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

Professional Development for Teachers of Engineering: Research and Related Activities

Friday, September 25, 2009

Author: Rodney L. Custer and Jenny L. Daugherty

Very few K–12 teachers are prepared to teach engineering.

In the past decade, engineering has emerged as an important new content area on the K–12 scene. The growing interest in engineering has been triggered by several factors. Among these are opportunities for embedding academic content into authentic design situations, thus generating student interest in mathematics and science. The push for introducing youngsters to engineering is also a response to serious concerns about the declining number of students entering the engineering pipeline; a particular concern is attracting more women and minorities to engineering careers. On a more general level, advocates for teaching engineering at the K–12 level argue that all students will benefit from understanding how the technological world is designed and built.

Despite this growing interest, significant challenges will have to be addressed before engineering is accepted as an integral part of the K–12 curriculum. The primary challenges are: to identify a slot in the curriculum to house engineering; to identify a body of content; to convince policy makers, school administrators, and parents of the importance of engineering education; and to prepare teachers to effectively convey engineering content and concepts. All of these issues must be addressed before the promise of teaching engineering at the K–12 level can be realized.

The challenge addressed in this article is the need for engineering-related professional development (ongoing educational experience) for K–12 teachers, many of whom do not have the background or knowledge to integrate engineering into their classroom teaching. Some are educated as science or mathematics teachers. Others are technology educators, who emphasize design, technological literacy, and the impact of technology on society. But relatively few are prepared to teach engineering. Thus the existing teacher workforce will have to be retooled, and teacher professional development will be a critical aspect of that retooling.


Over the past several years, through curriculum development, funded projects, and research, the authors have spent countless hours obtaining a better understanding of how engineering is, and can be, taught in schools. In this article we briefly describe the results of our work, with a focus on teacher professional development. Although our efforts were concentrated on the secondary school level, we believe that our results have important implications for the entire K–12 spectrum.

The complex issues we address, both academic and political, are similar in many respects to the issues facing teachers in general and teachers of mathematics, science, and technology in particular. For many of them, a shift toward engineering will represent a substantial change in both content and approach. For some, it will mean learning more mathematics and science. For others, it will involve learning how to interact with colleagues in other disciplines to ultimately rethink and repackage traditional content to focus on engineering and design. For still others, it will involve rethinking teaching methods and learning to facilitate hands-on, open-ended design experiences in which students and teachers work together to solve real-world problems.

Some projects and initiatives have been undertaken to assist teachers in teaching engineering-related curricula, but relatively little research has been conducted to determine what works. For example, little is known about best practices, teaching techniques, or design principles for the professional development of engineering teachers.

Although there is a general consensus in the literature on principles for effective teacher professional development (e.g., Garet et al., 2001; Loucks-Horsley et al., 2003), little is known about how these translate to an engineering context. In addition, several complex issues have emerged that affect the implementation of engineering at the K–12 level and have a direct effect on teacher professional development.

Engineering-related initiatives have generally been clustered at the secondary level. These include funded curriculum projects and initiatives,1 reports from the National Academy of Engineering (2002, 2006), and standards initiatives for teachers of mathematics, science, and technology education. Thus secondary-level engineering professional development is a combination of existing initiatives for high school teachers.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a number of Centers for Learning and Teaching, but with few exceptions, they focus on building capacity for mathematics and science education. Only one NSF center, the National Center for Engineering and Technology Education (NCETE),2 focuses on teaching engineering at the secondary level. NCETE is an initiative by nine universities from around the United States that have joined forces to engage teachers in professional development, conduct research, and prepare a cadre of leaders for teaching engineering at the pre-college level. Most of our work on engineering professional development has been done in this context.

In this article, we synthesize the outcomes of four major activities: (1) Professional Development for Engineering and Technology: A National Symposium, held in February 2007 in Dallas, Texas; (2) a research project consisting of five case studies of engineering professional development projects (Daugherty, 2008); (3) Symposium on Professional Development for Engineering and Technology Education: An Action Agenda, held June 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia; and (4) a research study on the conceptual basis of secondary-level engineering education. Based on these experiences, we have attempted to develop recommendations for K–12 engineering, as well as for teacher professional development.  These four projects are briefly described below.3

Professional Development for Engineering and Technology: A National Symposium

In February 2007, a group of 55 educators gathered in Dallas, Texas, to share ideas and formulate recommendations for secondary-level engineering professional development. The participants included curriculum developers, state supervisors, professional development providers, pre-service teachers, content experts, and teachers who had completed professional development programs. The goal of this NSF-funded national symposium was to explore issues specific to engineering and technology education professional development. The event featured nine refereed papers organized around three major themes: (1) core engineering concepts; (2) knowledge specific to teaching engineering; and (3) effective models of professional development.

