Engineering for all

The egg drop competition, STEM Day at Colorado State University-Pueblo for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County, 2011. Source: author.

What’s new?

Early this month, the research group Advancing Excellence in P-12 Engineering Education (AE3) released a report on precollege engineering education, Framework for P-12 Engineering Learning. The vision is to promote engineering literacy for all, from preschool through high school, to be achieved through learning engineering habits of mind, engineering practices, and engineering knowledge.

What does it mean?

A continued fear of a shortage of STEM graduates and a continued belief that all students need education in STEM fields have led many organizations to develop programs to start STEM education, including engineering education, in high school and even lower grades. For example, Project Lead the Way (PLTW) states: “Since 1997, we have grown from a high school engineering program to offering comprehensive PreK-12 pathways in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science.”  The trend continues. In 2017, IEEE (the professional organization for electrical engineers) developed TryEngineering Together.

Many assumptions underlie this trend, some of them questionable. The shortage of STEM graduates may not be real and often is really shorthand for the desire to allow the admission to the US of more immigrants with computer programming skills or as a gateway to offshoring the work. This 2015 analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that STEM is not a monolith and concludes “Across all the different disciplines, yes, there is a STEM crisis, and no, there is no STEM crisis. It depends on how and where you look.” The trend to focus college and now school education on career preparation can be lamented for its lack of focus on a broader education. The real issue in STEM education may be the need for STEM graduates to keep up with new developments in their field. Regardless of the truth about these issues, I support the US Department of Education argument that STEM education should provide STEM literacy and opportunities for all: “A child’s zip code should not determine their STEM fluency.”

But what is STEM fluency and how should it be developed?

My childhood included playing with kits from Edmund Scientific and with equipment my father brought home from his job as an engineer at Bell Labs:  lenses, magnets, batteries, wires, and lightbulbs. I had an Erector Set to build things, I made a generator, I put together my father’s overhead saw, I made a model of a river lock and another of the hanging gardens of Babylon, I grew salt crystals in a jar in the refrigerator, I spent one summer in a science exploration program looking at everything in a microscope, in high school in 1964 I learned to program in Fortran in a class run a local company, I was fascinated by the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio, and I took calculus in high school. I knew that I could get out of trouble by saying “But Mom, it’s a scientific experiment!” Note that very few of those memories relate to in-school activities. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged my STEM interests, especially my fascination with math.

In my role as chair of the Department of Engineering at Colorado State University-Pueblo for 21 years, I was involved in many outreach activities to promote engineering education, especially through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County. I know that I changed lives.

But I also worried – and still worry – that many programs can portray engineering in a cartoon version, similar to tinkering. For example, several times I showed a project by our engineering seniors to middle school students. Our engineering students had developed a prosthetic hand, including sophisticated controls. Imagine my dismay when (not just once) some middle school students told me: “We did that already!” They had, of course, tinkered with moveable parts and rubber bands, but lacked the knowledge to see the difference in what they did and what the seniors did. Also, I must note, what our seniors did was not the same as prosthetic hands developed by industry.

In this new report, AE3 has done an excellent job of laying out what engineers know, including the technical knowledge and their way of thinking. They have also incorporated guard rails against cartoon versions of engineering, including the need to strive for authenticity to engineering (page 15): “While engineering concepts, habits, and practices can and should be leveraged, when appropriate, as a context for teaching and learning a variety of subjects, it is important that engineering learning is aligned to engineering as a unique discipline. Therefore, it is necessary to continually evaluate whether engineering-related instructional activities are accurately depicted to children in a manner that is authentic to engineering. If not, we may expose children to something called engineering, which they dislike and therefore never explore the actual field. Concurrently, we may mislead or underprepare them by providing activities that they do enjoy but which have little relation to authentic engineering practice.”

I am torn. A balance needs to be achieved between providing experiences that are authentic engineering and that enhance excitement. I am a big fan of the educational theories of John Dewey who argues that a well designed series of experiences is the key in education. Tinkering is great and a lot of what I did as a child was certainly in that category. But education in principles must also be present.

The AE3 report has taken important steps toward creating the needed balance. The report argues that general learning objectives such as “apply the engineering design process to solve a problem,” must be replaced with much more specific content objectives. On page 13, for example, the report gives performance goals for high school students who may be engaged in projects such as the egg drop competition (design a package to keep an egg from breaking when dropped from a height) or in design tasks of constructing bridges or other structures from everyday objects such as popsicle sticks. One of the key ideas in such design is to understand the properties of the materials and the AE3 goals include the achievement by students of increasing levels of knowledge in the physical properties of materials, material deflections, material deformations, and column and beam analysis. If you are going to have students build, then make sure they are learning concepts (in structural analysis, statics, and project management), and that they are not just tinkering.

A series of structured activities is needed, the report argues, to build from P through 12. For example, from page 16, “Starting in the early grades, students could be provided with structured design problems, which will inherently be inauthentic, that allow them to build upon playful and experimental approaches to designing and problem solving.”

What does it mean for you?

I strongly suggest you read this report. I am having trouble not quoting from every page, because it is packed full with knowledge of education and engineering: the Engineering Habits of Thinking (including my favorite, Systems Thinking), Engineering Practices, and Engineering Knowledge (pages 25-26 and Appendix A, starting on page 63), the connection between science and engineering (page 20), the engineering literate student (page 32), engineering knowledge domains (pages 35-38), specific strategies for equity, diversity, and inclusion (pages 40-51), and a lesson plan template (Appendix B, pages 85-86). You will learn about engineering, about education, and about engineering education. You will be better prepared to help support teachers, schools, and other organizations in providing excellent education in STEM. You will also gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for engineering.

Where can you learn more?

The AE3 report builds upon the 2014 British report from the Royal Academy of Engineering, Thinking like an engineer: Implications for the education system.

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