Engineering Building a Foundation in K-12 Curricula

March 26, 2013 8 min read
Sophomore Brett Dennehy, center, watches his creation as he and classmates prepare last week for a robot race in an introduction to engineering course at Stoughton High School in Stoughton, Mass.
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When STEM education is discussed in the K-12 sphere, it often seems like shorthand for mathematics and science, with perhaps a nod to technology and even less, if any, real attention to engineering. But recent developments signal that the “e” in STEM may be gaining a firmer foothold at the precollegiate level.

For one, a new, national assessment in technology and engineering literacy will be administered to 8th graders next year by the makers of “the nation’s report card” on education. Also, engineering design is threaded through a set of “next generation” science standards nearing completion by a coalition of experts and 26 states.

And the first-ever Advanced Placement program in engineering may be on the horizon, as efforts to create one appear to be building steam.

Those developments come on top of the many recent, and some long-standing, programs and projects that bring engineering into the classroom.

In Mobile, Ala., for instance, middle schools are using a recently crafted set of curricular units, each intended to be taught half in math class and half in science.

“The students, as they go from math to science, are trying to solve a design challenge,” said Susan A. Pruet, the director of Engaging Youth Through Engineering at the Mobile Area Education Foundation, which devised the curricula with support from a $3.5 million National Science Foundation grant.

In one unit, students design a barrier system for a stream bed to reduce the sediment discharge rate. In another, they design a device to catch blood clots before they reach the lungs and ensure that blood still flows at a fast enough rate, she said.

Ms. Pruet argues that engineering really is at the heart of STEM.

“To me, STEM is integrated science, technology, and math through engineering. It is the glue.”

Meanwhile, a yearlong course, Engineer Your World, developed by the University of Texas at Austin in collaboration with engineers from NASA, is being piloted this year at 23 high schools in eight states, with plans to reach 100 campuses next year.

Two of the best-known precollegiate engineering initiatives have seen exponential growth in recent years. Project Lead the Way’s Pathway to Engineering curriculum, a sequence of engineering courses that aim to deliver a “hands-on, real-world” approach to solving problems, is being offered this academic year in some 2,760 U.S. high schools, 10 times the figure from a decade ago. More than 45,000 elementary teachers are using curricular units from Engineering Is Elementary, a program launched in 2004 by the Museum of Science in Boston.

“The kids keep asking: ‘When are we going to be able to be engineers again?’ ” said Jennifer L. Haynes, a 2nd grade teacher at Woodland Elementary School in the Lakota district in southwest Ohio, which brought the program to its elementary schools this year.

Lots of out-of-school STEM initiatives with a strong engineering component have cropped up or substantially expanded over the past few years, from robotics competitions to after-school engineering clubs. The

Enlarging the Pool

Advocates cite several reasons for devoting school time to engineering. A top pitch is the power of the engineering-design process to engage young people and bring math and science concepts to life with practical, real-world applications, such as ensuring clean water for communities and designing robots or smartphones. Another selling point is the skills and traits engineers bring to solving problems, including persistence, creativity, collaboration, systematic thinking, and an ability to work within constraints, whether technological, economic, or even ethical.

Some advocates see an economic imperative in drawing more young people, especially women and minorities, into the field.

“We hear lots of tales of, ‘We can’t find the engineers that we need,’ ” Linda Rosen, the chief executive officer of Change the Equation, a coalition of business leaders championing STEM education, said during a forum last month on engineering in schools. “Many of our students reach college without any real exposure to hands-on engineering, or in some cases understanding what engineers do.”

Crowded Out?

Experts say it’s difficult to know how widespread engineering education is today at the K-12 level.

Design to Learn

A variety of programs seek to expose young people to engineering, whether in the classroom or in out-of-school settings.

Engineering by Design: Provides K–12 engineering and technology curriculum developed by the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. At grades K-5, it provides content to be integrated with other subjects. In the upper grades, it offers a set of courses with a focus on learning concepts and principles in an “authentic, problem-based environment.”

Future City: Provides project-based learning experiences in which students in grades 6-8 design cities of the future. Groups of students team up with an educator and engineer-mentor to plan cities using special software, research and write solutions to an engineering problem, build tabletop models, and present their ideas at competitions.

The Infinity Project: Offers engineering curricula for middle and high school students that help them see the value of math and science through their application in high-tech engineering. Based at Southern Methodist University.

Project Lead the Way: Offers the Pathway for Engineering program, a sequence of high school courses intended to have students learn and apply the engineering-design process, acquire strong teamwork and communications proficiency, and develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. It also offers a middle school program, Gateway to Technology, with a strong engineering focus.

SeaPerch: Equips teachers and students with resources to build an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle in an in-school or out-of-school setting, following a curriculum that teaches engineering and science concepts. Sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. The third National SeaPerch Challenge competition is in May.

TechBridge: Seeks to inspire girls to discover a passion for technology, science, and engineering. Its offerings include hands-on after-school and summer activities for girls, teacher professional development, and resources to help connect stem professionals as role models with young people. Founded by Chabot Space & Science Center in 2000.

