In This Issue
Summer issue of The Bridge on Undergraduate Engineering Education
June 12, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 2

Opportunities in Engineering Education: Pathways to Better-Prepared Students

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Author: David B. Spencer and George Mehler

Engineering is an integral part of daily life and can provide a strong foundation for almost any career path. Teaching about the wondrously engineered world and drawing on everyday existence for teaching examples can make learning fun and relevant. Yet engineering faces a number of challenges, many of them rooted in education:

  • Engineering educational approaches are stale and need updating (Tryggvason and Apelian 2012).
  • The proportion of US college graduates in engineering is low and dropping (NSF 2006).
  • Dropout rates are much higher in engineering than in other areas of college study (Dodge 2008).
  • Girls and young women do not see engineering as a pathway to multiple career choices (Wang et al. 2013).
  • Engineering education at the high school level, let alone lower grades, is virtually nonexistent.

Is it any wonder that most young students have misconceptions of engineering? Among critical factors to attract young students into engineering are:

  • Training in math, science, and engineering, which should begin at an earlier age;
  • Teacher training and new curricula to help students learn in a way that is fun and exciting; and
  • Hands-on learning opportunities, such as field trips and camps that focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), to show the value of engineering and correct misconceptions about both academic and professional engineering.

Doing these things effectively at the K–12 level should increase the number of high school students who pursue engineering in college—and afford them a glimpse of the social and monetary value of an engineering degree.

Student-Centered Education

How should engineering education change over the next 20 years? The practice of lecturing to impart knowledge should change to a model in which the teacher asks key questions and acts as a coach, and students develop their own individual learning program to address the questions, working alone or in groups.

Growing Interest in Student-Centered Education

In a great TED talk in 2010, Sugata Mitra, winner of the 2013 Ted Prize, argued that teaching does not equal learning. He has gone on to make a compelling case for the benefits of a “self-organized learning environment” along with “encouragement.” His hypothesis is that the teaching curriculum should be one of asking questions, standing back in awe, and letting education happen, particularly in a small group environment. While his approach may not be fully appropriate for all aspects of future engineering education, it certainly provides much-needed food for thought about the effectiveness of past and present engineering teaching methods and practices.

An article entitled “The Efficacy of Student-Centered Instruction in Supporting Science Learning” (Granger et al. 2012, p. 105) cites numerous studies on the need for a different approach to teaching science, including one study by the National Research Council that synthesized research and suggested that

the goal of science instruction should be to help students develop four aspects of scientific proficiency, the ability to (i) know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; (ii) generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations; (iii) understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and (iv) participate productively in scientific practices and discourse. This approach to science teaching will require a shift from the teacher-centered instruction common in science classrooms to more student-centered methods of instruction. The defining feature of these instructional methods is who is doing the sense-making. In teacher-centered instruction the sense-making is accomplished by the teacher and transmitted to students through lecture, textbooks, and confirmatory activities in which each step is specified by the teacher. In these classrooms, the instructional goal is to help students know scientific explanations, which is only part of the first aspect of scientific proficiency. In student-centered instruction, the sense-making rests with the students, and the teacher acts as a facilitator to support the learning as students engage in scientific practices. [Emphases added.]

Examples of Student-Centered Education

The Birches School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, dynamically incorporates STEM and art (thus “STEAM”) in teaching grades K–2 (with the addition of a grade a year it will become a K–6 school). The Birches School children are learning math, biology, physics, chemistry, materials, computers, reading, and writing—all as an integrated knowledge base. They don’t study individual subjects as such but rather learn them by working on their own and in small groups with the guidance and encouragement of their teacher.

This past winter, for example, the children decided they wanted to learn more about birds, so the teachers adjusted the curriculum accordingly. The children became “citizen scientists,” part of ProjectFeederWatch administered by the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. They observed three bird feeders for 15 minutes a day on two consecutive days a week, counting and then graphing the number of birds of different species that they saw. They made scientific drawings of birds, measured wingspans, and learned from recordings the calls of various local birds. They dissected pellets spit up by owls to discover the fur and bones of ingested prey, then sorted the bones in categories, identified them, and mounted them. They each chose a bird to research, reading age-appropriate materials, and wrote a report and presented their findings to classmates. Finally, they created collages of birds and papier mâché birds.

Learning for the Birches School students is practical, relevant, and fun. Surely there is some wisdom in this program that could be applied to middle school, high school, and undergraduate engineering teaching methods.

At the undergraduate level, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) sets up three qualifying projects for students as they begin their studies (described in Tryggvason and Apelian 2012, p. ix):

  • The interactive qualifying project (IQP) engages small teams of students in addressing complicated, broad-based problems of societal importance, many carried out in other countries;
  • The major qualifying project (MQP) is essentially a team-based capstone project; and
  • The sufficiency project demonstrates mastery of subject matter in the humanities and arts.

The approach at WPI encourages self-learning, working in teams, communication, and collaboration, in part by allowing students to choose a topic tied to perceived social needs.