Following the symposium, a number of activities were conducted to refine and synthesize the findings, which yielded ideas and recommendations, among which were the need for better research, curriculum development, and collaboration among STEM disciplines. More specific to engineering, participants noted the need for models of professional development, clarification of unique aspects of engineering pedagogy, and advocacy for K–12 engineering education (Custer et al., 2007).

Engineering-Oriented Professional Development for Secondary Level Teachers: An Analysis of Five Case Studies

The second activity was a formal study of five professional development programs designed to prepare secondary teachers to teach engineering (Daugherty, 2008). The cases included in the study were Engineering the Future™, Project Lead the Way™, Mathematics across the Middle School MST Curriculum, The Infinity Project, and INSPIRES. The focus was on understanding (1) how each professional development program was designed, (2) fundamental content knowledge, (3) essential pedagogies, (4) unique challenges, and (5) effective practices. The study involved interviewing leaders, instructors, and participating teachers; observing workshops; administering a survey to teachers; and analyzing documentation.

Our analysis revealed a number of interesting patterns, including divergent purposes of the five projects (e.g., focus on career vs. general literacy); a general grounding in curriculum; the absence of a well defined, well articulated body of engineering content; diverse pedagogical approaches; divergent backgrounds and needs of teachers; and a strong preference for hands-on activities with relatively little emphasis on learning per se.

Symposium on Professional Development for Engineering and Technology Education: An Action Agenda

Based on a synthesis of the findings from the two major projects described above, a second symposium was held to develop and refine agendas for research and practice. The 25 participants who attended the second symposium includ ed representatives of all STEM disciplines, individuals with established expertise in professional development for teachers in mathematics and science, director-level leaders of three national professional STEM centers, and developers of engineering-oriented curricula.

Through discussions of three case studies and based on their wide range of experience with professional development and research, the meeting participants developed a framework and ideas for research and recommendations for practice. Research ideas were grouped into categories (context, inputs, process, content, and outcomes). Practice recommendations were clustered around policy, access, diversity, curriculum, pedagogy, pre-service, and school reform.

Formulating the Conceptual Base for Secondary Level Engineering Education: A Review and Synthesis4

One key concern that emerged from our conversations with curriculum and professional developers, as well as with teachers, was the absence of a well defined conceptual base for engineering at the K–12 level. The tendency was to concentrate on design activities crafted to engage teachers and students, with the implicit understanding that essential elements of engineering design were being used and, therefore, understood. This approach, although it is an effective strategy for engaging students, is troubling in the current atmosphere with its emphasis on standards in all academic areas and the high value placed on the delivery of content in the professional development of mathematics and science teachers.

To address this concern, we obtained funding for a study to articulate a conceptual basis for teaching engineering at the secondary level. The project involved extensive reviews of philosophical materials, curricular materials, standards documents from STEM disciplines, and previous research. We also conducted a series of focus groups with engineering educators and practicing engineers using criteria designed to identify core concepts of engineering at the secondary level. In addition, we attempted to identify issues and problems directly related to the definition of a conceptual base (e.g., the shape and purpose of engineering at the pre-college level and how to include the ethical and social dimensions of engineering).

Research on Professional Development for STEM Teachers

Before we present the findings and observations from our work with professional development, we first provide a broad summary of what research has shown about professional development for STEM teachers. The literature is fairly consistent about what constitutes effective professional development, although, of course, there is no “paint by numbers kit” (Loucks-Horsley et al., 2003). From a broad perspective, professional designers must consider a range of factors, including the extensive knowledge base that can inform their work, unique contextual features for each subject, a wide range of professional development strategies, and critical issues in education reform.

Contextual issues that surround teachers’ work and development are especially important. Teachers do not learn in a vacuum; rather, their learning is interwoven with school culture, instructional mission, and organization, as well as the teacher’s knowledge and the learning and achievement of his or her students. This complexity makes “it difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to come up with universal truths” (Guskey, 1995).

Nevertheless, some consistent elements have emerged in the literature on professional development for STEM teachers (Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin, 1995; Desimone et al., 2002; Garet et al., 2001; Loucks-Horsley et al., 2003). Effective professional development designs have the following characteristics:

  • They are reform-oriented (grounded in inquiry, reflection, problem solving, and experimentation).
  • They engage students, teachers, parents, school officials, and even the wider community in collective and collaborative participation.
  • They involve the participants in active, in-depth learning activities.
  • They are based on a well defined image of effective classroom learning and teaching.
  • They focus on improving both content and teaching techniques.
  • They include mechanisms for continuous improvement and evaluation.
  • They are embedded in the larger school culture and context.

