In This Issue
K-12 Engineering Education
September 1, 2009 Volume 39 Issue 3
Fall 2009 Issue of The Bridge on K-12 Engineering Education

Putting the "E" in STEM Education

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Author: Charles M. Vest

Editor's Note

Charles M. Vest

Putting the “E” in STEM Education

Recently I participated in a White House-sponsored workshop that brought together leading K–12 teachers and administrators to discuss how STEM education can be improved. Toward the end of the day, Steve Robinson, Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education, asked, “Where is the E in STEM? Doesn’t engineering have a role?” That is a good question and one that NAE has been examining in some detail through the work of the Committee on K–12 Engineering Education.

Continuing concerns about the nation’s innovation capacity, particularly in light of the current economic crisis and evidence of climate change, have brought renewed attention to the importance of student engagement with STEM subjects—science, technology, mathematics and engineering. We simply must provide girls and boys in elementary school, the drivers of the economic engine of tomorrow, opportunities to develop interest and skills in these subjects. If we do not, we may not be able to sustain our quality of life or address the grand challenges of our times.

The teaching of engineering in K–12 schools raises many questions. The most fundamental questions are what “engineering” means in the K–12 context, how it differs from technology, and how it relates to science and mathematics curricula. The first article in this issue addresses this question. Authored by NAE member Linda Katehi and two National Academies staff members, the article provides a summary of Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects, a recently released report that surveys the landscape of K–12 engineering in the United States (NAE and NRC, 2009). The study committee came to several important conclusions, one of which is that the dominant STEM subjects—science and mathematics—tend to be taught in “silos,” that is, as separate, independent subjects. Engineering, the committee suggests, may provide a catalyst for integrating STEM education and making it more relevant to students’ everyday experiences.

The next two articles are by experts working on curriculum development and teacher professional development. Christine Cunningham of the Boston Museum of Science shares her experiences as part of a team that developed Engineering is Elementary™ (EiE), a series of units for teaching basic engineering concepts and skills to elementary school students. Each EiE unit combines an engineering design project with basic science, math, and reading skills. EiE also provides training for teachers and other support resources. Rodney Custer and Jenny Daugherty, of Illinois State University, report on their research related to teacher professional development and the factors that can influence classroom outcomes.

To get a sense of how engineering education plays out in the real world, we invited Jacob Foster, Massachusetts Department of Education, to recount how his state has fared in incorporating engineering ideas into its K–12 learning standards. Massachusetts is the first state to have taken this step.

Christian Schunn from the University of Pittsburgh then discusses what cognitive researchers have learned about how and at what age children appear able to learn engineering concepts and skills. As he points out, this topic has not been well researched, but there are indications that even the youngest students can grasp many engineering concepts, such as systems, optimization, and trade-offs.

The last article, by Suzanne Jenniches of Northrop Grumman and Catherine Didion, head of the NAE Diversity Program, describes the history and impact of NAE’s EngineerGirl! website, which is designed to interest middle school and high school girls in engineering studies. The site is one example of the many informal, out-of-classroom initiatives that have been developed to introduce engineering to K–12 students. As the authors show, there are some encouraging signs that this informal route is bearing fruit.

Taken together, these six articles provide a snapshot of the still-developing shape of engineering’s footprint in K–12 schools. Considerably more effort on multiple fronts will be necessary to improve and expand the fairly isolated pockets of current K–12 engineering education. Given the issues we face as a nation, it is critical that we understand how best to develop young people’s passion and ability to change the world through engineering.

About the Author:Charles M. Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering