Engineering is emerging as an important topic in US K–12 education. Although not as prevalent as other, more established school subjects, it is finding its way into standards instructional materials and assessments. The Next Generation Science Standards1 (NGSS; NGSS Lead States 2013), for instance, envision the integration of engineering concepts and practices with those from science, and the District of Columbia and nearly 80 percent of states have either adopted or adapted the standards. As another example, the Department of Education recently developed and administered a national assessment of engineering and technology literacy (NAEP 2016), which is providing insights into what US K–12 students know and can do in these important subjects. These and related developments are occurring in the context of broad, national support for improving K–12 student access and achievement in all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) areas, which are the building blocks of technological innovation, economic growth, civic participation, national security, and quality of life.
As the landscape of K–12 engineering education continues to evolve, educators, administrators, and policymakers must consider the capacity of the US education system to meet current and anticipated needs for K–12 teachers of engineering. What do such educators need to know and be able
1 The NGSS are based on a 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report: A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.
to do in order to be effective, and where and how might they develop such expertise?
To help answer these and related questions, the National Academy of Engineering and the Board on Science Education of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an expert committee to conduct extensive data gathering and analysis, including a thorough review of the research literature, surveys, and input from experts. The goal of the project was to understand current and anticipated future needs for engineering-literate K–12 educators in the United States and suggest how to meet these needs. The committee charge included eight questions in three areas:
The Preparation of K–12 Engineering Educators
- What is known from education and learning sciences research about effective preparation of K–12 educators to teach about engineering?
- What appear to be the most promising educator-preparation practices currently in use?
- What additional research is needed to improve and expand effective approaches for preparing K–12 engineering educators?
Professional Pathways for K–12 Engineering Educators
- What formal (e.g., state certification) and informal (e.g., “badging”) mechanisms are being used to recognize expertise and support career pathway options for K–12 teachers of engineering?
- What formal and informal credentialing mechanisms from domains other than education might be adapted or adopted to recognize expertise and support career pathway options for K–12 teachers of engineering?
- What are the practical and policy impediments to instituting effective credentialing for K–12 engineering educators, and how might they be addressed?
The Role of Higher Education
- What roles do or might postsecondary institutions, including but not limited to four-year engineering and engineering technology programs, play in the preparation of K–12 engineering educators?
- What are the practical and policy impediments to involving higher education in the preparation of K–12 engineering educators, and how might they be addressed?
Although not called out in the charge, the committee recognizes that informal education is a large and important component of the education system. In part due to lack of information about educator professional learning in informal settings, however, the report treats informal education in a very limited way.
ENGINEERING AND K–12 EDUCATION
Engineering is both a method for solving problems and a body of knowledge about the design and creation of human-made products and processes. Like many human endeavors, engineering has a number of essential qualities. It uses a systematic approach to understand and address problems; relies on large, diverse, and often geographically dispersed teams of individuals; employs repeated cycles of testing, data collection, analysis, and improvement to reach an optimal solution; accepts initial design failures as important and necessary to improving the solution; and is attentive to social and ethical concerns.
Engineering design is the universal problem-solving process used by engineers. Key concepts embedded in the design process include specifications and constraints, which establish the parameters of the solution space; optimization and trade-offs, which help engineers choose among potentially competing solutions; modeling and analysis, used to understand and improve the behavior of prototypes or elements of a potential solution; and systems, the discrete elements of a solution that are designed to work together in interdependent ways.
Engineering, science, and mathematics are interdependent disciplines, and advances in one often enable progress in another. Although not strictly defined as a discipline, technology encompasses the entire system of knowledge, processes, devices, people, and organizations involved in the creation and operation of technological artifacts, as well as the artifacts themselves. Much of modern technology is a product of engineering, science, and mathematics, and people in all three fields use technological tools. Engineering and science share a number of similarities but are also different in some important ways.
In K–12 settings, engineering is situated among STEM subjects in one of two ways: in the foreground, with science, mathematics, or both subjects in a supporting role; or in a supporting role, with science or mathematics, or both, in the foreground. In the first case, science and mathematics serve engineering, primarily by supporting engineering design solutions. In the second case, engineering serves science and mathematics, primarily by providing context to improve student understanding of science and mathematics. Although the two framings of K–12 engineering education share characteristics, their different emphases on engineering can lead to different learning objectives for students and, by implication, for their educators. The engineering design process plays a central role in K–12 curriculum and instruction.
