How Engineering Found Daylight in K-12

 Engineering is only starting to come into the full light of STEM education.

Engineering is only starting to come into the full light of STEM education.

How we got here

As we saw last time, the STEM wave that started about 20 years ago had roots in the 1950’s. The Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957 disintegrated a host of assumptions about the United States’ inevitable primacy in science and technology, to be fueled by a world-leading engineering education system.

Subsequent analyses of the U.S. science and technology enterprise have increasingly taken the measure of K-12 education and found it wanting. Reforms and reports have highlighted the importance of achievement in math, science, and related areas as vital to developing a dynamic, diverse workforce able to harness and extend the potential benefits of technology for individual and shared needs. Almost entirely missing from these analyses? What to do about engineering.

In the 1990’s, advances in computing power and communications technologies combined to launch a seemingly endless series of ever-improving devices and applications that reshaped our home and work lives. Besides generating breakneck economic growth and dizzyingly fast product innovation cycles, these new tools were often cool and fun, too. No longer taking just the form of moon launches, bigger airplanes, and taller buildings, innovation had shrunk technology to handheld sizes and embedded it in our hearts as an individual, affordable consumer desire.

A future like the present, though, did not seem assured. Indicators like international test scores, declining enrollments in technology-related fields of study, shrinking or flat research budgets in the public and private sectors, among others, made people worry about the future of the U.S. innovation system.

“STEM” takes root

 The National Science Foundation’s embrace of STEM education as a concept boosted growth in all related fields.

The National Science Foundation’s embrace of STEM education as a concept boosted growth in all related fields.

In response, policy-makers and advocates in education, collaborating with leaders from industry, government, and non-profits, mobilized around efforts to raise the visibility and volume of resources going to K-12 math and science education. A key point in this effort came in the early 2000’s. Amid all the discussions about innovation and education, the National Science Foundation gathered the relevant areas of K-12 learning under the rubric of “STEM,” encompassing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Now people had a name for the areas of education under scrutiny and, more importantly, an opportunity for funding to support research and program development in this newly named area.

Early days favor established fields

With new funding available and a distinct concept put forth, educators and researchers quickly set to work building out and testing ideas for what might constitute effective STEM education.

  • Already established fields like science and math, with long histories and large cohorts of teachers in K-12 education, found the new STEM environment hospitable to efforts in improving the climate for teaching and learning in their areas.
  • The more-recently-established field of technology education found traction in leveraging a set of learning standards put forth in 2000 by the (then-called) International Technology Education Association to advance understanding and programs in technological literacy and education.
 Fully realizing the potential of STEM education remains something to reach for.

Fully realizing the potential of STEM education remains something to reach for.

Potential remains tantalizing and unrealized

How all these fields might fit together, though, into the cross-disciplinary, inquiry-based approach to education favored by STEM visionaries remained less clear. And engineering languished, with almost no profile in K-12 education; curriculum materials were lacking, learning standards did not exist, and teachers did not receive training or even exposure to engineering in their pre-professional or in-service training. Stiff challenges lay in figuring out both how to integrate engineering into the K-12 education environment as well as who might carry out the actual work involved.

Design thinking gives engineering a foothold

A conceptual framework for engineering in K-12 education arrived with the 2010 release of Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS. Incorporating the work of STEM-interested stakeholders from far and wide, NGSS infused K-12 science learning standards with the idea of engineering design.

 The NGSS approach emphasizes practice or performance as a way to acquire and demonstrate learning.

The NGSS approach emphasizes practice or performance as a way to acquire and demonstrate learning.

Conceived of as a process or method for learning, the NGSS approach makes engineering design a vehicle for integrating technical areas of science content with more general cognitive skills like analysis, communication, and collaboration to devise solutions to design challenges.

Moreover, NGSS assessments are based on what students can do with their learning, rather than their ability to reproduce the content of what they have studied. In this way, NGSS moves student learning in the direction of what engineering education and professional work is all about: a rigorous, repeatable design process for applying technical knowledge and collaborative skills to create new solutions and enhancements for daily life.

NGSS is establishing itself as a foundational norm. As of early 2018, 19 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted NGSS as the framework for their schools’ science learning and assessment regimes. Scores of school districts in non-NGSS states have also adopted NGSS or used it as a model for new standards. As this adoption process continues, engineering design will become an integral, widespread feature of how students learn and get tested throughout their K-12 years.

The work still to be done

However, significant obstacles stand between this foothold and a full flowering of K-12 engineering. While a framework for K-12 engineering learning and assessment is available, the mechanics for implementation remain challenging. (Here are tips we’ve offered for how at least to get started.)

  • The very nature of K-12 engineering is up for debate. Is it more about content and technical knowledge or process, problem-based learning, and critical thinking?
  • Curriculum materials can be hard to come by or be of unreliable quality. A repository of engineering-related lessons like TeachEngineering.org or our own Dream, Invent, Create program can be a great place to start. But much of the responsibility for curriculum development and implementation still ends up sitting with individual teachers or schools.
  • The place of engineering in the curriculum is unsettled. Integrate engineering into existing course content? Present it as a stand-alone subject? Use it as a vehicle for connecting other STEM fields? All these options make pedagogical issues hard to resolve.
  • A few programs exist for schools to adopt, such as Project Lead the Way, Engineering by Design, and Engineering is Elementary. But they do not meet all needs in all instances and can require funds, time, or resources beyond a district’s means.

Teacher training, training, training

Underlying all these questions is the gateway challenge of preparing teachers to make engineering part of their classroom activities. The interrelated, complicated dimensions of this project are well laid out here. For example, estimates from the National Academy of Engineering suggest that fewer than 20,000 teachers have had any training in engineering as an academic field. With over 13,500 school districts in the country, there is clearly much work to do just to reach teachers, let alone agree on what they should be learning to do.

 For engineering to grow into a full-fledged K-12 subject, teachers in large numbers will need lots more training and development.

For engineering to grow into a full-fledged K-12 subject, teachers in large numbers will need lots more training and development.

Teacher training programs are working hard to develop and deliver the pre-professional programming that potential engineering teachers would need. But their numbers are few, probably below 20 at this time.

Professional development opportunities for current teachers are widespread among colleges and universities with engineering programs. Our 2015 survey of K-12 engineering and outreach found 45 percent of responding programs were active in this area. However, teachers have to know about and have access to these programs, which are almost uniformly local and irregularly scheduled.

Beginnings are hard

For most teachers, whether interested in or required to teach engineering, just getting started is still the hardest part. Without help, it is a tall order for them to get their brains around what engineering is, convey this understanding to students in a way that secures their interest, and connect it to what they are already teaching.

Next time, we will introduce a new project we are involved with that aims to address exactly this problem.


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.

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