The Status and Nature of K-12 Engineering Education in the United States

K–12 engineering education has significant implications for the future of STEM education.

K–12 engineering education has slowly been making its way into U.S. K–12 classrooms. Today several dozen different engineering programs and curricula are offered in schools around the country. In the past 15 years, several million K–12 students have received some formal engineering education, and tens of thousands of teachers have attended professional development sessions to learn how to teach engineering-related coursework.

The presence of engineering in K–12 classrooms is an important phenomenon, not because of the number of students impacted, which is still small compared to other school subjects, but because of the implications of engineering education for the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

In recent years, educators and policy makers have reached a consensus that the teaching of STEM subjects in U.S. schools must be improved. The focus on STEM topics is closely related to concerns about U.S. competitiveness in the global economy and about the development of a workforce with the knowledge and skills to address technical and technological issues (e.g., CCNY, 2009; NAS et al., 2007; NSB, 2007). To date, most efforts to improve STEM education have been concentrated on mathematics and science, but an increasing number of states and school districts have been adding technology education to the mix, and a smaller but significant number have added engineering.

In contrast to science, mathematics, and even technology education, all of which have established learning standards and a long history in the K–12 curriculum, the teaching of engineering in elementary and secondary schools is still very much a work in progress, and a number of basic questions remain unanswered. How should engineering be taught in grades K–12? What types of instructional materials and curricula are being used? How does engineering education “interact” with other STEM subjects? In particular, how does K–12 engineering instruction incorporate science, technology, and mathematics concepts, and how are these subjects used to provide a context for exploring engineering concepts? Conversely, how has engineering been used as a context for exploring science, technology, and mathematics concepts? And what impact have various initiatives had? Have they, for instance, improved student achievement in science or mathematics? Have they generated interest among students in pursuing careers in engineering?

In 2006 the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and National Research Council Center for Education established the Committee on K–12 Engineering Education to begin to address these and other questions. Over a period of two years, the committee held five face-to-face meetings, two of which accompanied information-gathering workshops. The committee also commissioned an analysis of many existing K–12 engineering curricula; conducted reviews of the literature on areas of conceptual learning related to engineering, the development of engineering skills, and the impact of K–12 engineering education initiatives; and collected preliminary information about a few pre-college engineering education programs in other countries. This article summarizes some of the committee’s findings and presents selected recommendations from the committee’s report.

General Principles

The way engineering is taught varies from school district to school district, and what takes place in classrooms in the name of engineering education does not always align with generally accepted ideas about the discipline and practice of engineering. To provide a vision of what K–12 engineering might look like, the committee set forth three general principles. These principles, particularly Principle 3, which relates to engineering “habits of mind,” are aspirational rather than a reflection of current K–12 engineering education, or even post-secondary engineering education.

Principle 1. K–12 engineering education should emphasize engineering design. The design process, the engineering approach to identifying and solving problems, is (1) highly iterative, (2) open-ended, in that a problem may have many possible solutions, (3) a meaningful context for learning scientific, mathematical, and technological concepts, and (4) a stimulus to systems thinking, modeling, and analysis. In all of these ways, engineering design is a potentially useful pedagogical strategy.

Principle 2. K–12 engineering education should incorporate important and developmentally appropriate mathematics, science, and technology knowledge and skills. Some science concepts, and some methods of scientific inquiry, can support engineering design activities. Some mathematical concepts and computational methods can also support engineering design, especially in the areas of analysis and modeling. Technology and technology concepts can illustrate the outcomes of engineering design, provide opportunities for “reverse engineering,” and encourage the consideration of social, environmental, and other impacts of engineering design decisions. The following concepts and methods should be used, as appropriate, to support engineering design, particularly at the high-school level: testing and measurement technologies, such as thermometers and oscilloscopes; software for data acquisition and management; computational and visualization tools, such as graphing calculators and CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and manufacturing) programs; and the Internet.