GOALS OF K–12 ENGINEERING EDUCATION
The committee reviewed extant curricula and programs as well as related research and discerned four goals of K–12 engineering education:
- develop engineering literacy;
- improve mathematics and science achievement through the integration of concepts and practices across the STEM fields;
- improve college and career readiness; and,
- for a small percentage of students, prepare for matriculation in postsecondary engineering programs.
The four goals are not mutually exclusive. With the exception of preparing for matriculation in postsecondary engineering, which targets high school, the goals apply across the K–12 grades. While these goals are student focused, they have implications for how teachers of engineering should be prepared and supported.
Engineering literacy includes understanding of key concepts in engineering and a basic ability to engage in the engineering design process. Ideally, engineering-literate students (and their teachers) should also appreciate the influence of engineering on society and how engineering is different from science in its application to personal, social, and cultural situations. Finally, engineering literacy addresses issues related to technology.
All teachers of K–12 engineering should be able to teach to the goal of engineering literacy. This implies that they will need knowledge and skills equivalent to—and preferably more advanced than—those of their students.
Educators aiming to make use of mathematics and science in their engineering teaching need pedagogical content knowledge relevant to the integration of these subjects with engineering design. K–12 engineering educators involved in preparing students to enter college engineering programs need to master certain advanced concepts in mathematics and science. The latter might be accomplished through postsecondary engineering coursework, an engineering degree, industry experience, or some combination.
Achieving the goals will involve addressing issues of equity and inclusion, an especially relevant challenge given the longstanding lack of diversity in postsecondary engineering education and the engineering workforce.
THE WORKFORCE OF K–12 TEACHERS OF ENGINEERING
Limitations of available data make it very difficult to assess the extent to which US K–12 educators are teaching engineering. One data source is the federal National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS). According to NTPS, approximately 8,700 public school teachers taught “engineering” during the 2015–16 school year; another 19,000 taught “construction trades, engineering, or science technologies”; and 41,000 taught “industrial arts or technology education,” a field that is evolving to include instruction in engineering. Another data source is the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME) (Banilower et al. 2018), which found that 46 percent of public and private high schools in the sample offered at least one engineering course. This suggests that as many as 14,000 high school educators taught at least one such course that year.2 (For comparison, there are roughly 232,000 secondary science teachers working in public schools.)
Along with knowledge of how to teach, or pedagogy, teacher content knowledge is a critical component of effective teaching, and college degrees and course taking often serve as proxies for this knowledge. Just 6.3 percent of teachers of “engineering” and “construction trades, engineering, or science technologies” (combined) in the NTPS sample reported engineering as their first major, and only 1 percent of “industrial arts or technology education” teachers did so. In terms of coursework, NSSME (Banilower et al. 2018, table 2.7) found that 3, 10, and 13 percent of elementary, middle, and high school science teachers, respectively, had taken at least one college course in engineering.
There are very few programs that prepare prospective K–12 teachers of engineering. Some are in the field of technology education, which had 41 active teacher preparation programs as of 2017. The number of these programs has been declining for many years, and there is great variability in the extent of coursework in engineering and relevant pedagogy they provide. Programs that allow undergraduate students to combine a major in a STEM field with education coursework and certification to teach are another source of potential new K–12 teachers of engineering. The largest such initiative is the UTeach program, which has been adopted by over 40 universities. As of 2018 the program had graduated over 4,500 students, nearly 90 percent of whom have become K–12 teachers. The vast majority of these graduates have degrees in science or mathematics; 3 percent have degrees in engineering. In addition to the UTeach initiatives, another roughly half-dozen universities across the country provide engineering coursework to students studying to become K–12 teachers.
The committee was not able to determine the extent to which programs preparing new K–12 science teachers incorporate instruction and experiences in engineering. This is an important issue, given NGSS’s call for engineering concepts and practices to be integrated with those of science. Recently revised standards for science teacher preparation programs (NSTA and ASTE 2019) call out the importance of developing future teachers’ knowledge of engineering and of appropriate pedagogy.