Individual engineers, working in isolation through what might be called constructive dissonance or individual genius, may in some cases germinate better ideas than teams and foster pursuit of out-of-the-box approaches, but working in teams is extremely important in much of an engineer’s professional life. Further, many students want a career that is both challenging and provides social interaction.

In short, engineering schools need to modernize their messages and their curriculum. If not, students will choose another field of study that seems more relevant and creates higher value for them. They will pursue that which is fun to learn even if it involves significant hard work.

National Standards and Opportunities to Introduce STEM in K–12

Very few young students are exposed to STEM, let alone engineering, at an early age. In the 20th century, most public and private schools in the United States focused on topics and skills that were important to their school or school district. Few states had developed standards for their schools, and on the national level there were no content standards that might help focus a K–12 program or particular courses. This lack of curricular focus meant that there was, and still is to a large extent, large variability in the content and skills that students are expected to master.

This situation started to change with the development of national standards—in mathematics (1989), English language arts (1996), and science (1996). Developed by experts and exceptional educators in each field, these standards were groundbreaking. But US education policy is set mostly by states and local school districts rather than by the federal government. So many schools did not adopt these standards, if they developed or used standards at all.

In 2001, the federal government passed the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring states to develop assessments in basic skills, establish levels of achievement, and assess students each year. In the absence of an established national level of achievement, each state was free to determine its own.

In 2009, the National Governors Association developed curricular standards for literacy (English language arts, or ELA) and mathematics, usually referred to as the Common Core standards. But there is an important difference from the earlier standards movement: this time 45 states have said they will adopt these standards. For the first time the United States will have a national set of education standards in ELA and mathematics.

But what about new science education standards?

Building on the Common Core movement, the National Research Council, with support from the Carnegie Corporation, is developing the Next Generation Science Standards (Schweingruber et al. 2013). Hopefully, states will adopt these new science education standards just as they have adopted the Common Core in ELA and mathematics. As a first step, the National Research Council released A Framework for K–12 Science Education Standards in July 2011. In December 2012 the NRC published A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, and in summer 2013 a consortium of states together with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association will release the actual standards.

One of the exciting additions to the new standards is, for the first time, the inclusion of engineering concepts and principles. The Next Generation Science Standards build on the three “core idea” areas—physical sciences, life sciences, and earth-space sciences—and add a fourth, engineering, technology, and the applications of science.

America’s future leaders, pioneers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, and citizens need to understand the beauty, wonder, and power that are unleashed through experience and knowledge of science and engineering, and this understanding must start at a young age. The Next Generation Science Standards make engineering principles an important part of education for even very young students. This is an important breakthrough for engineering education.

The Internet and Open, Interactive, Personal Teaching Opportunities

If the new national standards are adopted (and at this point there is no certainty that they will be), there will remain other challenges in creating world-class science education in the United States.

Many schools provide little or no time for science education until students enter high school. A recent study of elementary science education in the San Francisco Bay Area—home to much US innovation in science and technology—reported that 80 percent of K–5 teachers spend 60 minutes per week or less on science, and that 16 percent of them spend no time at all on the subject (Dorph et al. 2007). In the same study, teachers reported feeling that they were ill prepared to teach science and had few opportunities to improve their preparation. Lesson plans and experiments are available on the Internet, and teacher camps exist, but more is needed.

Nurturing an interest in science early in life is important for students to learn about its wonder and beauty as well as opportunities and careers in science. But the necessary funding, teacher time, and training are not available. The engineering community needs to give thought and energy to how that can be changed.

Technology and expanded use of the Internet may help in efforts to address this problem. The past 10 years have seen an explosion of web tools for interactivity, collaboration, support, and individualized learning. So the Internet can change the playing field in a manner not possible in the past.

In particular, the Internet can be a source of free, research-based, high-quality professional development for teachers (free access is the best way to reach financially disadvantaged schools and teachers). Beyond scientific facts, teachers need a resource that shows them how to teach the skills, concepts, and practices of science and engineering, to enable students to understand what makes these fields different from other forms of human endeavor. Access to such learning also shows students that everyone can do science.

Many US schools have many hurdles to overcome—poverty, inadequate resources, collapsing facilities, lack of qualified teachers. Technology can help in one area: the delivery of world-class curricula and professional development for teachers, which they can learn in an asynchronous manner. The recent proliferation of MOOCs (massive open online courses) may help (evidence indicates that only about 10 percent of students complete these courses, but use of this educational resource is still in its early days).

Through the skilled use of open-source, interactive, and supportive technology the United States has the opportunity to empower teachers to improve their own capabilities and those of their students, including raising their level of science knowledge to meet the national standards. Such technology can—and should—be made available to all students and teachers, not just those that can afford it. But teachers will continue to be a critical influence on successful learning.

