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

Rodney L. Custer, Jenny L. Daugherty, Joseph P. Meyer


In recent years, there has been a growing interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education across the K-16 spectrum. While much of this interest has concentrated on science and mathematics, technology and engineering are emerging as authentic educational problem-solving contexts, as well as disciplines in their own right at the K–12 level. Over the past 20 years, the technology education field has concentrated on defining and implementing content standards, the Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA, 2000) (the Standards), with mixed results. On a national scale, the field continues to evolve from its historical industrial arts base toward more contemporary approaches to curriculum and pedagogy. In spite of the publication of the Standards, which were designed to define the content base for technology education, practice continues to be driven by projects and activities with little focus on specific student learning outcomes. In addition, over the past decade, interest has shifted toward an alignment with engineering.

Corresponding with this shift in emphasis, the engineering profession has shown increasing interest in K–12 education. This interest can be largely attributed to a concern among engineering educators that too few students, including women and minorities, are being attracted to and prepared for post-secondary engineering education. More positively, there is a growing awareness that a well crafted engineering presence in the K–12 curriculum provides a rich contextual base for teaching and learning mathematics and science concepts. A variety of engineering-oriented programs have been developed, particularly at the secondary level, ranging from programs designed to promote general engineering/technological literacy (designed for all students) to programs designed to prepare students for post-secondary engineering education.

The National Center for Engineering and Technology Education (NCETE) has undertaken a larger scale initiative focused on pre-college engineering. NCETE was funded in 2004 through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Centers for Learning and Teaching Program. Over the past five years, a consortium of nine universities, through NCETE, has engaged in a variety of activities, including teacher professional development, the preparation of a cohort of doctoral students, and research. In the past year, NCETE’s activities have focused more directly on research.

One key problem that has emerged from NCETE’s work is the lack of a well defined, well articulated body of content for K–12 engineering education. This void poses serious problems for curriculum and professional development, as well as for research. Specifically, high quality curricular materials must be based on a well defined set of concepts and content. In the absence of this content base, materials tend to feature engaging activities that do not necessarily focus on conceptual learning or have the rigor necessary for accountability. The same problem occurs with professional development and pre-service teacher education. High quality teacher preparation and development must be congruent with a well defined base of content and concepts.

The absence of a clear understanding of the conceptual and content base appropriate for K–12 engineering education makes the development of meaningful learning, teaching, and assessment exceptionally problematic. The present study is designed to address this void.

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