Ratcheting Up Student Engineers

Science Explored | Published  May 03, 2013

Recently our research team had the opportunity to attend the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) conference in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.  Engineering in education was a big part of the conversation, and with the NGSS newly released and our upcoming engineering connections, we couldn’t resist sharing their thoughts.

What do you picture when you hear the word scientist or engineer?  Crazy hair, glasses, and perhaps a lab coat loosely hung on scrawny shoulders for the former; blue overalls with a hardhat and a wrench in hand for the later.  Needless to say, our students often have “mediasized” images of two of the vital-to-the-nation’s-success careers.  When students are asked to draw one of these professionals, stereotypes quickly appear – students almost never draw themselves.  Could it be because they do not picture themselves in a lab coat with crazy hair?  Presenters at NARST saw things a little differently:  we need to teach students that they to can be engineers and scientists.  Racially diverse role models with a focus on making science and engineering cool would make a huge difference in attracting students.  Even more important, students need to actually experience science and engineering in the classroom so that the fields feel approachable and fun.

It can be challenging to teach students to think like an engineer when most curricula do not include any engineering standards.  Furthermore, engineering can be tough if you jump to thinking of it as designing aircraft or bridges.  Maya Israel of the University of Illinois and both Kathie Maynard and Shelly Micham of the University of Cincinnati led sessions at NARST championing the idea of engineering in the classroom.  In fact, engineering can be used as an instructional practice to promote scientific inquiry and literacy.  The understandings we develop through science become our problem solving tools to tackle engineering problems.

The problem is that there is a lack of research on how to best implement engineering as an instructional strategy.  For example, how structured it should be versus how open it should be is a contentious issue.  To tackle the problem, Israel, Maynard, and Micham launched a project aimed at understanding how to effectively integrate engineering design into upper elementary classrooms that serve low-income, at risk students.  They discovered that although the teachers were able to implement engineering design in the classroom by making connections to science content, students’ lives, and helping scaffold student inquiry, engineering experiences simply did not happen often enough.  As a result, they concluded that more work needs to be done to help teachers to maximize the potential within engineering design, particularly when it comes to how to handle learner variability, explicitly model critical thinking skills, and connect the activities in the classroom to real life engineering challenges and engineers.

It is important to teach students how to do and think as engineers and not just teach about engineering.  That can be a simple as understanding that hands-on problem solving is engineering.  As adults we engineer solutions to everyday problems:  how should I navigate the grocery store to beat the growing checkout lines out?  Traffic engineers handle very similar problems and apply their knowledge of science (both behavioral and automotive) to solving the problem.  Much like the revolution of teaching reading in context, engineering is teaching science in context.  If we can grasp effective simulations, problems, and experiences that use engineering to teach a scientific concept, our students will likely learn more deeply and be more engaged.  For now, we all are the researchers for how engineering in the classroom will play out.  So go ahead, tackle the problem by letting your students voice how they would like get involved with engineering and then engineer a project to let them explore it.


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