These design elements are not completely aligned with our own observations of the teaching of engineering at the secondary level. Strong points of alignment include the emphasis on active engagement, problem-solving, and experimentation, as well as clear ideas of what constitutes effective learning and teaching. The emphasis on content, reflection, and sensitivity to reform and to school culture are less in line with our findings. For the most part, however, the literature on STEM professional development is instructive and provides a broad framework for thinking about engineering-oriented professional development.

General Issues and Recommendations for K–12 Engineering

Based on our work with secondary level, engineering-oriented professional development, we derived several general observations about engineering education at the pre-college level. These observations involve broad systemic issues that go beyond professional development and, in many cases, across the K–12 spectrum.

Purpose of Teaching Engineering

One of the most serious issues confronting K–12 engineering education is establishing its purpose in the schools. On the one hand, many believe that engineering should be a pathway to post-secondary engineering education. From this perspective, content and curriculum should be designed to maximize and enrich the mathematics and science backgrounds of highly capable students, typically in applied design situations, to prepare them for the rigors of college-level engineering. At the other extreme, many believe that K–12 engineering programs should advance technological and scientific literacy, thus helping to prepare students for informed participation in a world permeated with technology.

From the first perspective K–12 engineering is appropriate “for a select few.” From the second perspective, engineering is important “for all students.” Resolving this issue will have profound implications for content, curriculum, and pre-service and professional development.

Conceptual Base

Professional development for teachers of engineering tends to include a variety of engaging design activities. Much of the formal work is based on implementing funded curriculum projects, which are also activity- and design-based. Given the process-based nature of engineering design and the history of programs that typically house engineering at the pre-college level, this is not surprising.

However, a solid conceptual basis for these activities and classroom experiences is much less in evidence. The lack of emphasis on concepts and content in professional development activities for teachers of engineering differs from the strong emphasis on content in professional development for teachers of mathematics and science. The question of what students are learning is particularly important in an era of standards, high-stakes assessments, and federally mandated accountability.

In a project designed to identify and validate core engineering concepts, we attempted to identify a conceptual base. In addition, Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects, a new study by the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council released in September 2009, provides an in-depth discussion of the need for and desirability of developing K–12 engineering standards. The results will directly affect curriculum developers and in-service providers of professional development.

Advocacy and Policy

There is considerable confusion and a general lack of information about engineering at the K–12 level, both in the educational community and in the general public. In the educational community, serious concerns have been raised about where engineering content should be located and what it might replace in an already crowded curriculum. Even if a compelling case were made for including engineering in the curriculum, school leaders worry about where it would fit and what would be displaced. Should it be part of the existing science curriculum, which would have the associated benefits of engaging students in real-world science and mathematics applications? Or should efforts be focused on retooling technology-education classes to include engineering?

The second approach raises significant issues about capacity and public perceptions. First, there are not enough teachers in the technology-education field to teach engineering on a large scale. Second, many in the general public confuse design-oriented technology education with computers and other instructional technologies used in various ways throughout the schools. Thus incorporating engineering into K–12 schools would require significant, sustained advocacy to support changes in both school and public policies.

Student Access and Diversity

An ongoing issue in engineering education is how to diversify the field. For example, only 20 percent of degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 2005 (DOEd, 2005), and women’s presence decreases as one ascends the tenure track and academic leadership hierarchy (NAE, 2007). A national survey of minorities in science and engineering at research universities found that the number of underrepresented minority faculty in the top 100 departments for science and engineering increased by only 0.5 percent, rising to 5 percent (Nelson, 2007). Although educational and career choices are ultimately individual decisions, research suggests that a variety of factors contribute to the disproportion of women and minorities in engineering; these include differences in learning styles and work-life priorities and the absence of role models (Lukas, 2008; Nelson, 2007; Science Daily, 2009).

A variety of programs and initiatives have been developed and funded in recent years to address this concern (e.g., Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science [GEMS], Champions of Diversity, LSAMP, Expanding Your Horizons, Society of Women Engineers). We believe that engaging, context-based engineering activities at the K–12 level could significantly increase the diversity of students who participate in STEM classes and ultimately pursue careers in these areas.

Pre-service Teacher Education

Incorporating engineering into K–12 schools on a large scale will challenge colleges of education and engineering to develop new models of teacher education. This will, of course, depend on policy decisions, such as deciding with which discipline(s) it will be aligned. One model could be to restructure pre-service science and technology education programs to focus on the delivery of engineering content. Another model would be for colleges of education to certify students with undergraduate engineering degrees to teach engineering through programs at the master’s degree level.

