8 July 2009

Washington, DC


Rodger W. Bybee


Does the nation need standards for K–12 engineering education? The answer to this question is paradoxically both simple and complex. It requires an examination of a rationale for such standards as well as of opportunities and barriers to developing and implementing them.

The Idea of Standards

A contemporary agreement among 46 states to join forces and create common academic standards in math and English language arts makes it clear that the idea of standards has an overwhelming appeal to policy makers. National standards also have an unimaginable complexity for the educators responsible for “implementing” them (Bybee and Ferrini-Mundy, 1997; DeBoer, 2006; NRC, 2002). The current understanding of standards derives from the original meaning of a standard as “a rallying point for an army” which evolved to an “exemplar of measure or weight” to a statement of “correctness or perfection” and finally to a “level of excellence.”

The primary functions of an educational standard are to rally support, increase coherence, and measure attainment. All of these functions require political persuasion, psychometric precision, and practical applications. In the end, setting standards, such as those being considered for K–12 engineering education, will require securing the allegiance of a broad constituency, addressing programmatic concerns beyond policy (e.g., school programs and teaching practices), and implementing an assessment system that is manageable and understandable to educators and the public.

Standards for education are statements about purposes, priorities, and goals (Hiebert, 1999). In engineering education, standards would be value judgments about what our students should know and be able to do. Education standards should be developed through a complex process informed by societal expectations, past practices, research information, and visions of professionals in associated fields (e.g., engineering and education).

Before we go further, several terms should be clarified. In general, discussions of academic standards and current considerations of engineering education standards refer to CONTENT STANDARDS—learning outcomes described as knowledge and abilities in a subject area. For example, students should learn concepts, such as systems, optimization, and feedback;

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