It’s a flinty November morning and nearly every second-grade teacher in Harford County (Md.) Public Schools has bundled into a local school to witness a retooling of the district’s science classes. Students will spend six weeks learning about “Growth and Change” through agricultural engineering, starting with flowers and culminating in a hand-pollinator design project. Curriculum developer Pamela Lottero-Perdue, a Towson University science education professor and former engineer, directs the teachers to uncover a plate at each table and identify which foods are fruit. Apples, sure. But bell peppers and cukes? Kids will say, “Eeew,” blurts a teacher. “The scientific definition is different from the nutritional one,” explains instructor Ashley Black, whose second graders piloted the engineering unit last year. Be prepared for complaining parents, she advises; most won’t know that fruit is a flower’s ripened ovary, whether apricot or zucchini, and will insist cucumbers are vegetables.
Behold the newest dimension of engineering education. Propelled by research and the country’s drive for more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates, outreach programs have evolved well beyond the career-day talks, teacher workshops, and other one-shot efforts of a decade ago. “You can only do so many science fairs, and what impact does it have?” observes Beth McGrath, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology. Today’s engineering pipeline stretches from kindergarten design projects to video-game pilots to teacher prep programs, and often includes sustained relationships between universities and schools. As engineering faculty work with classroom teachers, regular science, math, or language arts instruction is being “engineer-ized,” says Elizabeth Parry, director of K-20 engineering partnerships at North Carolina State University. A few pioneering institutions, like hers and Towson, are creating curriculum and delivering professional development to entire schools and districts.
“I would say that engineering has gone from ‘would be sweet’ outreach to ‘Damn! We best get on it to build capacity for tomorrow’s innovation squad,’ ” says Jacquelyn Sullivan, associate dean of the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, describing the progression. TeachEngineering, a searchable digital library of standards-based, teacher-vetted engineering activities that Sullivan has overseen since its inception, exemplifies this trend. Now 10 years old, it has 41 curriculum-contributing partners nationwide and a long list of educators eager to contribute material. Other indications of momentum:
By connecting to classrooms, engineering educators can play a vital role in improving K-12 STEM instruction while introducing students to an exciting, lucrative profession many know nothing about. Beyond improving science learning, engineering increasingly is seen as a vehicle to encourage critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. And outreach is not a one-way street. Colleges of engineering can themselves benefit from K-12 efforts in attracting a more diverse student body, and improving persistence and teaching quality. Malinda Schaefer Zarske, researcher and former engineering outreach coordinator at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for example, says having to explain complex concepts to kids as a National Science Foundation graduate fellow made her “a much better teacher.” Biggest bonus: sharper communications skills.
The growth of university involvement follows a 2005 exhortation from the National Academy of Engineering’s “The Engineer of 2020” that “the engineering establishment should participate in efforts… to improve math, science, and engineering education at the K-12 level.”
The NSF now devotes 15 percent of its engineering education budget — which has averaged $30.7 million annually for the past decade — to K-12, a 2011 analysis calculated, with an average award of $1.4 million, eight times the average for undergraduate projects. Early NSF-sponsored projects centered on getting kids interested in STEM, particularly through such informal experiences as visiting a science museum. The emphasis has since switched to curricula, instruction, and classrooms. K-12 engineering education currently accounts for 21 percent of a recent initiative to develop innovative technology experiences for students and teachers, including 30 projects focused on using videogames and virtual worlds to teach STEM.
It has taken a while for engineering to take root in schools. A 2009 National Academies report declared engineering education “almost invisible” on the K-12 STEM radar screen. But now, with engineering and design prominently featured in next-generation science standards being developed from a National Research Council framework, NSF is “interested in not just reaching more students but learning from these efforts and scaling up,” says Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the foundation’s assistant director for education and human resources. That includes “a concerted effort around teacher preparation” and expanding professional development programs so educators learn how to incorporate authentic engineering experiences into their science or math classes.
Universities are leading some of the boldest efforts through federally funded Mathematics and Science Partnerships with state education agencies and schools. These represent a much deeper, research-based approach than what Chris Rogers, director of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at Tufts University, dismisses as hunch-driven “whiz-bang efforts” of the past in which “some guy comes in, puts a piece of potassium in water, and fires ’em up about science.”
