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Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects
neering design and science were integrated, pre-post data showed that the achievement gap for African American and Latino/a students was narrowed, but the achievement gap for girls was increased (Cantrel et al., 2006). It is not clear in this case whether the students engaged in a truly iterative design process, which has been shown to encourage science learning for girls and students from families of low socio-economic status (SES) (Kolodner et al., 2003). Barnett (2005) reported on a study of inner-city, low SES, predominantly ethnic-minority high school students that included a significant population of English language learners and many students with disabilities. All of these students had participated in a project that involved designing remotely operated vehicles. Pre-post data revealed that, overall, the students’ understanding of physics had improved. However, the improvement did not translate to higher scores on a district-wide final exam in physics.
So-called challenge-based environments can mimic design or motivate students to solve problems in order to learn engineering, science, and mathematics content. In a three-year study of this approach, “legacy cycles,” Klein and Sherwood (2005) found that students in the experimental group had statistically larger gains in measures of relevant science knowledge and concepts. Although most of the modules did not involve design, they did require problem solving in the context of engineering and had many design elements. The researchers argue that design challenges embedded in science activities increase the likelihood that students will explore variables rather than stopping their inquiries as soon as the design criteria have been satisfied. The “Math out of the Box” program uses a modified legacy cycle in which engineering provides a context for learning applied mathematics (Diaz and King, 2007). This program has been implemented in several schools; the ones that have continued to use it have found that achievement scores in mathematics have risen, particularly for low-SES and African American students. The schools that discontinued the program found that mathematics scores fell.
Qualitative research in the learning sciences provides some insights into how and why science and mathematics learning may be impacted by participation in engineering activities, particularly design activities. Fortus et al. (2004) recorded significant increases in science knowledge among ninth graders engaged in the “Designed-Based Science” curriculum. The researchers suggest that this effect can be explained in part by students’ personal ownership of science content as compared with consensus-driven ownership in other forms of inquiry. Students using this curriculum were also able to transfer their understanding of a concept from the original context to a different context (Fortus et al., 2005), which the researchers