Engineering education is emerging as an important component of US K–12 education. Although not as prevalent as other, more established school subjects, engineering is increasingly finding its way into standards, instructional materials, and assessments. Across the country, students in classrooms and after- and out-of-school programs are participating in hands-on, problem-focused learning activities using the engineering design process. When done well, these experiences can be engaging, support learning in other areas, such as science and mathematics, and provide a window into the important role of engineering in society. For some students, experiencing engineering in K–12 may factor into decisions about college and career. From a broader policy perspective, engaging more K–12 students in engineering concepts and habits of mind may help address concerns about the adequacy of the nation’s STEM talent pool to meet the demands of today’s global economy (e.g., NRC 2011).
Engineering can be presented to K–12 students in many different ways and with a variety of emphases. It can be a standalone subject, such as mathematics, history, or English language arts; a support to learning in other subjects, such as science; or a connector between multiple subjects, as is sometimes the case in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs. This variability is partly a result of engineering’s newness as a K–12 subject. It also reflects the fact that individuals and groups with different goals and perspectives have developed K–12 engineering materials.
As the landscape of K–12 engineering education continues to evolve, educators, administrators, and policymakers will need to consider the capacity of the US education system to meet current and anticipated needs for K–12 teachers of engineering. In examining this capacity concern, a number of related questions arise regarding exactly what such educators need to know and be able to do in order to be effective, and where and how they might develop such expertise.
Efforts to introduce engineering to K–12 students can be traced back at least half a century. In the late 1960s, the Engineering Concepts Curriculum Project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), published The Man Made World—A Course on the Theories and Techniques That Contribute to Our Technological Civilization, a high school engineering course that at its peak enrolled some 100,000 students (Liao 1997). The organization funded to do the work, the Commission on Engineering Education, explained the effort this way (NAE 1966, pp. 104–105):
The course is intended for the normal college-bound student, not necessarily for the potential engineering or science major. It is our conviction that a well-organized introduction to engineering concepts should be one of the most desirable elements of the basic education of any well-informed citizen.
Although The Man Made World did not survive much beyond the end of NSF’s support, the project’s emphasis on general literacy, rather than narrow technical training, foreshadowed a goal of many similar initiatives that would emerge decades later.
For nearly 30 years after publication of The Man Made World, there were few formal, organized efforts to introduce K–12 students to engineering ideas and practices. Then in the late 1990s, two developments brought engineering more into the mainstream of K–12 education. First, various groups began to develop K–12 curricula that included engineering.1 Second, organizations and states began to write K–12 education standards that addressed engineering concepts and skills. The national Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology were first published in 2000 by
the International Technology Education Association (ITEA 2007),2 and in 2001 Massachusetts established the first state science education standards (MDESE 2016). By the early 2010s, about three-quarters of states included engineering content in their K–12 curriculum frameworks for technology education, career and technology education, and/or science education (Carr et al. 2012).
In 2012 the National Research Council (NRC 2012a) published A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Both the Framework and the resulting Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States (NGSS; NGSS Lead States 2013) include engineering concepts and practices alongside those for science, a significant departure from earlier versions of K–12 science standards3 and a recognition of the role engineering can play in science teaching and learning. At the time this report went to press, 20 states and the District of Columbia had adopted NGSS, and 24 others had adapted the standards to fit state requirements (NSTA 2019). NGSS presents a major opportunity to advance US engineering education in the primary and secondary grades by integrating the subject with science.4 Throughout the report, the committee draws attention to the potential role and learning needs of this key teacher population.
The recent growth of engineering in K–12 has not been limited to its integration with science as called for in the NGSS. According to the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME; Banilower et al. 2013, 2018), the number of standalone engineering courses, at least at the high school level, has also been growing (table 1-1), and K–12 schools at all
2 In 2010, the ITEA changed its name to International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA), reflecting the field’s increasing shift toward engineering.
3 In the 1990s, both the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the NRC developed national standards for K–12 science education. AAAS’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993) devoted two chapters (chapter 3, The Nature of Technology, and chapter 8, The Designed World) to concepts related to technology and design. But although engineering was mentioned, almost none of the standards included it explicitly, and the standards did not suggest that science learning should be connected to engineering. The NRC’s National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) likewise devoted attention to the idea of technological design and mentioned in passing the role of engineering, but no standards specifically called it out, and the idea of the integration of engineering with science was not discussed.
