many in the United States, K-12 students overseas gain early exposure
to the world of engineering.
When I was awarded a college scholarship with the caveat that I
major in engineering, I spent a week surfing the Internet to determine
just what engineers did, other than “build stuff.” Still,
I went into my engineering degree program with no real understanding
of what I would be studying.
Now that I’m a graduate student headed toward a career in
engineering, I realize that my own lack of preparation in primary
and secondary school was not unusual. In fact, while many extracurricular
engineering initiatives exist in the United States, only one state—Massachusetts—integrates
engineering content directly into its K-12 curriculum.
How does America’s record compare with those of other major
countries? I recently explored this question while spending 10 weeks
at the National Academy of Engineering. Working on a study funded
by NAE member Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr., I gathered information on
pre-university engineering education initiatives abroad, identifying
more than 25 major engineering education initiatives in nine countries.
My work was primarily descriptive, rather than intensely analytical.
Nonetheless, I was impressed—not only by the many initiatives
but also by their apparent quality and variety.
provides several avenues for children to become involved in engineering
during the course of their standard schooling, including engineering
colleges (comparable to our magnet high schools). While engineering
colleges make a specific effort to integrate engineering into all
aspects of the curriculum, national qualifications in engineering
and engineering diplomas are available to all students, whether
or not they have matriculated at an engineering college. Students
in Northern Ireland and Wales may also seek the same national qualifications
available to students in England.
Vocationally oriented curricula are offered in Australia, South
Africa and South Korea starting in high school. Junior Ingenieur
Akademie in Germany and the ORT Innovative Scientific Tracks in
Engineering Studies in Israel also introduce students at the high
school level to complex engineering concepts. Many countries, such
as Singapore, lack specific engineering courses at the pre-college
level but still introduce students to the designed world through
a design and technology curriculum starting in primary school.
In 2005, the National Academies were charged by Congress with identifying
the “top 10 actions ... federal policymakers could take to
enhance the science and technology enterprise” in the United
States. The Academies responded with a report, Rising Above the
Gathering Storm, expressing serious concerns about the country’s
ability to remain competitive in science and technology. Recommendations
included strengthening K-12 education, higher education and commitment
The Academies’ report has generated tremendous discussion
within the political arena about K-12 math and science education
but surprisingly little commentary on the exposure of K-12 students
The comparison of U.S. education to programs overseas raises the
question of whether this country is falling behind not merely in
the dissemination of existing curricula but also by failing to address
the standard subject content required for the development of a proficient
For the U.S. to remain competitive in a global marketplace, it
is essential to consider how the international community defines
engineering and how other countries are preparing their technical
Carolyn Williams was a 2007 Science and Technology Policy Graduate
Fellow at the National Academy of Engineering. She is completing
a master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University
of California, Los Angeles.