When Beth McGrath and her colleagues set out seven years ago to demonstrate engineering could add value to K-12 classrooms, “there was a certain level of skepticism.” Today, she says, the research center has “more demand for professional development, scoping and sequencing, and planning for STEM curriculum than we can accommodate.” North Carolina State’s Parry, who works with the entire teaching staff in five schools on how to integrate engineering into every subject, including gym, admits she was “not the favorite person” when she first walked into classrooms. But by stressing “it’s about ‘engineering’ the verb, not the noun,” Parry could show teachers how hands-on projects could help develop students’ problem-solving skills and boost engagement across the board, not just in science. “It’s a tool to provide passion,” she says.
K-12 classroom instructors seem natural partners for engineers. Finding materials and pacing lessons add up to “a very tough engineering design problem that they’re solving every day,” notes Gerhard Salinger, a program director in NSF’s research on learning division and an early champion of K-12 engineering. Elementary classrooms have seen the biggest change, adopting engineering at five times the pace of higher grade levels. “It’s an opportune time,” explains Parry, ASEE’s K-12 and Pre-College division chair. “Teachers are generalists and have more control of the classroom and less ability-grouping, so they get more diverse teams,” and chances to integrate instruction.
Enter educators like Towson Assistant Prof. Lottero-Perdue, who is customizing a curriculum to put the “E” in STEM for every Harford County, Md., elementary grade. With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, she spent a year in industry before migrating to education, first as a master high school engineering and physics teacher, then earning a doctorate in science curriculum and instruction. Her partnership with Harford County Public Schools (HCPS), known as the SysTEMic project, grew out of the Army’s desire to help communities near the Aberdeen Proving Ground east of Baltimore prepare schools for an influx of new families under its base-consolidation plan. The university and school district argued the merits of starting young with engineering, and in 2008 won a $100,000 grant. A big chunk went to train teachers. “We can’t just say, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to be teaching engineering next year,’” says Lottero-Perdue, who modified and matched the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum to each grade’s state science content standards rather than tacking on a unit at the end. “They had no professional development in the subject. Many of them may not like science.” Already, teachers feel they barely have time to cover science; make engineering an extracurricular and few might opt to do it. By showing that heating a drink or performing other everyday tasks can convey engineering concepts, Lottero-Perdue hoped to quell their fear. “The whole point is to make teachers comfortable,” says Andrew Renzulli, HCPS’s science supervisor, who calls their enthusiasm for engineering “contagious.”
Since its 2009 launch, the SysTEMic project has received multiple grants, including from Maryland’s education department, and grown from a few pilots to all 33 elementary classrooms in the school system. “It’s a brand-new world,” beams Renzulli, who fired up the teachers at November’s training session by rhapsodizing about “the noise of learning” from excited kids doing engineering and science. That time is reserved during the district’s quarterly professional development days for Lottero-Perdue and her seasoned teachers to coach engineering underscores HCPS’s commitment to the effort. “We didn’t want it to be a one-stop wonder,” says Lottero-Perdue, who calculates that when Harford County pupils board the buses in June, all will have learned one engineering unit in grades 1 through 4 and two in grade 5 — taught largely by teachers she trained.
Alison Baranowski, a fourth-grade teacher at Havre de Grace Elementary School and an early recipient of Lottero-Perdue’s professional development, has seen her mostly low-income students’ engagement in science soar with the inclusion of engineering. “During lessons, students ask questions, think outside the box, and more than anything start to think like problem solvers,” Baranowski reports. “Every ability level can participate, too.” Integrating engineering also has influenced how Baranowski teaches science. “I try to ask questions instead of dishing out content,” she explains, adding that she also likes to familiarize students with the scientific method and turn more activities into experiments.
In previous years, Baranowski’s fourth graders would have learned about geology and erosion in the “rocks and minerals” curriculum. With the new materials-engineering unit, students apply content knowledge to construct a tile wall that can withstand a “wrecking ball.” The design process starts with reading a book about a Chinese girl who engineered a solution to a problem. The fourth graders then do the same, investigating the properties of sand, soil, and other earth materials to determine which would best keep tiles together. Finally, teams test their walls against a golfball pendulum. “Exciting times!” Baranowski exclaims. “Thinking like engineers and using the engineer-design process has been incredible.”
