Building towers out of toothpicks and glue, and then destroying them, might not sound like an assignment that belongs in a “technology” class.
But that’s what Steve Mikulski, a technology teacher at Roberto W. Clemente Middle School in Germantown, Md., is asking his 6th graders to do.
“We’re going to put them in this machine and smash them,” Mr. Mikulski said, pointing to the school’s $5,000 structural-stress analyzer.
He challenges the students to a contest in which they will try to construct the most “efficient” tower, light yet sturdy. The machine—after applying pressure on each tower until it breaks—will churn out a digital reading analyzing its strength.
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It’s activities like these—which spur children to use their hands and minds together to solve problems—that schools should embrace more often, according to the Reston, Va.-based International Technology Education Association. Last week, the group released the first national standards for technology education.
Technology education, at least in name, has been replacing industrial arts courses in middle and high schools since the mid-1980s. Mr. Mikulski, a member of the ITEA, believes the new standards will help speed the transition.
“It’s going to put everybody on the same page, doing the same activities,” he said. “That isn’t happening now.”
But the organization also hopes the standards will encourage educators in all subjects to think about technology as a subject worth teaching in itself.
“It’s a new subject—technology—that we’re striving for in the standards,” said William E. Dugger Jr., a professor emeritus of technology education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., who directed the five-year standards project for the ITEA.
When Mr. Dugger uses the word “technology,” he doesn’t just mean computers. He’s talking about virtually everything made by humans—from airplanes to artificial fabrics to medicine.
“Technology wakes us up in the morning, gets us to our workplace and school, provides food for us, and helps us to live better and longer,” Mr. Dugger said. People need to understand how to make decisions about technology based on something more than emotion or a gut-level feeling, he added.
The standards cover a broad range of topics, including engineering design and “the role of society in the development and use of technology.”
The ITEA calls them “technology literacy standards,” which differ from the “educational technology standards” published in 1998 by the Eugene, Ore.-based International Society for Technology in Education. The ISTE standards focus primarily on instructional technology, particularly computers.
Written with funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the standards were reviewed by the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. The ITEA plans to urge states to infuse them throughout all the core subjects of the K-12 curriculum, not just separate technology education classes.
But Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, described that idea as “dead on arrival.”
“The current frenzy for testing and accountability is so extreme that the idea of squeezing something else into the core curriculum ... is highly unlikely,” said Mr. Cuban, who has written extensively about the history of curriculum and instruction in American schools.
Dennis W. Cheek, the director of information services and research for the Rhode Island Department of Education and a member of the review panel of the National Research Council, said full-fledged adoption would be a “very steep climb.”
“The problem with technology education is it’s not even on the radar screen,” he said. “It probably has about the same status as something like music.”
Daniel M. Hull, the chief executive officer of the Waco, Texas-based Center for Occupational Research and Development, is hopeful that the standards might be used in science and social studies classes in elementary or middle school, but he believes they are too “exploratory” to be used in high school.
“I don’t think there’s enough room in the curriculum,” Mr. Hull said.
But at the same time, those experts said they like the standards and believe students could benefit from them.
“They’ve made a good case for the importance of the study of technology in and of itself in society,” Mr. Cuban said.
“We live in this pervasively technological world, yet there’s nothing in the school curriculum about it, and it’s appalling,” Mr. Cheek added.
Some observers who have criticized the growing use of computers in schools applauded the ITEA standards and said they hoped they would be taken seriously.
William L. Rukeyser, the coordinator of the Woodland, Calif.-based nonprofit group Learning in the Real World, said the standards acknowledge that technology involves trade-offs. He has argued that schools have been too quick to replace activities that encourage hands-on learning with computer activities.
“The people who put together this report seemed to be going out of their way to be getting rid of the ‘gee whiz’ evangelical approach that has characterized educational technology,” Mr. Rukeyser said. Like most of the outside experts interviewed for this story, he had not yet read the entire 248-page standards document, but was provided with an introduction and overview.
Jane M. Healy, the author of the 1999 book Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds: For Better and Worse, called the standards “a splendid idea.” She opposes the use of computers in schools before the end of the 2nd grade but said, “I’ve been suggesting in my lectures that we start talking with students very early about the place of technology in the culture and its relationship to human behavior.”
Douglas M. Sloan, a professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the standards didn’t seem to be critical enough of technology. He is a member of the Alliance for Childhood, a group of 45 educators, doctors, and children’s advocates formed last year who oppose the use of computers in the early grades.
Mr. Sloan said the chapter that spells out the need for the standards “reads like an indoctrination of a child into a technological world.”
Mr. Dugger responded that, in the document as a whole, “we feel there’s a good balance between the good side of technology and the dark side.” He added that he wants students to be “objective about its use and neither scared of it or infatuated with it.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as National Standards On Technology Education Released