Report Explores K-12 Engineering Possibilities

A committee of experts on diverse subjects has attempted to determine the scope of efforts to teach engineering in elementary and secondary schools. Issues include types of curricula and professional development, how engineering education interacts with science, technology, and mathematics, and the impact of initiatives.
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A committee of experts on diverse subjects has attempted to determine the scope of efforts to teach engineering in elementary and secondary schools. Issues include types of curricula and professional development, how engineering education interacts with science, technology, and mathematics, and the impact of initiatives.

A comprehensive 234-page report, “Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects”, results from a two-year study under the auspices of the National Academy of Engineering and the Board on Science Education at the Center for Education, part of the National Research Council.

A committee of experts on diverse subjects has attempted to determine the scope of efforts to teach engineering in elementary and secondary schools. Issues include types of curricula and professional development, how engineering education interacts with science, technology, and mathematics, and the impact of initiatives.

No reliable data are available on the precise number of U.S. K–12 students who have been exposed to engineering-related coursework. Most formal K–12 engineering programs in the U.S. emerged in the early 1990s. Since then, fewer than 6 million students have had some kind of formal engineering education. Enrollment for grades pre-K–12 for U.S. public and private schools in 2008 was nearly 56 million.

According to committee member Robin Willner, vice president, Global Community Initiatives, IBM, “We looked at hundreds of cases. An intriguing finding was that engaging young people in hands-on projects in engineering and design provides effective ways for them to learn core math and science concepts.”

Committee chair Linda P. B. Katehi, chancellor of the University of California, Davis, believes that Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects improves understanding of engineering across the board. Noting that students make up their minds by fifth grade if they like math and science, she says, “We couldn’t find much work on how early kids understand a design process (and it has to be designed appropriately). We suggest introducing engineering experiences very early in the process. Teacher learning will be critical. Although 18,000 teachers have had in-service experience, we need many more to use problem-solving.”

M. David Burqhardt, co-director of Hofstra University Center for Technological Literacy, a professor of engineering, and author of 11 books on engineering and secondary-school technology education, sees the report as gaining the attention of people interested in K-12 engineering. “It’s a great step forward. If we think of ‘engineering for everyone,’ what that means is not known; we need a better lens on technology in the world we live in.”

Alan G. Gomez, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering, and an engineering instructor and career and technical education coordinator for Sun Prairie Area School District, says, “This is a first step in organizing. For ten or fifteen years, people have been thinking about it, but this is the infancy of the movement.”

Connecting disciplines
Regarding the question of whether engineering should be taught as a single subject or used as a catalyst for interconnected STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, UW’s Gomez says, “There’s a need for integration into existing courses versus stand-alones. It’s additive in nature, integrating content. We want to have more engineers, yes, but let’s capture all students.”

Right now, STEM education doesn’t show natural connections among the four subjects. Committee chair Katehi says, “Engineering and technology have never really played a role in STEM; engineering could be the integrator.”

Project study director and senior program officer at the National Academy of Engineering Greg Pearson, points out, “STEM is an acronym used casually today as a synonym for science education--a misrepresentation of STEM. Engineering, as a subject of interest and usefulness, gets lost. However, the number of engineering-related programs has increased from zero 20 years ago to a small, but significant, number. A purpose of the study is to open people’s eyes to hidden potential.”

Recommendations (see summary) regarding curriculum, policy, and funding, plus an analysis of K-12 engineering curricula are presented along with a look at cognitive sciences about student learning of engineering-related concepts and several case studies. From several dozen engineering curricula and programs; 15 detailed curriculum analyses are presented.

Will K–12 engineering education heighten awareness of engineering and the work of engineers, increasing an interest in engineering careers and will it increase technological literacy for students? The goal is not specifically to produce engineers, but to integrate design concepts within STEM programs. The learning standards aren’t developed and guidance for teacher professional development is limited. There are no national and state-level assessments of student accomplishment. No single clearinghouse collects relevant information.

Issues and objectives
Issues include methods of teaching engineering, available material and curricula, and interaction among STEM subjects. UW’s Gomez says, “Teachers are already swamped and they will not buy into the rationale of a stand-alone course.”