4 The idea of integrated forms of STEM teaching and learning is not new, and there are multiple ways integration can occur. Previous work by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that many programs and projects that attempt STEM integration use some form of problem- or project-based learning, and these were often situated in an engineering design context (NAE and NRC 2014).
|Any level course||24%||46%||+92%|
|Noncollege preparatory course||14%||31%||+121%|
|First-year college preparatory, including honors||13%||29%||+123%|
a Adapted with permission from Banilower et al. 2013. © 2013 Horizon Research.
b Adapted with permission from Banilower et al. 2018. © 2018 Horizon Research.
|Engineering competitions||Engineering clubs|
levels have been expanding opportunities for students to take part in informal engineering education activities (table 1-2).
The rising prevalence of engineering in K–12 can also be seen in the results of a new national Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) assessment, administered to large samples of eighth grade students as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).5 In 2018, 25 percent of students reported that they had taken or were currently taking a class in engineering, up from 19 percent who did so in 2014, the first year the assessment was administered (NCES 2014, 2018).
The expansion of engineering opportunities in K–12 education has recently gained support among an important group of engineering educa-
tors at the postsecondary level. More than 100 deans of engineering schools have agreed (UMd 2018) to grant some form of college credit to students who successfully complete an advanced engineering course in high school (NSF 2018). NSF-funded researchers are pilot testing a possible curriculum for such a course and, depending on the pilot’s results, the College Board, which oversees the Advanced Placement (AP) program, may add engineering to its portfolio of AP offerings (personal communication, L. Abts, University of Maryland, 1/2/18).6
Making engineering education available to US K–12 students is more than a question of providing advanced classes for a select group of high school students. In its conceptual framework guiding the development of the NAEP TEL assessment, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) of the US Department of Education makes the following case for why all US students should know more about technology and engineering (NAGB 2018, p. 2):
Because technology is such a crucial component of modern society, it is important that students develop an understanding of its range of features and applications, the design process that engineers use to develop new technological devices, the trade-offs that must be balanced in making decisions about the use of technology, and the way that technology shapes society and society shapes technology. Indeed, some have argued that it is time for technology and engineering literacy to take its place alongside the traditional literacies in reading, mathematics, and science as a set of knowledge and skills that students are expected to develop during their years in school.
Efforts to put engineering literacy on par with literacy in reading, mathematics, and science represent an ambitious objective that begs the question of how best to prepare and support educators who will be tasked with teaching engineering, whether as a standalone course, as a companion to one or more other STEM subjects, or in an out-of-school setting. Meeting the objective 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.
6 At least one extant high school engineering course, Engineer Your World: Engineering Design and Analysis, offers as a dual-enrollment option at the Cockrell School of Engineering, University of Texas, Austin. This course, also developed with funding from the National Science Foundation, provides students the opportunity to earn college credit that counts as core science credit for nonengineering majors and as elective credit for engineering majors (personal communication, C. Farmer, University of Texas, Austin, 9/23/19).
To address the question of what will be required to prepare and support future teachers of engineering, the National Academy of Engineering and the Board on Science Education of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies), with support from NSF, convened an expert committee to conduct extensive data gathering and analysis. The 16-member Committee on Educator Capacity Building in K–12 Engineering Education included K–12 educators with experience teaching engineering in the classroom and in out-of-classroom settings at both the elementary and secondary levels, as well as experts in pre- and in-service teacher education, science education, and engineering. Biographical information for the committee members is in appendix A. The statement of task for the committee is shown in box 1-1.
The original statement of task used the term “engineering educators” to describe what the report now calls “teachers of engineering.” The word “educator” was used initially because it allowed the committee to refer to both classroom teachers and educators (who may not formally be teachers) working in informal settings. However, as noted later in this chapter, very little of the report deals with informal education. In addition, on reflection, the committee realized that “engineering educator” suggests that there exists a professional whose job it is to teach engineering and solely engineering. In fact, as the rest of the report discusses, this situation, while true in some cases, is not so in most circumstances. For example, some science teachers also teach engineering, as do some mathematics and technology educators, and elementary teachers are responsible for teaching multiple subjects. As far as we can tell, relatively few K–12 teachers teach only engineering. Thus the term “teachers of engineering” provides the nuanced meaning needed to accommodate the evolving nature of this new component of K–12 education and is used throughout the report. It refers to any elementary or subject-matter secondary teacher who spends some portion of the school day providing engineering instruction.
