Engineering in the Curriculum
For several years I’ve served as a consultant and author for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s K–8 science programs. Although I’ve worked on units related to astronomy and other Earth and space sciences, my primary focus has been on engineering, which is integrated into many of the units. Today, the great majority of state science standards include engineering design along with science inquiry. But surveys show that many teachers are still uncomfortable with teaching engineering. I believe engineering to be an immensely important part of science education, both to motivate students to engage with enthusiasm in our classes, and to ensure a brighter future for our students and our society.
Science vs. Engineering
The story begins with my second year of teaching. I had two middle school students who were among the most influential mentors who helped shape my vision of high-quality science education. Every time I began a new unit, one or the other would challenge me with the question, “Mr. Sneider, why do we have to do this?” I soon learned that it paid to answer their perennial question, because that was on the minds of the other students as well. They wanted to know why the work that we were about to undertake was relevant to their lives. They would not accept an answer like “It will help prepare you for high school,” or worse, “It will be on the test.” They wanted to know why the next unit of study would be relevant and meaningful. From then on, planning each new unit included thinking about why the new topic or skill would have value and meaning for my students and how to express it in a way that they would understand and accept.
A few years later, when I returned to graduate school for a degree in science education, I discovered a way to weave the question that those students raised into all aspects of science education, from curriculum development to teacher education and assessment. It began with a deeper question: What’s the difference between science and engineering? The answer to that question came from another mentor who hired me as a graduate assistant on a project examining science education in developing countries.
During one of our meetings, I asked that mentor about some of the materials I had been reading about K–12 engineering education in various countries that involved developing models and conducting controlled experiments. “Isn’t that science?” I asked. He explained that before WWII, science textbooks in the U.S. often included applications of science to make it more meaningful for students; but after WWII, when scientists were credited with developing nuclear weapons that won the war, school science shifted to focus on the “pure sciences.” The idea was that basic research was the key to a prosperous future. In contrast, developing countries had a practical need for engineers who could apply science and math to solve everyday problems, such as providing fresh water to cities, building wastewater treatment plants, bringing electrical energy to rural areas, providing methods and materials to produce high yield crops, and transforming medical systems to serve greater numbers of people. In those countries, students needed to learn how to apply what they were learning to solve problems and meet people’s needs. It occurred to me that my inquisitive middle school students would have thrived in such an environment, where the goal of every lesson is clear and meaningful.
In the U.S. today, K–12 engineering education often takes the form of a few common activities, such as building robots, or designing and testing bridges and towers. As the years passed, I realized that engineering education is not a set of activities. Rather, it’s a mindset that begins with developing an empathy and understanding of people’s needs, figuring out how to meet those needs by defining a problem, then finally brainstorming and testing possible solutions. Although science and engineering employ some of the same processes, such as conducting controlled experiments, and developing and testing models, the goals of science and engineering are different. The goal of science is to answer a question to explain a phenomenon. The goal of engineering is to solve a problem to meet a need.
Now that nearly all states have adopted science education standards that include engineering design along with science inquiry, a common challenge is to identify authentic ways to fully integrate them. Whenever I think about what “authentic” means, I recall my undergraduate days as an astronomy major, when I worked on a project to measure very fast variable stars that were just being discovered (pulsars). While the long-term goal was “science,” the short-term goal of my everyday life was “engineering.”
Science and Engineering, Together
Until the discovery of ultra-short-period variable stars, the practice was to use a light meter, called a photometer to measure the brightness of the variable, then switch to a nearby comparison star, then back to the variable, and so on during the night, to obtain a light curve that would provide evidence about why the star was changing in brightness. But that did not work for a star whose light curve was a few seconds. I needed to engineer a dual-channel photometer that observed the variable and a comparison star at the same time. That involved defining the data I needed, considering alternative ways to construct the instrument, building and testing prototypes, writing software to analyze the data, then redesigning the system so I could collect the data I needed for my undergraduate thesis. Yet again I was fortunate to have a mentor. One of my professors met with me every week for four years, helping me design, build, and test the instrument, join it to a large telescope, and start collecting and analyzing data. At the time, I thought I was doing “science,” but in fact I was involved in a deeply interwoven process of authentic science and engineering.
At the classroom level authentic science and engineering has a purposeful and meaningful goal. In some cases, it may involve engineering lab materials to answer a scientific question. In other cases, it might involve applying science and math concepts to solve a practical problem. What makes it authentic is that—like my undergraduate astronomy experience—the student is fully engaged in applying the practices of science and engineering to answer a question or achieve a solution.
My most recent mentor is Mihir Ravel, with whom I continue to collaborate today. Mihir’s background in experimental physics at MIT prepared him for a career in electronic systems design and as a leader in the field of high-performance instrumentation. We met after Mihir had transitioned from his career in corporate R&D into academic projects applying design-centric approaches to improve global STEM education. For the past decade we’ve worked closely on a diverse range of educational projects, including a high school engineering curriculum, an initiative to bring design and invention into the science classroom, a book for teachers on the use of formative assessment probes to uncover students’ ideas about technology and engineering, and most recently, a review of K–12 engineering education research.
As both an experienced engineer and executive responsible for ensuring the selection of productive projects, Mihir regularly nudges me to be sure and define a problem and brainstorm several ideas for solving it, before jumping to a solution. This is a common pitfall in engineering, like the pitfall in science of mistaking correlations for causal claims. We work hard to help our students guard against these errors in reasoning, and sometimes forget that they are easy for us to slip into as well!
How to Teach Engineering as a Part of Science
The research review that Mihir and I published in November 2021 grew out of our continuing interest in how to teach engineering as a part of science. Eventually we realized that we had collected enough studies to draw useful conclusions. Our study, entitled, “Insights from Two Decades of P–12 Engineering Education Research” is based on 263 research studies that provide data on Pre-K–12 students’ learning of engineering. Findings include generalizable teaching methods suitable across a wide range of educators and students. For example, a consistent finding is that it’s better to begin a science unit with an engineering challenge and revisit the challenge throughout the unit so that students understand the purpose and value of what they are learning.
One of the most encouraging findings from our review is that several methods have successfully addressed a major social inequity: improving the attitudes, STEM skills, and career aspirations of girls and non-binary youth, students of color, and youth from low-income families. For all students, engineering education not only results in increased knowledge and skill in science and engineering, but also lifelong skills such as teamwork, communication, and creativity, as well as persistence, motivation, self-confidence, and STEM identity. (The full report is available online.)
I’ve encountered many more mentors in my lifetime than I have listed here, so I conclude with a sincere “Thank you!” to all of them for helping me appreciate the value of engineering as a part of science education. Together, I believe we have made an important, and perhaps essential contribution. The introduction of engineering design challenges as an integral part of science education not only answers the question “Why do we have to do this?” It also helps today’s youth prepare for a world in which they will be faced with challenges on a daily basis, helping them thrive in an ever-changing world, and contributing to a sustainable future.
Dr. Cary Sneider is a visiting scholar in the Educational Leadership and Policy Department at the College of Education, Portland State University. He served as consultant to the NRC committee that developed A Framework for K–12 Science Education and as engineering lead on the writing team for the Next Generation Science Standards. He is also an HMH science author.
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