PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - OCTOBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2
teaching toolbox
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Branching Out - Illustration by I-Shan Chen

By Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp


Every year, 30 to 40 students transfer from Purdue University's schools of engineering to its school of science. Although interested in engineering, many of these students want to teach, and there are no programs in the engineering schools to prepare them for teaching. The school of science, however, trains students to teach in elementary and high school.

And it isn't just at Purdue that engineering students are switching to disciplines better suited to their needs. Engineering programs have very little room in their curriculums for students to explore, a fact that discourages some students who would make good engineers from even considering it as a career.

Change is in the offing, however. In April, Purdue approved the creation of the country's first department of engineering education. And part of its mandate is to prepare engineering students to teach engineering. In May, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., followed suit and adopted a similar program. At Michigan Technological University, students have been able to complete an engineering degree and obtain teacher certification at the same time. The Michigan Tech Program was launched through support from the National Science Foundation.

"There are a number of factors in the preparation of engineers that would make them excellent teachers," says Sheryl A. Sorby, Associate Dean of Engineering at Michigan Tech. "Engineers typically have strong math and science backgrounds, are used to working on collaborative teams, routinely work on open-ended problems, have participated in a number of hands-on learning experiences and have learned how math and science principles are applied in the solution of real-world problems."

Several forces have come into play in recent years to spur the development of engineering education programs, which have a dual mission. In addition to training engineers to teach, they also want to attract more young people to engineering. For the nation to meet its technological needs in the future, it will need a strong engineering workforce. Yet, one recent study showed that the number of high school seniors planning on careers in engineering has dropped more than 35 percent in the past 10 years. Women and minorities are particularly underrepresented in engineering. Women earn just 20 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering and African Americans and Hispanics only 5 percent respectively.

States have begun to recognize the importance of engineering concepts as part of basic educational skills. Six states—Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Texas—already require engineering coursework for high school students, a trend educators expect will continue. That means teachers will have to have some training in engineering to be certified. It also means the demand will increase for engineering curriculum for elementary and high school classrooms.

The driving force is the need for today's citizens to have a technical literacy the same as they know how to read and do math, said Martha Cyr, director of kindergarten through 12th grade outreach at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, and among those who helped develop the engineering and technology education requirements in Massachusetts in 2001. Implementation is on going, she said, noting "Not many teachers have an engineering background."

Technology has been part of many schools' curricula, but the focus has been on ethics and decision making, Cyr said. As states went to standardize testing, it was harder to evaluate answers to philosophical questions, so more concrete items needed to be taught and tested. Lessons may cover engineering design and how that's different than scientific inquiry, or how materials are selected for their properties. "Materials selected for a house would be different than for shoes," she said.

In Maryland, initiatives launched in 1995 were revamped in 2002 to ensure that knowledge about technology is part of core education subject areas so students will be able to contribute and function in today's information technology society. In Texas, the curriculum for sixth to eighth graders, teaches students the skills needed in the application, design, production, and assessment of products, services, and systems and how to describe systems, such as manufacturing, construction, communication, energy, power, transportation, and technology activities.

At Purdue, most of the outreach for the new department will be at the kindergarten through high school level. Purdue will work with classroom teachers in their professional development and to develop lessons that emphasize higher thinking, engineering skills, such as problem solving, and design principles, said engineering dean Linda P.B. Katehi. With 6,160 students, Purdue ranks second in undergraduate engineering enrollment. Traditional outreach programs have been focused at high schools, but recent research has shown that children as young as seventh grade are making decisions about career interests, she said.

Most high school graduates have had little or no exposure to engineering as a career, which emphasizes the importance of outreach to increase the pool of interested students. "We've ignored the K-12 component of the educational process," said Duane Abata, former president of ASEE. However, the outreach for this age group is more than recruiting engineering students, he said. With classroom lessons, discussions, and other methods, outreach programs will work to improve the public image of engineering and technology by demonstrating their roles in society.

Purdue will also have a community-service component to its program. Students will work to resolve an engineering problem they see in their communities, such as designing furniture for individuals with physical disabilities or developing toys for children. "The topics will come from the community and from university students looking at needs," Katehi said. Purdue and Virginia Tech's programs will enroll undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students. Also, part of the mix will be adults seeking career changes, such as an engineer who would like to leave a corporate job to become a classroom teacher. It may also appeal to women and underrepresented groups. "Women are often concerned with issues around combining family and career and may prefer a career path that begins with work in industry, followed by a teaching career when they wish to start a family,'' says Michigan Tech's Sheryl Sorby.

Learning About Learning

There is greatly increased interest in the engineering college and among engineering faculty about the theory of education, said Hayden Griffin, head of the newly created department of engineering education at Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, with 5,606 students, ranks fourth in undergraduate enrollment. Within engineering education, there's a lack of research on teaching methods, learning, and assessment, something the new departments will tackle, Griffin said. Research by students and professors will explore and develop the best teaching methods and procedures for classrooms at colleges, universities, elementary and high schools, and corporations.

Engineering educators are collaborating with schools of education to meet the challenges of creating a new discipline, said Kamyar Haghighi, the head of the new department at Purdue—and who helped spearhead the effort there. His program and the one at Virginia Tech still must go through a state approval process. Virginia Tech admitted its first students this summer, while Purdue will begin accepting students in fall 2005.

Purdue's tentative curriculum includes engineering science, methods, and research mixed with service learning, teamwork, problem solving, and projects that involve designing new products or processes. The community service segment and outreach efforts speak to a broader purpose, to emphasize and build appreciation for the role of engineering in society, Haghighi said. Those seeking undergraduate degrees in engineering education will have an interest in engineering and want to teach in an academic, industrial or corporate setting. The graduate program will include students with undergraduate degrees in engineering or science who want to change direction and teach engineering, Haghighi said. Graduate students also may come from industry with the goal of teaching. Doctoral students will come from the graduate program or they will have master's degrees in engineering or science, or an interest in educational research or teaching at the college or university level.

The goal would be to have one or more faculty with a background in engineering education in each department, school, or college of engineering in the country, said Griffin from Virginia Tech. The "local guru of pedagogy" would work with his or her department to develop teaching methods and assessment to ensure students are getting the best education possible, he said. Most university faculty have no preparation for teaching. "As a result, they have to learn their craft by trial-and-error, a process that can take years. Unfortunately, the ones who pay for the errors are not the ones committing them. The training in good pedagogical methods—both general and engineering-specific—that students in the new departments will receive will equip them to be excellent teachers starting with their first day on the job, to share their expertise with their colleagues who want to improve their own teaching, and to develop and disseminate innovative instructional methods, textbooks, and courses," said Richard Felder, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University and a consultant on the Purdue program.

"Engineering education is a scholarly endeavor, especially research into how to improve the educational process for engineers," said Purdue's Haghighi. "When scientists began to study methods of science education, it caused a large culture shift in the field, but now the idea that we wouldn't study science education and train science teachers is unthinkable. We are beginning to see engineering education on that same path."

The new programs "provide exactly what we are looking for," says former ASEE president Abata. "They help with the recruitment and retention of students, assisting them in a career that will make a difference."

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.


Sweating the Small Stuff - By Corinna Wu
East Side Story - By Thomas K. Grose
True Grit - By Mary Lord
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Tech View - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
Branching Out - By Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
On Campus: Leadership Loud and Clear - By Robert Gardner
Research: Protecting the Home Front - By Randolph Hall
On the Shelf - By Wray Herbert
LAST WORD: Paper or Plastic? - By Mary Kasarda


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