Design offers a springboard to engineering and science.
There is a clear need to increase interest in engineering and science careers among young students. What if a solution came from tried-and-true practices engineers currently use everyday? What if this same solution not only created more interest but also helped them become better students by more successfully learning technical and scientific content? These are questions that engineering faculty and learning scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have been exploring over the past five years. Their efforts show the exciting challenges and payoffs that come from using engineering design as a way to teach science concepts for middle and high school students.
The research involves understanding what prevents young people from relating to science and then creating a curriculum that removes these barriers. Researchers study the modes of thought and expression of young people as they and their teachers interact over their curriculum.
The researchers collaborated with science teachers and district experts to create units that immerse students in six-to-eight-week design projects. The units began with having students articulate their own needs for a design. Eventually, they built prototypes that met these needs. The researchers discovered that one of the biggest barriers students face in learning science topics is that they usually do not have ideas about why they need to learn most science topics. (“Why do I need to know about Ohm’s Law? I don’t build circuits at home.”) Instead, students think about why they might need an alarm system. (“To keep my little brother out of my room.”) Then, they design and build that alarm system using common sets of materials for prototypes.
Each immersion topic was carefully chosen so that, no matter what need a student articulated, the final design required wrestling with key science principles in order for the students to get their prototype to work. For the alarm system module, students learned about current, voltage, resistance, parallel and series circuits, detectors and sensors, light-emitting diodes and different types of sound buzzers. In more recent work involving a module in high school chemistry, students designed different heating and cooling systems using different types of containers and chemicals to learn about stoichiometry, exothermic and endothermic reactions and single and double replacement reactions. Their designs began with meeting such needs as warming hands in the winter or keeping drinks cold with a sleeve in the summer.
School budgets and grant funding allowed less than $10.00 per student for each module. State standards and district curriculum requirements had to be addressed. The modules needed to strategically cover topics that the current curricula did not cover adequately. Most districts have little flexibility in their curricula. The team also helped teachers adjust their teaching style: Instead of lecturing and providing answers, the team emphasized guiding students in testing their ideas and learning from the results how to make their designs work better.
The project has produced some surprising findings: Compared with a hands-on science curriculum, students learned science concepts better using an engineering design approach. It was possible to introduce the design approach without requiring large shifts in existing curricula. The change did not require huge amounts of resources for materials or teacher training. In addition, students learned what it is like to solve a design problem the way an engineer would.
The researchers believe that design allows students to think in many different modes flexibly, from creatively coming up with many different solutions, to analyzing them, evaluating them, and seeking to understand the physical phenomena that differentiates more effective solutions from less effective solutions. Ultimately, the design process allows students to build and express their own meaning in a process that integrates science and engineering design knowledge, and that unlocks their interest and engagement.
Matthew M. Mehalik is an adjunct faculty member, Freshman Programs, School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh. Yaron Doppelt is an instructor at the Yemin Orde Science Center and Braude College, Israel. Christian Schunn is a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center and associate professor of psychology at Pitt. This article is adapted from “Middle-School Science Through Design-Based Learning versus Scripted Inquiry: Better Overall Science Concept Learning and Equity Gap Reduction,” written for the Journal of Engineering Education.