Embedding engineering into STEM instruction required a similar all-hands effort. The district’s elementary science specialist, Amy Ryan, found EiE units to match existing curriculum. After brainstorming on how to merge them, Lottero-Perdue drafted a blended unit. “I often had to reduce science in order to make time for the engineering,” recalls Lottero-Perdue. “This was difficult!” She modified existing science lessons, developed new ones, and wrote guides to translate science concepts into engineering concepts and processes. Kids, she finds, “particularly love the idea that they can work to solve a problem via the engineering design process for which the teacher doesn’t hold the one single answer!”
Engineering’s open-ended design challenges require K-12 educators to alter their teaching style. For starters, “design is not the same as inquiry,” the thrust of experiment-based science, notes NSF’s Gerhard Salinger. Also, “teachers get very nervous if there is no correct answer.” That’s where engineering schools come in. For North Carolina State’s Parry, “teacher professional development is where engineering can be the difference maker.”
Increasingly, collaborations are becoming institutionalized. The University of Texas, Austin, is training a corps of K-12 engineering educators from scratch. UTeachEngineering, part of the university’s pioneering science-teacher prep program, began four years ago, when the state legislature approved engineering as an acceptable science course. With a $12.5 million NSF math-science partnership grant, the university’s engineering and education faculty created a program to equip current science teachers and engineering and science undergraduates with content, pedagogy, and classroom practice. Stevens recently launched its first graduate certificate program for teachers, a five-course science and engineering sequence focused on energy and climate change. Teachers also receive monthly classroom visits to help them incorporate engineering in elementary and middle school science lessons.
For some engineering majors, K-12 outreach can increase interest in their chosen field, boosting retention. As an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at Tufts, Melissa Pickering struggled to see the practical side of her theory-heavy coursework. By contrast, she “loved” spending four or five hours weekly with elementary students in Boston’s Chinatown. “Every time I went in, I felt better about the week,” she recalls. “It’s hard to be discouraged around really excited kids.” Simplifying science and engineering concepts for youngsters not only made high-level physics more “tangible”; the experience ignited Pickering’s K-12 career. After two years as a Disney engineer, she formed a company, iCreate to Educate, to disseminate engaging, hands-on educational tools such as animation software developed at Tufts. Pickering may be part of a trend. Parry found that 67 percent of engineering majors who participated in K-12 outreach contemplated going on to graduate school — double the percentage of their nonparticipating peers.
University of Michigan fourth-year engineering students Shonique White and Amber Spears have experienced outreach from both sides. Both owe their choice of majors to participating in programs aimed at Detroit-area youth. Now, White has succeeded Spears as volunteer leader of an Ypsilanti elementary school engineering club. White loved how the kids “would get so excited,” hugging Spears when she arrived. “They knew they were going to do something cool.” When a student sends a thank-you note, “you know that you’re helping,” adds Spears, a civil and environmental engineering major. “You’re opening their eyes to something beyond. I could possibly be planting a seed.”
While veteran outreach coordinators like Parry can point to improved classroom climate and student achievement, sustained outreach programs are too new for research to determine the impact on the engineering pipeline. Then there’s the issue of gauging student learning. “Is it the diversity of solutions you see in class?” asks Tufts’s Chris Rogers. “In conventional science and math classes, it’s how many students get the right answer,” a mind-set that can lead to standardized curricula and stifled innovation before prospective engineers arrive on campus. “How do you assess a student’s contributions to group activities?” wonders Michael Haney, a director of NSF’s Discovery Research K-12 program, who favors portfolios or other ways to showcase a history of each student’s work. “Ultimately, schools will have to assign credit for that,” he says. Another concern: providing authentic engineering experiences, rather than canned activities. “In science education,” notes Haney, “every experiment is so contrived it doesn’t represent the real world.”
Answers to these questions depend in part on how engineering will be treated in the next-generation science standards due out this year. Currently being written from a National Research Council framework, these “common core” learning standards focus on crosscutting, interdisciplinary concepts and put engineering and design on a par with physics, biology, and other sciences that traditionally have had a “stranglehold” on curricula, as NSF’s Salinger puts it. Half the states have signed on to develop the new standards. The hitch: Of the 41 educators and experts on the writing team, only one has engineering experience, and he’s not an educator.
Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.