One key element along the professional pathway to a career in teaching is credentialing. The most common credential for teachers who might be expected to teach engineering was for “technology education” (part of career and technical education, or CTE) and was available in 27 states. A number of states offer other specialized CTE credentials across a range of technical topics, including engineering. A small number of states include engineering requirements in credentials for teachers of STEM. For a variety of reasons, it was difficult for the committee to determine the specifics of the engineering-related knowledge required for many certification options.
A number of research-based frameworks spell out the general learning needs of K–12 educators, and many elements of these general frameworks are relevant to the preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering. But these educators also have unique learning needs. One document that spells out
those needs is the 2014 Standards for Preparation and Professional Development of Teachers of Engineering,3 developed by a group of K–12 engineering professional development providers. The standards call for K–12 teachers of engineering to
- be literate with respect to engineering design and engineering careers;
- acquire relevant pedagogical content knowledge, such as how teaching and learning in engineering are similar to, and different from, teaching and learning in science and/or mathematics; and
- appreciate how problem solving and engineering design can contextualize teaching standards of learning in other subjects (e.g., science, mathematics, language arts, reading).
The differing goals for K–12 engineering education mean that teachers of engineering may need to master concepts and practices that go beyond basic engineering literacy. When the instructional context warrants, for example, teachers of engineering will need to help students experience STEM education in a more integrated way. This capability will be important not only for technology educators, who need to support students’ use of science and mathematics to address engineering challenges, but also for science and mathematics teachers tasked with integrating engineering in their instruction or, indeed, for teachers of any subject who want their students to learn engineering. The breadth and depth of science and mathematics knowledge needed by K–12 teachers of engineering will vary according to grade, the specific curriculum, and instructional goals.
Another important area of teacher learning is knowledge about how to teach specific concepts within a subject, or pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). An important element of PCK for teachers of engineering is to understand and leverage the diversity of K–12 students’ backgrounds and experiences. Given engineering’s longstanding poor track record of attracting and retaining underrepresented minorities and women in education and the workplace, inclusive teaching methods may have special value in K–12 engineering education.
Researchers and practitioners have made strides in delineating aspects of the knowledge base relevant to the preparation of teachers of engineering, but far less progress has been made determining how this knowledge
base differs for teachers of different grades; how knowledge builds on itself over time (progression); and what preparation in science and mathematics teachers of engineering should have (and how this preparation might vary according to grade and primary subject taught).
Opportunities for meeting the learning needs of K–12 educators may occur during initial preparation, early career induction, and ongoing professional development. The committee found no empirical evidence that differentiated the learning opportunities needed by K–12 teachers of engineering at different stages of their careers. However, research on quality teacher preparation, induction, and professional development in other subject areas points to a number of learning experiences that can improve teachers’ subject-matter knowledge and PCK and that correlate with student performance. It is reasonable to expect that similar learning experiences for K–12 teachers of engineering would lead to similar improvements in outcomes.
Educators with formal academic preparation in the subject they teach are likely to have a better grasp of domain-specific content relevant to student learning goals. As noted, there are very few opportunities for prospective K–12 teachers to take coursework in engineering or otherwise gain knowledge of the field. With respect to programs that do provide such opportunities, the committee’s review of the literature uncovered no information about how the content and organization of the curriculum might influence educator preparation to teach K–12 engineering. The committee was also unable to determine the extent to which programs preparing new science teachers include engineering content and instruction, which might help these teachers implement the engineering components of NGSS.
Professional development can help teachers acquire new knowledge, adapt to shifting policies, and hone their craft once they have entered the profession. Considerable research has elucidated factors generally associated with high-quality professional development; these include active teacher engagement, a focus on content and instructional practices demonstrated to be effective, experiences during and outside of the school day, and enhanced capacity of teams of teachers. For K–12 engineering specifically, a few studies pointed to potentially promising practices; for example, curriculum design–based professional development, in which teachers learn content by creating instructional materials, can provide educators with both engineering content knowledge and an active learning experience. Professional development that brings teachers of engineering together in communities of practice, either in person or online, may also provide benefit.