A recent ExxonMobil initiative called Let’s Solve This reports on its website that research shows the importance of investing in teachers and concludes:

If we want to improve our schools, what should we invest in? . . . [R]ecent research shows that nothing transforms schools like investing in advanced teacher education. . . . Let’s invest in our teachers so they can inspire our students.

Properly trained and equipped teachers are needed as mentors, coaches, and encouragers. To paraphrase Rachel Carson (1965),

If children are to keep alive an inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

If better professional development can help more teachers become that “one adult,” more children will understand science, the world, and their place in it.

Opportunities to Incorporate the Arts and Encourage Intuition

Engineers are human beings first and engineers second—or they should be. They must deal not only with the facts and laws of science and engineering but with people, so they must also have a sense of the arts, character, and positive purpose and integrity. They need sensitivity and empathy. They must be able to piece together sparse information, conflicting data, and distinguish truth from perception. With attention to people’s facial expressions and intonations, effective engineers need to draw on their intuition to discern among fact, opinion, and motive to arrive at sound judgments. They need to appreciate that, although engineering examinations often require a single right answer, many real-world situations are characterized by shades of grey and may not have just one right answer. For all these reasons, engineering education should expand to include the arts and humanities—and respect for intuitive skills.

Philosophers through the ages have pondered the human liability to ignore intuition, resulting in decisions and actions guided by overrationalization—even in the knowledge that those decisions and actions are wrong. Because engineers’ work—their decisions and actions—directly affects millions of everyday lives, it is crucial that they heed their intuition at every stage.

Those who have read the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (2005) will understand how much faster the right brain can be at taking in data, both consciously and unconsciously, than the more deliberate left brain. Gladwell (2005, 265) observes that

The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.

Knowledge is the purview of the analytical left brain; understanding draws on the intuitive right brain to make sense of that knowledge.

We urge teachers to seek ways to incorporate intuition in their curriculum, as it is a critical characteristic of a fine engineer. In assembling and evaluating “big data,” for example—where it is hard to know all the details, and the outcomes may not feel right even though the data and the processes or theories appear correct—it is important to heed one’s intuition to perform “fallacy” checks. Attention to intuitive instincts can prevent big mistakes from big data.

Young engineers need to learn the arts, to trust their intuition, and to listen, in order to understand and artfully apply their engineering knowledge to solve the problems they confront.

Opportunities to Impart Good Character and the Freedom to Fail

The New York Times, in the Education issue of its magazine in September 2011, ran an article entitled “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” (Tough 2011). The article discussed the joint endeavors of two headmasters, one at a rich, white private school and the other at a low-income, largely black and Latino private school. Their goal was to get their students into top-tier colleges, keep them there, and prepare them for life. After looking at test scores, IQ, and the like, both headmasters concluded that what they needed in their curriculum was the “science of good character.”

In seeking to define “good character,” 24 character strengths were identified as important and common to all cultures and times. The list includes bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom, and integrity; emotional aspects such as love, humor, zest, and appreciation of beauty; traits related to social intelligence, described as the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations; and kindness, self-regulation, and gratitude—values emphasized in many religious traditions.

What was so interesting in this article was that students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically. They were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who could recover from a bad grade and vow to do better next time and get extra help after class to improve.

People who accomplished great things often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. . . . [T]his quality [is called] “grit.” (Tough 2011)

The article goes on to observe that

we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts, both large and small. And yet…what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. (Tough 2011)

If they can, parents protect their children from experiencing failure for many reasons, but usually to be helpful and minimize their pain and suffering. But protecting students and children from failure does not make them smarter or stronger: it disables them and undermines their personal growth and the development of responsibility. Quoting one of the headmasters,

The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything. (Tough 2011)

Thus the engineering student with a score of 800 on the math SAT and straight As in math and science may not be the best student for either academic success or long-term contributions to society. Academic skill must be enhanced by character and relationship skills. Deficiencies in both academic and human knowledge may be overcome through thoughtful education, hard work, and persistence.

It is easier to teach knowledge than it is to change someone’s character. But a good engineer in the 21st century needs both.


Engineering faces serious challenges, and education is a pathway toward solving them, especially if new methods of teaching and learning are evaluated with an open mind.

The Next Generation Science Standards put greater K–12 emphasis on STEM and for the first time add engineering to a national education standard. As engineers, we should support implementation of these new standards at the state level and locally.

The Internet can contribute to cost-effective instruction for both teachers and students, but teachers play the most critical role in student learning through their encouragement, example, companionship, and knowledge.

Engineering education should train students to work effectively in groups, through collaboration and the development of interpersonal relationships. Good engineers also need to have character—integrity, social intelligence, and grit—and the ability to trust their intuition. These character traits and skills can be taught and learned through discipline, example, and opportunity, and will lead to more effective engineers with a more productive and fulfilling life.


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About the Author:David B. Spencer is founder and chairman of wTe Corporation, a high-tech plastics and metals recycling company in Bedford, Massachusetts. George Mehler is K–12 Science Supervisor of the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor at Temple University College of Education.