Regardless of the model, preparing teachers to deliver engineering content in the public schools will require significant changes in the way they are prepared at the pre-service level. Important issues include requirements for mathematics and science, core engineering content, curriculum and activity development, unique pedagogical demands of teaching engineering, and appropriate collaboration with other STEM teachers. Decisions will also have to be made about the extent to which pre-service programs engage with nationally oriented professional development programs (e.g., Project Lead the Way, The Infinity Project, Engineering by Design).

Issues Specific to Professional Development

Teachers with Diverse Backgrounds

A number of engineering-oriented professional development programs are designed to include teachers from a variety of academic disciplines, generally mathematics, science, and technology education, but sometimes teachers from other disciplines as well. Although interdisciplinary collaboration often has positive results, diverse backgrounds frequently pose difficulties for professional developers. Because of differences in pre-service teacher education, teachers’ backgrounds and capabilities often vary across and within the three major disciplines.

Even for professional development programs designed to facilitate cross-disciplinary teams, it is sometimes difficult to transplant the same level of collaboration into schools, which have scheduling, curricular, and assessment constraints. Thus professional development must be flexible enough to meet the needs of teachers, particularly teachers who have varying levels of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics abilities. At the same time, it must be comprehensive enough to ensure that all teachers have the skills to transfer their learning into classroom practice.


One significant deficiency we observed in engineering professional development at the secondary level is a lack of critical analysis and reflection on pedagogy per se. In many cases, teachers were engaged in exciting activities, worked with well developed curricular materials, and interacted with one another in constructive and positive ways. But the general tendency was for teachers to concentrate on completing design challenges that they could then take back to their classrooms. In many cases, the primary focus was on tools, techniques, processes, and technical details and not on teaching methods or learning processes.

Although all of these are appropriate, there must also be a corresponding emphasis on teaching and learning. For example, teachers could be encouraged to ask themselves what concepts can be learned through a specific activity, what students are actually learning and which aspects of the activity are most effective in this learning, how a lesson might be changed to improve its transfer to a real classroom, and whether there might be opportunities to connect and reinforce learning from other content areas.

Engineering professional development should be designed so that teachers actively and routinely engage in this type of analytical and critical reflection on their teaching. Given the active, authentic, interdisciplinary nature of engineering content, the lessons learned through reflection on learning could inform other disciplines across the curriculum.


Engineering at the K–12 level has the potential to contribute to the vitality of schools. In a world infused with technology, it is becoming increasingly important that students know something about the role of engineering in creating the technologies they use every day. Active involvement in a democracy requires awareness to enable citizens to make good consumer choices and participation to voice their preferences at the ballot box. In addition, for the United States to retain its competitive edge, it is vitally important that students be well prepared to pursue high-tech careers in STEM disciplines. To realize this potential, the preparation and ongoing development of engineering teachers should be a top priority.


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Darling-Hammond, L., and M.W. McLaughlin. 1995. Policies that support professional development in an age of reform. Phi Delta Kappan 76(8): 597–604.

Daugherty, J.L. 2008. Engineering-Oriented Professional Development for Secondary Level Teachers: A Multiple Case Study Analysis. Dissertation, Department of Human Resource Education, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Desimone, L.M., A.C. Porter, M.S. Garet, K.S. Yoon, and B.F. Birman. 2002. Effects of professional development on teachers’ instruction: results from a three-year longitudinal study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 24(2): 81–112.

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Lukas, C. 2008. Studying Women and Science: Why Women’s Lower Rate of Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Courses Isn’t a Problem for the Government to Solve. Independent Women’s Forum, Position Paper No. 608, May 2008. Available online at

NAE (National Academy of Engineering). 2002. Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology, edited by G. Pearson and A.T. Young. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

NAE. 2006. Tech Tally: Approaches to Assessing Technological Literacy, edited by D. Garmire and G. Pearson. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

NAE. 2007. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

NAE and NRC (National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council). 2009. Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Nelson, D.J.  2007. A National Analysis of MINORITIES in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities. Available online at 07Report.pdf.

Science Daily. 2009. Are Women Being Scared Away from Math, Science, and Engineering Fields? Available online at htm. Accessed July 20, 2009.


1 See Project Lead the Way (, The Infinity Project (, and A World in Motion (

2 See National Center for Engineering and Technology Education (

3 This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. ESI-0426421 and ESI-0533572.

4 We wish to acknowledge our co-collaborator, Joseph P. Meyer, an NCETE doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, for his work on this project.


About the Author:Rodney L. Custer is chair of the Department of Technology at Illinois State University. Jenny L. Daugherty is interim managing director of the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Illinois State University.