Principle 3. K–12 engineering education should promote engineering “habits of mind.” Engineering habits of mind2 are aligned with what many believe are essential skills for citizens in the 21st century.3 These include (1) systems thinking, (2) creativity, (3) optimism, (4) collaboration, (5) communication, and (6) ethical considerations. Systems thinking equips students to recognize essential interconnections in the technological world and to appreciate that systems may have unexpected effects that cannot be predicted from the behavior of individual subsystems. Creativity is inherent in the engineering design process. Optimism reflects a world view in which possibilities and opportunities can be found in every challenge and every technology can be improved. Engineering is a “team sport”; collaboration leverages the perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities of team members to address design challenges. Communication is essential to effective collaboration, to understanding the particular wants and needs of a “customer,” and to explaining and justifying the final design solution. Ethical considerations draw attention to the impacts of engineering on people and the environment, including possible unintended consequences of a technology, the potential disproportionate advantages or disadvantages for certain groups or individuals, and other issues.

No reliable data are available on the precise number of U.S. K–12 students who have been exposed to engineering-related coursework. With a few notable exceptions,4 the first formal K–12 engineering curriculum programs in the United States emerged in the early 1990s. Since that time, fewer than 5 million students are estimated to have had some kind of formal engineering education. By comparison, the projected enrollment for grades pre-K–12 for U.S. public and private schools in 2008 was nearly 56 million (DOEd, 2008).

No reliable data are available on the number of teachers involved in K–12 engineering education. At most, 18,000 teachers have received pre- or in-service professional development training to teach engineering-related coursework. The relatively small number of curricular and teacher professional development initiatives for K–12 engineering education were developed independently, often have different goals, and vary in how they treat engineering concepts, engineering design, and relationships among engineering and the other STEM subjects.

Claims for the benefits of teaching engineering to K–12 students range from improved performance in related subjects, such as science and mathematics, and increased technological literacy to improvements in school attendance and retention, a better understanding of what engineers do, and an increase in the number of students who pursue careers in engineering.

The most intriguing possible benefit of K–12 engineering education is improved student learning and achievement in mathematics and science. For example, students who took courses developed by “Project Lead the Way,” currently the largest K–12 engineering program in the United States, scored significantly higher on science and mathematics in the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress than students in a random, stratified comparison group (Bottoms and Anthony, 2005; Bottoms and Uhn, 2007).

Overall, however, the small number, uneven quality, and small size of these studies cannot provide unqualified support for any of these claims. For engineering to become a mainstream component of K–12 education, there will have to be much more, and much higher quality outcomes-based data to guide its development.

To address this challenge, the committee recommends that foundations and federal agencies with an interest in K–12 engineering education support long-term research to confirm and refine the findings of earlier studies of the impacts of engineering education on student learning in STEM subjects, student engagement and retention, understanding of engineering, career aspirations, and technological literacy.

Curricula

The committee identified more than 30 K–12 engineering education curricula, more than half of which were reviewed in detail.5 The curriculum analyses revealed that engineering design, the central activity of engineering, is predominant in most curricula (and professional development programs). The treatment of key ideas in engineering, such as constraints, optimization, and analysis, is much more uneven and, in some cases, suggests a lack of understanding on the part of curriculum developers. These shortcomings may be the result, at least in part, of the absence of a clear description of the most important engineering knowledge, skills, and habits of mind, how they relate to and build on one another, and how and when (i.e., at what age) they should be introduced to students. Unlike the other three STEM subjects, no content standards for K–12 engineering education have been established. The topic of state-level standards for K–12 engineering is addressed by Foster in this issue.

Although there are a number of natural connections between engineering and the other STEM subjects, existing curricula in K–12 engineering education do not fully explore them. For example, scientific investigation and engineering design are closely related activities that can be mutually reinforcing. Although most curricula include some instances in which this connection is exploited (e.g., using scientific inquiry to generate data to inform engineering design decisions or using engineering design to provide contextualized opportunities for science learning), the connection is not systematically emphasized to improve learning in both domains. Similarly, mathematical analysis and modeling are essential to engineering design, but very few curricula or professional development initiatives use mathematics in ways that support modeling and analysis.

To help address these shortcomings, the committee recommends that the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education fund research to determine how science inquiry and mathematical reasoning can be integrated with engineering design in K–12 curricula and teacher professional development.