CREATING A SYSTEM OF SUPPORT FOR K–12 TEACHERS OF ENGINEERING
The capacity to meet the objectives of any reform effort in K–12 education depends on more than the competence and confidence of individual teachers. It also depends on the many components of the larger system within which these educators work. Policies, programs, and practices at the federal, state, district, and school levels influence the extent and quality of preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering. Other actors, including higher education and the education research community, will also impact the nation’s ability to prepare K–12 teachers of engineering
The current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows states to use federal dollars to fund professional development of K–12 teachers of engineering, develop alternative certification pathways, and support engineering teacher leaders. However, states are not required to spend their federal funding in these areas. ESSA requires states to assess students’ science achievement at three points during their K–12 careers. Because the majority of states have either adopted or adapted NGSS, these assessments presumably will need to probe students’ grasp of engineering ideas and practices. Under ESSA, states may use federal dollars to integrate engineering design skills and practices in their science assessments, but this also is not mandated, and the committee found no evidence that new state science assessments are attending to specific ideas and practices in engineering.
Educational standards can serve as an important policy lever in reform efforts, particularly when aligned with curriculum, assessment, and teacher professional learning. The development and implementation of standards documents falls to the states. Standards in technology and science education set expectations that students will learn engineering ideas and practices, and standards governing science teacher preparation programs suggest that prospective K–12 science teachers should understand engineering design and its relevance to science teaching. The committee was not able to determine the extent to which states are implementing the engineering-related elements of student learning standards or whether postsecondary teacher education programs are engaging prospective science teachers in engineering concepts and practices.
Higher education can support high-quality teacher professional learning in engineering through programs that bring undergraduate or graduate engineering students into the classroom or bring teachers on campus to
learn about engineering. Postsecondary engineering education institutions, which include both schools of engineering and schools of engineering technology, can supply the content expertise needed by programs that prepare new teachers of K–12 engineering, as can industry programs for teachers. Expanding and improving teacher preparation programs may require collaborations between engineers, teacher educators, and teachers.
The evidence base that might inform effective approaches to preparing K–12 teachers of engineering is thin and uneven, in part because there are few education researchers and social and learning scientists studying issues in K–12 engineering. Funding for K–12 engineering education research exists, but generally at lower levels than research on K–12 education in other STEM subjects. Encouragingly, a growing number of schools of engineering are establishing departments of engineering education, many of which conduct research on topics relevant to teaching engineering at the K–12 level. At least two peer-reviewed journals publish findings from research on K–12 engineering education.
Based on its data collection and analysis, the committee developed 10 recommendations for improving the preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering in the United States. Every recommendation calls for action by one or more stakeholders, and each is supported by one or more conclusions, which appear in the full report.
RECOMMENDATION 1: To better understand the extent to which US K–12 educators are teaching engineering, the National Center for Education Statistics should revise the National Teacher and Principal Survey so that (1) answer choices for items that query respondents about teaching assignments and certification do not combine engineering with other fields, and (2) respondents can indicate whether they are engaged in teaching engineering less than full-time or as other than a main teaching assignment (e.g., as part of a science course).
RECOMMENDATON 2: To begin to address the systemic lack of capacity to prepare preservice K–12 teachers of engineering, federal agencies, such as the Department of Education and National Science Foundation, and private foundations with an interest in STEM education should convene a collaborative dialogue among K–12 STEM educators, leaders
at organizations involved in the preparation of K–12 STEM educators, colleges of education, colleges of engineering and engineering technology, postsecondary science departments, K–12 teacher accrediting bodies, state departments of education, and technology-focused industry. The goal should be to identify practicable steps that the stakeholders and others can take to address the capacity issue.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Programs that prepare prospective teachers of engineering need to make greater efforts to recruit and retain teacher candidates from populations currently underrepresented in STEM education and careers. Likewise, professional development programs should proactively encourage the participation of teachers with these characteristics. Programs for both prospective and practicing teachers should explicitly include instruction on the use of inclusive pedagogies.
RECOMMENDATION 4: In the short term, both providers of professional development opportunities and educators of prospective K–12 teachers of engineering should align their work with guidance documents that draw on the most up-to-date understanding of research and best practices in teacher education and professional development. As new knowledge accumulates about the professional learning of K–12 teachers of engineering, adjustments in programs should reflect new insights gained from rigorous, high-quality scholarship.
RECOMMENDATION 5: As evidence accumulates about effective approaches to preparing K–12 teachers of engineering, it will be important to establish formal accreditation guidelines for K–12 engineering educator preparation programs, such as those developed by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. The National Science Teaching Association, International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, and American Society for Engineering Education should work together to determine the appropriate content for such guidelines. Such an effort should take account of new NGSS-aligned accreditation standards for science teacher education programs, which become effective in 2020 and include student learning expectations related to engineering. It should also consider how the guidance needs to vary based on the grade level to be taught.
