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Seize the Moment

Engineers should lead the way in reforming K-12 education.

With last September's National Academy of Engineering-National Research Council report on K-12 engineering education and the White House emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), we as a profession are well positioned to make an impact on education reform. Many believe that engineering in the K-12 grades can effectively integrate not only science, math, and technology but also language arts, social studies, and the arts. As the NAE report states, engineering "habits of mind" - systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, communication, and ethical considerations - make up a basic 21st-century skill set for an informed citizenry. Never has the climate been so conducive for engineers, and engineering organizations such as ASEE, to lead a fundamental paradigm shift in education by deliberately, intently, and systematically implementing engineering design in K-12.

There are opposing views on whether the goal should be better-prepared future engineering students or an increase in the technological literacy of the population in general. It doesn't matter. The number of students - any students - who plan to pursue engineering is dropping, retention rates of engineering students remain stubbornly low, and the diversity of our profession has changed little in the past quarter century. The idea is not that every student in K-12 will become an engineer, but rather that exposure early and often to engineering will not only increase technological literacy but also provide students the tools to make an informed choice about engineering as a career.

Defining engineering in K-12 is best begun by defining what it is not. K-12 engineering is not technology education, reformatted to fit a STEM-focused world. It is not applied math and-or science. It is, rather, a logical and systematic approach to problem solving. It is designing under constraints and cultivating the ability to apply concepts. It is failure and the ability to weigh results against limits and make an informed decision. It is big picture and hands-on, with consideration given to impact. It is engaging, collaborative, and fun.

Elementary school is the right place to start engineering. Scheduling is more flexible than in older grades, and teachers have more time with the same students, allowing for subject integration. High-stakes testing, a consideration for any potential change in education, does not begin until the upper elementary grades, allowing early concentration on the development of basic skills, such as effective teamwork, the engineering design process, and systems thinking. Elementary engineering focuses on big ideas: design, systems, specifications and constraints, modeling and analysis, teamwork, and iteration. It is a rigorous and relevant tool that brings various subjects together.

The right place to start engineering is elementary school.

Teaching engineering in secondary school brings a more immediate payoff for universities seeking more engineering majors but to date has done little to increase the number and diversity of students who choose engineering. If engineering design is taught as an integrative pedagogical approach to instruction at the elementary level, secondary schools will be pressured to adapt to stakeholder demands for more of the same.

Engineering educators can lead the effort in several ways: ASEE should join with the NAE in defining the "big ideas" of engineering education at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and in correlating them to math, science, technology, and other core-subject standards. Engineering schools should collaborate with colleges of education to increase the presence of engineering in grades K through 8 and structure outreach efforts around NAE's engineering "habits of mind."

The future of our nation and world requires that we not only increase and broaden the pool of potential engineers but also boost the technological literacy of our citizens. What we've been trying for over 20 years hasn't worked. Let's design a systematic, comprehensive, national approach to engineering education, starting in elementary school. It is time to practice what we teach.


Elizabeth Parry is director of the K-16 Partnership Development program at the North Carolina State University College of Engineering.




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