The review of curricula revealed that technology in K–12 engineering education has primarily been used to illustrate the products of engineering and to provide a context for thinking about engineering design. In only a few cases were examples of engineering used to elucidate ideas related to other aspects of technological literacy, such as the nature and history of technology or the cultural, social, economic, and political dimensions of technology development.

Teacher Professional Development

Compared with professional development for teaching science, technology, and mathematics, professional development programs for teaching engineering are few and far between. Nearly all in-service initiatives are associated with a few existing curricula, and many do not provide ongoing in-classroom or online support following formal training or other follow-up steps that have been proven to promote teacher learning. The issue of professional development is discussed at length by Custer and Daugherty and Cunningham in this issue.

There are no pre-service initiatives that are likely to contribute significantly to the supply of qualified engineering teachers in the near future. Indeed, the “qualifications” for engineering educators at the K–12 level have not even been described. Graduates from a handful of teacher preparation programs have strong backgrounds in STEM subjects, including engineering, but few if any of them teach engineering classes in K–12 schools.

To address this major gap, the committee suggests that the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), through its Division of K–12 and Pre-College Education, begin a national dialogue on preparing K–12 engineering teachers to address the very different needs and circumstances of elementary and secondary teachers and the pros and cons of establishing a formal credentialing process.

Diversity

The lack of diversity in post-secondary engineering education and the engineering workforce in the United States is well documented (e.g., NACME, 2008). Based on evaluation data, analyses of curriculum materials, anecdotal reports, and personal observation, the committee concluded that the lack of diversity is probably an issue for K–12 engineering education as well. This problem is manifested in two ways. First, the number of girls and underrepresented minorities who participate in K–12 engineering education initiatives is well below their numbers in the general population. Second, with a few exceptions, 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. For K–12 engineering education to yield the many benefits its supporters claim, access and participation will have to be expanded considerably. 

To begin to address this problem, the committee recommends that K–12 engineering curricula be developed with special attention to features that appeal to students from underrepresented groups (see Cunningham this issue). In addition, programs that promote K–12 engineering education should be strategic in their outreach to these populations. Both curriculum developers and outreach organizations should take advantage of recent market research that suggests effective ways of communicating about engineering to the public (NAE, 2008).

Policy and Program Issues

Although many questions about K–12 engineering education remain unanswered, engineering is being taught in K–12 schools around the country, and it appears that the trend is upward. Thus it is imperative that we begin thinking about ways to guide and support engineering education in the future. An underlying question for policy makers is how engineering concepts, skills, and habits of mind should be introduced into the school curriculum. There are at least three options—ad hoc infusion, stand-alone courses, and integrated STEM education. These options vary in terms of ease of implementation:

  • Ad hoc infusion, or introduction, of engineering ideas and activities (i.e., design projects) into existing science, mathematics, and technology curricula is the most direct and least complicated option, because implementation requires no significant changes in school structure. The main requirements would be (1) willingness on the part of teachers and (2) access to instructional materials. Ideally, teachers would also have a modicum of engineering pedagogical content knowledge to deliver the new material effectively. The ad hoc option is probably most useful for providing an introductory exposure to engineering ideas rather than a deep understanding of engineering principles and skills.
     
  • Stand-alone courses for engineering, which are required for implementing many of the curricula reviewed for this project, presents considerably more challenges for teachers and schools. In high schools, the new material could be offered as an elective. If that is not possible, it would either have to replace existing classes or content, perhaps a science or technology course, or the school day would have to be reconfigured, perhaps lengthened, to accommodate a new course(s). Stand-alone courses would also require teacher professional development and approval of the program at various levels. This option has the potential advantage of providing a more in-depth exposure to engineering.
     
  • Fully integrated STEM education, that is, using engineering concepts and skills to leverage the natural connections between STEM subjects, would almost certainly require changes in school structures and practices. Research would be necessary to develop and test curricula, assessments, and approaches to teacher professional development. New interconnected STEM programs or “pilot schools” might be established to test changes before they are widely adopted.

These three options, as well as others that are not described here, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, no single approach is likely to be acceptable or feasible for every district or school.