In meeting the statement of task, the committee (1) conducted an in-depth review of the literature related to preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering and (2) inventoried US preservice and in-service programs that support the preparation and professional development of K–12 teachers of engineering. The inventory was to describe the nature (e.g., curriculum) and history of the programs and, if known, the number of educators reached and the evidence for impact (e.g., on individual teaching practice and the growth of K–12 engineering education locally, regionally, or nationally).
The committee’s final report proposes steps key stakeholders might take to increase the number, skill level, and confidence of K–12 teachers of engineering in the United States. Stakeholders include professional development providers, postsecondary preservice education programs, postsecondary engineering and engineering technology programs, formal and informal educator credentialing organizations, and the education and learning sciences research communities.
In addressing its statement of task, the committee considered educator needs in two dimensions, one related to the individual and the other related to the education system as a whole. In the first case, the committee addressed the skills and knowledge that K–12 teachers of engineering require to be competent and confident, and how and where they might develop these competencies. In the second, the committee focused on the programs and policies that facilitate the development of such skills and knowledge, including teacher preparation and professional development.
The statement of task does not distinguish among the different subgroups of teachers that comprise the workforce of K–12 teachers of engineering. Yet we know that not all teachers face the same demands or require the same types of support to provide effective instruction. Thus when the data allow, we consider separately the different engineering-related learning needs of teachers at the elementary and secondary levels. Similarly, when appropriate, we highlight how the preparation of certain subject-matter specialists, such as science teachers, to teach engineering might differ from that of others, such as technology teachers.7
The original statement of task called on the committee to consider not only kindergarten but also pre-K education. While the committee recognizes the importance of exploring ways to expand engineering education strategically and systematically to the pre-K level, the research base around engineering education at this level is insufficiently robust to support evidence-based findings, conclusions, and recommendations. More generally, there is no consensus in the education research community about who should be counted as a pre-K educator or what their credentials should be. Researchers also do not agree about what kinds of educational experiences constitute pre-K learning environments. For all of these reasons, the com-
mittee decided to focus this report only on the preparation of teachers of engineering for grades K–12.
Although informal education is not mentioned in the statement of task, the committee recognizes that this is a large and important component of the education system and discussed it often during the project. Museums, science and technology centers, aquaria, and botanical gardens are among the many types of institutions that provide visitors—adults and children—with learning opportunities in STEM. Other components of the informal education sector include the growing Maker movement, university- and industry-sponsored STEM programs and outreach, initiatives of professional STEM organizations, and STEM-focused competitions.
There are several important differences between formal and informal education relevant to this project. A provider of informal learning opportunities in engineering needs someone to deliver the programming, but that person may or may not have experience as a K–12 educator and may or may not possess knowledge of engineering. As a result, the professional learning one might recommend for or expect of an informal educator may be quite different than for a classroom teacher. Another difference is that participants in informal education programs may themselves be K–12 classroom teachers. Informal settings thus provide a potential pathway for teachers to build content and process knowledge of engineering, often in a low-stakes setting. This means that informal educators need to be seen both as needing professional learning support and providing such support to others (e.g., classroom teachers).
The committee took these complexities and uncertainties into account, along with the sparse research literature associated with educator professional learning in informal settings, in deciding to treat informal education in a very limited way in this report. The committee emphasizes that its decision does not reflect a lack of appreciation of the hundreds of popular informal STEM-focused programs.
The committee discovered that there is relatively little evidence about various components of effective engineering education at the K–12 level. Much of what is known in the field of STEM teacher preparation relies heavily
on scholarship about teaching generally and about teaching science, so the committee drew from a number of related areas of evidence. The kinds and levels of evidence available to the committee influenced how it addressed the statement of task and informed its ability to draw conclusions and make recommendations.