A 2009 report by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council said it was “almost invisible” in schools and “few people even think of it as a K-12 subject.”

More recently, a survey conducted last year on math and science education found that about one in four high schools offers an introductory engineering course, though some analysts say the phrasing of the survey question makes that figure likely overstated.

Plenty of barriers exist to giving engineering a stronger presence in the curriculum, including the pressure of high-stakes tests in reading and math; teacher-evaluation systems that may, as one analyst put it, make teachers more “risk averse"; little or no focus on engineering in many states’ existing standards; and, a lack of teachers prepared to teach the subject.

The recent math and science survey, conducted by Horizon Research, found that just 7 percent of middle school science teachers, and 14 percent in high school, had taken one or more engineering courses in college. Only 7 percent of secondary science teachers consider themselves “very well prepared” to teach engineering.

When engineering courses are offered at the precollege level, they usually are electives.

Also, what takes place in the name of engineering education “does not always align with generally accepted ideas about the discipline and practice of engineering,” said the report from the NRC and the National Academy of Engineering.

That document outlines three principles of K-12 engineering education. It should: stress engineering design; incorporate key and developmentally appropriate math, science, and technology skills; and promote engineering “habits of mind,” such as systems thinking, creativity, and collaboration.

Several universities have recently set up programs to prepare engineering teachers at the high school level. The University of Texas at Austin launched a UTeach Engineering program a few years ago (akin to its program focusing on math and science teachers). The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the University of California, Berkeley, have followed suit with UTeach programs that also prepare engineering teachers, said Cheryl L. Farmer, the program manager at the University of Texas. Several other universities are working on plans to develop similar programs, she said. Tufts University in 2011 launched a master’s program in engineering education.

In addition to preparing teachers, the UTeach Engineering program in Texas developed the new Engineer Your World high school course.

“It’s an innovative course for students who want to learn more about engineering and its role in shaping our world,” said Ms. Farmer.

An excited Michael Connelly sees his team's tower get crushed during an exercise testing the durability of tower design in an honors engineering class at Stoughton High School in Stoughton, Mass. Engineering is building momentum in K-12.

One pilot site using the course is the brand new Lake Washington STEM School in Redmond, Wash., where Principal Cynthia L. Duenas said she was surprised to discover that many STEM schools she has visited did not include engineering in a meaningful way.

“We discovered that the ‘e’ in STEM was almost an afterthought,” she said. “That really stuck in my mental file, so my team and I decided that it had to be on equal footing with technology, science, and math.”

In one project, engineering teacher Arny W. Leslie said, students faced a scenario in which they were to build wind turbines for Haiti to generate electricity for running water pumps.

“What I’ve been impressed by is the way the math and science concepts have never seemed like an add-on,” Mr. Leslie said.

Meanwhile, the College Board is actively exploring the development of a new course framework and assessment in engineering design, but with a twist. The idea is to produce a portfolio assessment, as is now used for AP Studio Art.

Common Standards

The common standards for science, due out soon, may pave the way to give engineering more attention in schools, observers say.

Currently, no states have stand-alone engineering standards, and only about a dozen have included engineering “formally” in their science standards, according to Greg Pearson, a senior program officer at the National Academy of Engineering. Two states often highlighted as having a strong engineering dimension in their science standards are Massachusetts and Minnesota.

The common standards identify as a key stated aim that students apply their learning through scientific inquiry and the engineering-design process to deepen understanding.

Some engineering experts criticized a recent public draft, issued in January, saying it gave the subject short shrift and was a step backward from an earlier draft.

But Cary I. Sneider, a member of the science-standards writing team, said the final version will reflect significant changes that help to address such concerns.

“The engineering concepts were fragmented” in the prior draft, said Mr. Sneider, an associate research professor at Portland State University in Oregon.

“Engineering design is woven deeply into the core of the standards,” he said, “so it should become really a part of every science education program, from K-12.”

Even as engineering courses are becoming more widely available in schools, some experts say the most practical way to expose students to engineering on a widespread basis is by integrating it with the math or science courses they already take.

That’s the approach of two projects the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., is working on in collaboration with other universities and backed by NSF grants. They infuse engineering concepts and design activities with high school science classes, including biology, chemistry, and physics.

“Kids are always saying, ‘Why do I need to learn this, and what am I going to do with it?” said Arthur

Camins, who directs the Stevens Institute’s Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education.

In one unit, students tackle reducing climate change through the design and construction of a small-scale algae farm to help cut CO2 emissions.

In addition, Mr. Camins’ center has devised and is scaling up an underwater robotics program delivered mainly at summer camps.

“Virtually everything around us has been engineered, Mr. Camins said at the recent forum on engineering education. “And so it’s kind of insane not to engage kids in thinking about that ... and the decisionmaking process that goes into all that design.”

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Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as K-12 Bolsters Ties to Engineering


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