The goal of the study described in this executive summary was to assess the value and feasibility of developing and implementing content standards for engineering education at the K–12 level. Content standards have been developed for three disciplines in STEM education—science, technology, and mathematics—but not for engineering. To date, a small but growing number of K–12 students are being exposed to engineering-related materials, and limited but intriguing evidence suggests that engineering education can stimulate interest and improve learning in mathematics and science as well as improve understanding of engineering and technology. Given this background, a reasonable question is whether standards would improve the quality and increase the amount of teaching and learning of engineering in K–12 education.
The committee concluded that, although it is theoretically possible to develop standards for K–12 engineering education, it would be extremely difficult to ensure their usefulness and effective implementation. This conclusion is supported by the following findings: (1) there is relatively limited experience with K–12 engineering education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools, (2) there is not at present a critical mass of teachers qualified to deliver engineering instruction, (3) evidence regarding the impact of standards-based educational reforms on student learning in other subjects, such as mathematics and science, is inconclusive, and (4) there are significant barriers to introducing stand-alone standards for an entirely new content area in a curriculum already burdened with learning goals in more established domains of study.
Alternatives to New Standards
For all of the reasons described above, the committee argues against the development of standards for K–12 engineering education at this time. Instead, we urge two approaches for leveraging current national and state standards to improve the quality of K–12 engineering education in the United States.
The first approach, infusion, is a proactive strategy to embed relevant learning goals from one discipline (e.g., engineering) into standards for another (e.g., mathematics). This could be done most easily when state or national standards are being revised. The second approach, mapping, would involve integrating (or mapping) “big ideas” in engineering onto current standards in other disciplines. Mapping is a strategy for retrospectively drawing attention to connections that may or may not have been recognized by the developers of current standards.
Core Ideas in Engineering
Both infusion and mapping will require consensus on the most important concepts, skills, and habits of mind in engineering. Agreement on these core ideas may be thought of as a first step in the development of standards, but it does not necessarily lead to the development of full-fledged standards. Even if standards for engineering education are never developed, the core ideas will benefit curriculum developers, cognitive scientists, teachers, those working in informal and after-school learning environments, and others. Although a number of groups have tried to articulate core ideas, a more rigorous and inclusive process will be necessary to achieve formal consensus.
RECOMMENDATION 1. Federal agencies, foundations, and professional engineering societies with an interest in improving precollege engineering education should fund a consensus process to develop a document describing the core ideas of engineering that are appropriate for K–12 students. The process should include the views of a wide range of stakeholders. Work should begin as soon as possible, and the findings should be shared with key audiences, including developers of new or revised standards in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology at the national and state levels.
Guidelines for the Development of Instructional Materials
One important benefit of core ideas would be to support the development of guidelines for K–12 engineering instructional materials. Guidelines would help curriculum developers focus these materials on the core ideas and ensure that students would be exposed to materials representative of the actual practice of engineering. Thus guidelines could have an immediate, positive effect on the development of K–12 engineering curricula.
RECOMMENDATION 2. The U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation should jointly fund the development of guidelines for K–12 engineering instructional materials. Development should be overseen by an organization with expertise in K–12 education policy in concert with the engineering community. Other partners should include mathematics, science, technology education, social studies, and English-language-arts teacher professional societies; curriculum development and teacher professional development experts; and organizations representing informal and after-school education. Funding should be sufficient for an initial, intense development effort that lasts for one year or less, and additional support should be provided for periodic revisions as more research data become available about learning and teaching engineering on the K–12 level.
Research on Learning
The committee found very little research by cognitive scientists that could inform the development of standards for engineering education in K–12. This was also the finding of the Committee on K–12 Engineering Education, which authored Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects, a 2009 report by the National Academies. We suggest that the previous committee’s recommendations related to research on learning be (1) evaluated for their relevance to the infusion and mapping approaches described in this report and (2) expanded.
RECOMMENDATION 3. The following research questions should be part of a wide-ranging research agenda in K–12 engineering education funded by the National Science Foundation, other federal agencies, and the private sector:
How do children come to understand (or misunderstand) core concepts and apply (or misapply) skills in engineering?
What are the most effective ways of introducing and sequencing engineering concepts and skills for learners at the elementary, middle, and high school levels?
What are the most important synergies in the learning and teaching of engineering and mathematics, science, technology, and other subjects?
What are the most important considerations in designing materials, programs, assessments, and educator professional development that engage all learners, including those historically underrepresented in engineering?
What are the best settings and strategies for enabling young people to understand engineering in schools, informal education institutions, and after-school programs?
Impact of Reforms
Although measuring the impact of reform efforts in K–12 education can be very difficult, the committee concluded that assessing the effects of the infusion and mapping approaches, core ideas, and guidelines for instructional materials will be essential for the development of K–12 engineering education in the United States over time. Data from these assessments will also provide a basis for evaluating the efficacy of continuing to pursue these and related efforts.
RECOMMENDATION 4. Federal agencies with an interest in improving STEM education should support a large-scale survey to establish a comprehensive picture of K–12 engineering education nationally and at the state level. The survey should encompass formal and informal education, including after-school initiatives; build on data collected in the recent National Academies report on K–12 engineering education; and be conducted by an experienced education research organization. The survey should be periodically repeated to measure changes in the quality, scale, and impact of K–12 engineering education, and it should specifically take into account how the practices of infusion and mapping, consensus on core ideas in engineering, and the development of guidelines for instructional materials have contributed to change.
A Final Word
Although the committee concluded that content standards for K–12 engineering education are not now warranted, our enthusiasm for the potential value of engineering education to our country’s young people and, ultimately, to the nation as a whole has not been diminished. For a country like the United States, which is largely dependent on technological development, we can think of few areas of education as critical as engineering to building an informed, literate citizenry; ensuring our quality of life; and addressing the serious challenges facing our country and the world.