RECOMMENDATION 6: Programs that prepare preservice K–12 science educators or provide professional learning to in-service sci
ence teachers need to address the call in the Framework and NGSS for students to connect their science learning to engineering ideas and practices. To this end, the Association for Science Teacher Education, National Science Teaching Association, and American Society for Engineering Education should work together to assist these programs in identifying and implementing actions that will fulfill the engineering components of the new vision for K–12 science education.
RECOMMENDATION 7: Postsecondary engineering and engineering technology programs should partner with schools/colleges of education to design and implement curriculum for the preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering. Such efforts should be conducted in consultation with teacher professional organizations that have a stake in K–12 engineering, such as the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association and the National Science Teaching Association, as well as the American Society for Engineering Education.
RECOMMENDATION 8: States should work together to reach high-level agreement about what constitutes appropriate preparation and credentialing for teachers of engineering at various grade levels and what education and work-related pathways satisfy the credential process. The Council of Chief State School Officers should organize such discussions, in consultation with appropriate science and engineering professional societies and test development organizations.
RECOMMENDATION 9: Federal agencies, higher education institutions, state education agencies, industry, informal learning institutions, cultural and community organizations, and other stakeholders in the preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering should work in partnership with the schools and educators targeted by the interventions. When possible, such partnerships should leverage the expertise of teacher leaders in K–12 engineering education. Investments by these stakeholders should be allocated and used in ways that are consistent with findings from education, social science, and learning sciences research as well as the guidance provided by relevant policy documents.
RECOMMENDATION 10: Federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and Department of Education, with a role in supporting K–12 STEM education should fund research on topics relevant
to the professional development of practicing and the education of prospective K–12 teachers of engineering. To the extent practicable, the efforts should take advantage of methods, such as design research, that encourage collaboration with stakeholders and existing reform efforts.
Pressing issues include:
- Describe the subject-matter content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge required for high-quality K–12 engineering education and how this knowledge varies across grade levels.
- Describe pedagogical approaches and specific instructional practices that effectively support students’ integration of engineering with concepts and practices from the other STEM subjects.
- Document student learning progressions, age-appropriate expectations for engineering design thinking, and student conceptions in engineering, all of which will have implications for how K–12 educators at different grade levels are prepared and supported.
- Develop valid measures of teacher knowledge and instruction, as well as of student outcomes, that can be used to judge the effects of K–12 engineering educator preparation and professional learning programs.
- Characterize the current cadre of educators of K–12 teachers of engineering and their learning needs.
The statement of task charged the committee with examining issues related to the preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering, a new, evolving, and important segment of the US STEM education workforce. As we hope this report makes clear, there is considerable potential value in engaging K–12 students in the concepts, practices, and habits of mind of engineering. Ideally, teachers responsible for providing that engagement—whether from a foundation of engineering, technology education, science, or some other subject—should be engineering literate. They should also have the pedagogical content knowledge to guide students through the challenges and rewards of using the engineering design process and in the appropriate application of concepts and practices from science and mathematics. Findings from
high-quality research in education should inform the professional learning of these educators.
For reasons historical and structural, the current situation is far from this ideal. As this report points out, there are very few postsecondary programs educating prospective K–12 teachers of engineering, and state mechanisms for recognizing these teachers’ engineering knowledge, where they exist, vary widely. There are a number of K–12 engineering professional development initiatives, some of which have reached considerable scale. Most of these efforts are small, however, and not grounded in evidence from research. In short, there are few professional pathways for those hoping to become K–12 teachers of engineering.
If this report can do one thing, we hope it will be to alert constituencies with a stake in US STEM education to the mismatch between the need for engineering-literate K–12 teachers and the education system’s lack of capacity to meet this need. The situation is far from hopeless, but meaningful improvement will require action on multiple fronts. The potential benefits for students and the nation are significant.
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NSTA and ASTE [National Science Teaching Association and Association for Science Teacher Education]. 2019. 2020 NSTA/ASTE Standards for Science Teacher Preparation. Available online at http://static.nsta.org/pdfs/2020NSTAStandards.pdf (accessed September 18, 2019).