Engineering Neglected in Draft Science Standards, Some Advocates Say

By Erik W. Robelen — February 01, 2013 7 min read
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The latest draft of the common science standards is sparking criticism from some engineering education proponents, who say the document gives the discipline short shrift and represents a step backward from an earlier public draft.

“The whole process started very well, and they did a very good job in the beginning,” said Ionnis Miaoulis, the president of the Museum of Science in Boston, which developed the Engineering Is Elementary program. “Engineering appeared as a core element, but now it has been diluted significantly.”

He adds, “Kids should know both how scientists discover, and how an engineer designs. ... Everything we drive, we wear, we live in, has been touched by an engineer.”

Elizabeth Parry, the coordinator of K-20 STEM partnership development at North Carolina State University also has deep concerns with this second and final public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, which are expected to be completed in March. (Parry is also the chairwoman of the K-12 and precollege division of the American Society for Engineering Education, but said her comments to me were for herself and do not represent that organization.)

Parry said her initial reading of the document “had me hopeful, but upon a thorough and detailed review it became clear that engineering’s role in the standards was largely [limited to] a phrase (‘and engineering’) added after ‘science,’” she said in an email. “It’s just imperative that we get it right THIS time.”

She said the integration of engineering concepts in this public draft has caused [them] to be “disjointed, sporadic, and often incorrectly characterized or described.”

Engineering Design

One key concern is that the latest draft eliminates a stand-alone standard titled “Engineering Design” that was included in the May 2012 draft for both the middle and high school levels. This standard, or “core disciplinary idea” in the parlance of the document, included six performance expectations for both levels. (Performance expectations are at the heart of the document, and are identified as the “assessable component” of the standards. A helpful supporting document for those who wish to wade into the weeds in understanding the standards architecture is “How to Read the Next Generation Science Standards.”)

The May draft also featured another standard titled “Links Among Engineering, Technology, Science, and Society.”

The revised, January 2013 draft contains just one standard (or core disciplinary idea) explicitly centered on engineering: “Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science.” Moreover, the performance expectations included here are simply references to expectations drawn from elsewhere in the standards. For instance, the first five at the high school level come from standards in the physical sciences.

The critics caution that they are not suggesting the draft standards ignore engineering altogether.

“To be fair, engineering is still included as a practice, and several of the performance expectations reflect parts of the engineering process,” Miaoulis writes in a letter outlining the concerns of the Museum of Science’s National Center for Technological Literacy on the standards. “But engineering is represented as a fragmented vehicle for students to show they understand science, rather than as the confirmed expectation that students learn how to define, solve, and optimize solutions to problems—the engineering design process as articulated in the NRC framework.” (He’s referring here to a framework developed by a National Research Council expert panel that is intended to guide the creation of the standards.

‘Change Is Hard’

Miaoulis said he understands that some state officials may be nervous about putting too much emphasis on engineering in the standards, for fear this unfamiliar terrain would be a burden to educators. (Indeed, a number of state officials recently told me one change they really liked in the latest draft was the effort to better integrate engineering across the document.)

“We understand change is hard and resources are limited, but from a historical standpoint and a workforce necessity, it is essential that we seize this opportunity to revolutionize science education by including engineering design as a core concept and key pedagogical practice,” he writes.

In her email, Parry cited several concerns with the latest draft. For one, she argues that the performance expectations in the standard on Engineering, Technology, and Nature of Science are “largely science and not engineering.” Also, she contends that “fundamental principles of engineering are absent [from the document], most notable being that although there are a few mentions of a ‘design cycle’ sprinkled throughout the pages, no where is the basis for our work, the engineering design process, presented or illustrated clearly or in its entirety.”

She added: “Teachers do NOT know this intuitively, and because engineering is a new content area for most, it MUST be provided to them.”

Another voice of disappointment with the new draft is Stacy Klein-Gardner, a professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and the director of the Center for STEM Education for Girls at Harpeth Hall, a private school in Nashville. (She also is incoming chair of the American Society for Engineering Education’s K-12 division, but was not speaking on behalf of that group here.)

“Engineering [design] has been taken out as a disciplinary core idea, and they seem to be using engineering in titles and in random places without any content,” she said. “They’re really not hitting the mark. ... I don’t sense an understanding of what engineering even is, and the difference between it and science. It’s certainly not articulated well in the document as it currently stands.”

‘Integrating’ Engineering

An appendix to the standards explains the rationale and approach of the standards when it comes to engineering design, as well as technology and applications of science.

The standards, the appendix says, reflect “a commitment to fully integrate engineering design, technology, and mathematics into the structure of science education by raising engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry when teaching science disciplines at all levels, from kindergarten to grade 12.”

At the same time, the appendix makes clear that “including core concepts related to engineering design and technology does not imply that schools are expected to develop separate courses in these subjects.” The appendix also emphasizes that the Next Generation Science Standards are not intended to be standards for engineering, “but rather includes those ideas that are closely connected to science and that are essential for everyone to learn.”

The appendix tackled head on the issue of having separate standards for engineering design, saying the majority of “lead state partners” helping to craft the standards objected to this for two reasons. First, they reasoned that performance expectations explicitly for this topic would be “redundant.” Second, “since a major purpose of integrating engineering into the science standards was for students to learn how their growing knowledge of science can be applied to solve practical problems, that goal could be better achieved by integrating the core ideas of engineering design directly into the science disciplines.”

Mechanical Engineering Group Generally ‘Very Supportive’

Another organization, the American Society for Mechanical Engineering, identified several ways to strengthen the standards but was mostly upbeat about their content.

“The ASME Board on Education is very supportive in general of the efforts taken to both define engineering design, and to integrate engineering practices throughout science learning from K-12" in the standards,” the organization writes in a Jan. 29 letter providing its comments on the public draft. “We are particularly pleased to see strong improvements in the integration of engineering in the January 2013 draft, especially in the many additions of practices that require students to do things (use tools, mathematical concepts, experimentation, etc.) to compare and contrast proposed engineering design solutions and, therefore, justify their solution and design decisions based on evidence.”

In an interview, Mary Kasarda, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech who helped craft the ASME response, said she’s genuinely pleased that engineering continues to have a foothold in the standards.

“We’re happy to see engineering in the standards,” she said. “We know that’s a big deal. ... We think there needs to be some guidelines on the engineering-design process. It will be unfamiliar to a lot of teachers. If those are articulated a little better, that would strengthen the new standards.”

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