions, along with an NGSS-aligned Teacher’s Guide for using the book as a teaching text.

The Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide, available as a downloadable PDF, offers 27 lessons in basic or advanced forms, along with an introduction to the engineering design process, thought questions and vocabulary guides, plus worksheets and answer keys. It’s designed to help teachers with no training in the field get started with engineering in a way that’s easy to teach, easy to understand, and engaging for kids.

What do you think K-12 engineering teacher training should look like? Have you, or anyone you know, ever had formal training in the field? We’d like to hear people’s experiences with it, in whatever form it’s taken.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share with 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 @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.