The need for qualified teachers to teach engineering in K–12 classrooms also raises a number of policy and program issues. The current ad hoc approach of mostly in-service training may not be adequate to train enough teachers if K–12 engineering education continues to grow. A variety of traditional and alternative mechanisms should be evaluated as part of the suggested ASEE-led initiative described above (“Teacher Professional Development”).

Moving toward STEM Literacy

The “siloed” teaching of STEM subjects has impeded efforts to generate student interest and improve performance in science and mathematics. It also inhibits the development of technological and scientific literacy, which are essential to informed citizens in the 21st century. Thus increasing the visibility of technology and, especially engineering, in STEM education in ways that address the interconnections in STEM teaching and learning could be extremely important.

In an ideal future for K–12 STEM education in the United States, all students who graduate high school would have a level of STEM literacy sufficient to (1) ensure their successful employment, post-secondary education, or both, and (2) prepare them to be competent, capable citizens in our technology-dependent, democratic society. Because of the natural connections between engineering education and science, mathematics, and technology, engineering might serve as a catalyst for achieving this vision.

A worthwhile subject for future study would be to determine the qualities that characterize a STEM-literate person. To this end, the committee suggested that the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education support research to characterize, or define, “STEM literacy.” Researchers should consider not only core knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but also the “big ideas” that link the four subject areas.

Pursuing the goal of STEM literacy in K–12 schools will require a paradigm shift for students, teachers, administrators, textbook publishers, and policy makers, as well as the many scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians involved in K–12 education. As a result of that shift, students would be better prepared for life in the 21st century and would have the tools they need to make informed career decisions or pursue post-secondary education.

 References

AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). 1990. Science for All Americans. Washington, D.C.: AAAS.

Bottoms, G., and K. Anthony. 2005. Project Lead the Way: A Pre-Engineering Curriculum That Works. Southern Regional Education Board. Available online at http://www.sreb.org/programs/hstw/publications/briefs/05V08_Research_PLTW.pdf (accessed May 9, 2008).

Bottoms, G., and J. Uhn. 2007. Project Lead the Way Works: A New Type of Career and Technical Program. Southern Educational Review Board. Available online at http://www.sreb.org/programs/hstw/publications/2007pubs/07V29_Research_Brief_PLTW.pdf (accessed January 15, 2009).

CCNY (Carnegie Corporation of New York). 2009. The Opportunity Equation—Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy. Available online at http://www.opportunityequation.org/TheOpportunityEquation.pdf (accessed July 15, 2009).

DOEd (U.S. Department of Education). 2008. National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2007 (NCES 2008-022), Table 3. Available online at http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=65 (accessed October 1, 2008).

ECCP (Engineering Concepts Curriculum Project). 1971. The Man-Made World. New York: McGraw Hill.

NACME (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering). 2008. Confronting the “New” American Dilemma—Underrepresented Minorities in Engineering: A Data-Based Look at Diversity. Available online at http://www.nacme.org/pdf/NACME 08 ResearchReport.pdf (accessed July 16, 2009).

NAE (National Academy of Engineering). 2008. Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

NAE and NRC (National Research Council). 2009. Engineer-ing in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects. L. Katehi, G. Pearson, and M. Feder, eds. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

NAS, NAE, and IOM (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine). 2007. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

NSB (National Science Board). 2007. A National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics Education System. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation.

 FOOTNOTES

 1 This article is adapted from the executive summary of Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects (NAE and NRC, 2009).

2 The term “habits of mind,” as used by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Science for All Americans (1990), refers to the values, attitudes, and thinking skills associated with engineering.

 3 See, for example, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, online at www.21stcenturyskills.org.

4 See, for example, The Man-Made World (ECCP, 1971).

5 The review was overseen by Prof. Ken Welty, University of Wisconsin, Stout, a consultant to the project.

About the Author: Linda Katehi is chancellor, University of California, Davis, an NAE member, and chair of the NAE/NRC Committee on K-12 Engineering Education. Greg Pearson is senior program officer, National Academy of Engineering. Michael Feder is program officer, Center for Education, National Research Council.