AP Engineering May Be on the Horizon

By Erik W. Robelen — March 29, 2013 4 min read
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With 10 STEM-focused Advanced Placement programs, from calculus and chemistry to computer science and even Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, you might imagine there would be one for engineering. Nope. Doesn’t exist. Not yet, that is.

I recently learned that the College Board and advocates for engineering education are actively exploring the creation of a new AP program in engineering design. What’s more, the idea is not to create a traditional AP assessment. Instead, the idea being bandied about is a portfolio assessment for the topic, akin to the AP Studio Art program.

“This is not a test,” said Leigh Abts, a professor of education at the University of Maryland with a distinguished background in engineering who is a leader in the initiative. “This is people looking at portfolios and awarding some high-stakes performance credit for this.” He argues, “This is really going to break the mold for how the College Board and others look at student work.” (Again, it’s not a done deal, however.)

The effort comes at a time when engineering appears to be gaining a stronger foothold at the K-12 level.

Among the organizations working on the project, Abts said, are his university, the University of Virginia, the College Board, and Project Lead the Way, which designed and hosts an “innovation portal” where students already can submit their e-portfolios. Abts has received financial support from a 2011 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We’re in kind of early field trials of using the e-portfolio,” he told me. “We’ve started collecting portfolios and convening work groups to give us a scoring process.”

A recent PowerPoint presentation by Abts and a College Board representative gives a flavor for the direction things may be heading with such a portfolio assessment. It features five components:

• Presenting and justifying a problem and the requirements for its solution;
• Generating and defending an original solution;
• Constructing and testing a prototype;
• Evaluation, reflection, and recommendations; and
• Documenting and presenting the project.

Attempts to create an AP engineering program are not new. In fact, Abts said that in 2007, he and some colleagues issued a white paper to the College Board signaling that the time was not right, mainly because “the K-12 system was not set up to prepare students for such an Advanced Placement [offering], nor were universities sure how they would accept those credits.”

But now the push seems to be gaining momentum.

Auditi Chakravarty, the vice president for AP curriculum, instruction, and assessment at the College Board, said she sees a number of factors leading the College Board to take a serious look at an engineering design program.

“Conditions have changed,” she said. “One, look at the Next Generation Science Standards, which starts to signal a real shift.” (The standards aim to thread engineering-design practices across the science-standards document being developed by 26 states and outside experts.)

“Another is Leigh Abts is giving a sense of what does engineering design look like, and how you might measure it through an e-portfolio,” she said. The key question, Chakravarty said, is how to develop a portfolio assessment for the subject that is “valid and reliable.”

Finally, the momentum around STEM education itself is sparking the College Board to consider this more carefully.

“We look at the fact that STEM is such a focus in terms of students’ long-term education and career opportunities,” she said. “It’s important that we consider engineering as part of that.”

At the same time, Chakravarty cautions that creating a new AP program isn’t so easy, and is not simply a matter of building support at the College Board.

“AP means advanced placement, so for a course to be branded as AP, it needs a significant number of colleges and universities to offer credit and/or advanced placement,” she said. “That is the critical piece to put the AP name on it. We still have to prove that out for engineering.”

In addition, the College Board is currently seeking out funders who could help underwrite exploratory work around developing a new course framework.

“We would develop a curriculum framework that articulates the outcome of the course,” she said, focused on “what will students know and be able to do.”

“There may be existing engineering courses [that would fit], so Project Lead the Way has an engineering program they’re already using in schools,” she said. “There may be multiple courses, existing and new, that could satisfy that.”

She added, “At the end of the day, it’s that assessment that students and schools are going to value,” and that can earn them college credit.

A final decision on whether AP engineering design is to become a reality is likely a couple of years down the road, Chakravarty said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.