The committee conducted literature reviews on areas of related conceptual learning, development of engineering skills, and their impact; and collected information on some pre-college engineering education programs in other countries.

One objective was to provide guidance to stakeholders regarding creation and implementation of K–12 engineering curricula and instruction, focusing on connection among STEM disciplines.

Other objectives were to survey current and past efforts to implement engineering-related K–12 instructional materials and curricula in the U.S. and other nations; review evidence related to its impact; describe ways in which content has incorporated science, technology, and mathematics; and report on intended learning outcomes of the initiatives, taking into account student age, curriculum focus and program orientation, and which policies and programs might play in at different governmental levels.

Areas of agreement
There is a consensus that an emphasis be placed on engineering design, as well as incorporate appropriate math and science skills through varied technology tools.

The promotion of engineering “habits of mind” was suggested. Many people believe these are essential skills for citizens in the 21st century--systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, communication and attention to ethical considerations.

According to the committee’s vision for STEM education, all students who graduate high school will have a level of STEM literacy that ensures their successful employment, post-secondary education, or both, They will be prepared to be competent, capable citizens in a technology-dependent, democratic society. Natural connections of engineering to science, mathematics, and technology enable it to be a catalyst to achieve this vision. Integrated STEM education could improve teaching and learning in all STEM subjects, leading to reevaluation of “currently excessive expectations for STEM teachers and students.”

Finally, for engineering education to become a mainstream component of K–12 education there needs to be much more, and much higher quality, outcomes-based data.

Hofstra’s Burghardt notes that professional organizations have been “pushing at the fringes” of these issues; he hopes for forthcoming collaborations. “Integrating engineering concepts allows us to have authentic tasks to apply reasoning. We need to see what it looks like at different grade levels. Connect the technology and design as a unifying thread.” 

A Summary of Committee Recommendations

* Foundations and federal agencies with interest in K–12 engineering education should support long-term research.

* Funders of new efforts to develop and implement curricula for K–12 engineering education should include a research component to provide a basis for analyzing how design ideas and practices develop in students over time and determining the classroom conditions to support it.

* The National Science Foundation and/or U.S. Department of Education should fund research to determine how science inquiry and mathematical reasoning can be connected to engineering design in curricula and professional development, including:

  •  the most important concepts, skills, and habits of mind in science and mathematics that can be taught effectively using an engineering design approach;
  • the circumstances under which students learn science and mathematics concepts, skills, and habits of mind through an engineering-design approach as well or better than through science or mathematics instruction;
  •  how engineering design can be used as a pedagogical strategy in science and mathematics instruction; and
  •  the implications for professional development of using engineering design as a pedagogical tool for supporting science and mathematics learning.

* The American Society for Engineering Education through its Division of K–12 and Pre-College Education, should begin a national dialogue on preparing K–12 engineering teachers to address the different needs of elementary and secondary teachers and pros and cons to establish formal credentialing processes.

* Given U.S. demographic trends and the challenges of attracting girls, African Americans, Hispanics, and some Asian subpopulations to engineering studies, curricula should be developed with attention to features which appeal to these students. Generally, curricular materials do not portray engineering in ways that seem likely to excite the interest of students from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Access and participation should be expanded.

  • Ad hoc infusion, or introduction, of engineering ideas and activities into existing science, mathematics, and technology curricula is the least complicated option. Implementation requires no significant changes in school structure. Requirements: willingness of teachers; access to materials.
  • Stand-alone courses could be offered as electives. They would require teacher professional development
  • Fully integrated STEM education would require changes in the structure and practices of schools. Research would be necessary to develop and test curricula, assessments, and approaches to professional development. Integrated STEM programs or pilot schools might be established to test changes.

* Philanthropic foundations or federal agencies with an interest in STEM education and school reform should fund research to identify models of implementation for K–12 engineering education that embody principles of coherence and guide decision making for widely variable school systems.

Copies are available from National Academies Press (800) 624-6242; A free Executive Summary is available at Browse and search the full, authoritative version for free or purchase print or electronic versions of the book published by National Academies Press.

The National Academies include the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research (



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