As noted in the statement of task, the committee was asked to undertake a survey of the literature to elucidate existing policies around certification and credentialing, the roles of higher education in preparing teachers of engineering, and associated policy levers and impediments. The committee also was tasked with examining and reporting on evidence of best practices and needs for additional research in the preparation of teachers of engineering.
Many National Academies study committees that have addressed issues in education have had to decide what constitutes appropriate levels of evidence for their work. While a detailed overview of what constitutes appropriate evidence in education research is beyond the scope of this report, readers who seek additional details can find them in NRC (2010, 2012b) and NASEM (2015, 2017).
In its data collection and analysis, the committee recognized three general categories of research (see, e.g., NRC 2002):
- Descriptive research describes facts or processes without inferring any underlying basis for them. For example, this report describes the characteristics and approaches of multiple local and national programs to prepare K–12 teachers of engineering for both formal and informal settings. Nearly all of the data reviewed by the committee were descriptive in nature.
- Causal research seeks to discover whether a specific intervention leads to a specific response and attempts to distinguish causation from noncausal relationships with other factors (correlation).
- Mechanistic research aims to understand why some causal factor or combination of factors leads to an observed effect.
None of these approaches is necessarily simple or straightforward. For example, while many researchers consider description to be the most basic approach to collecting evidence and posing subsequent research questions, descriptive work involves a range of methodologies, ranging from ethnography to field studies to design-based implementation work. Such research plays an essential role in both theory and interventions, as well as exploring mechanisms and examining the role of contexts.
Establishing a causal relationship between an experimental intervention and outcome can be extremely difficult and such claims serve as the basis for debate and replication of experiments among researchers. Examining differences between comparable research subjects (e.g., people, approaches to professional development, or organizations) may allow for causal claims.
In evaluating the research on claims for successful approaches to professional development and preservice education for current and future teachers of engineering, the committee looked for high-quality research across these traditions—descriptive, causal, and mechanistic—since all rigorous empirical work is worth examining. The committee, staff, and external consultants were able to identify only a small number of quasi-experimental studies. More studies involved qualitative and interpretive research that drew on data from interviews, observations, self-reports from the study subjects, and surveys. To the extent possible, the committee limited the research it drew upon to peer-reviewed studies in which research methods were explained in ways that would allow for replication of the study.
The committee held five in-person meetings, two of which were combined with information-gathering workshops, and three conference calls. (Workshop agendas are provided in appendixes B and C.)
The committee commissioned supplementary research to bolster its understanding of the preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering. The Education Development Center (EDC) performed a landscape scan of professional development opportunities for teachers of engineering, and EDC researchers presented their findings to the committee in multiple meetings. Researchers at the Urban Institute examined, and provided the committee with information from, the federal School and Staffing Survey. Scholars from Texas A&M University analyzed state teacher credentialing policies related to engineering.
With assistance from the Academies’ Research Center, project staff conducted a literature review of all available research from the past 20 years on K–12 engineering education. Staff also considered literatures from teacher education, science education, and general engineering education, as these fields offer the best insight into the desirable outcomes outlined in the statement of task. The databases used in the search were ERIC (Ovid), IEEE, ProQuest Research Library, Scopus, and Web of Science.
Following its information-gathering meetings and the literature search, the committee conducted its work in closed sessions to analyze the available evidence in order to formulate conclusions and recommendations.
The committee expects that this report will be important to a number of audiences. They include but are not limited to:
- federal agencies that support the professional development and preservice learning of K–12 STEM educators
- federal executive branch offices with a role in setting K–12 STEM education policy
- individual members of Congress, their staff, and congressional committees engaged in K–12 STEM education issues
- state, district, and local government leaders involved in K–12 and postsecondary STEM education
- offices of state governors
- organizations representing K–12 STEM teachers
- STEM professional associations with an interest in K–12 STEM education
- organizations that promote increased participation of underrepresented populations in STEM education and careers
- informal education groups, such as libraries, makerspaces, museums, science and technology centers, aquaria, and botanical gardens
- higher education institutions involved in preparing future engineers and prospective K–12 teachers
- providers of professional development for K–12 STEM educators
- members of school boards, and school and district leaders who play critical roles in the health of education systems at various levels
- education researchers and research centers with an interest in K–12 engineering education
- business and industry associations with an interest in K–12 STEM education
- foundations that support K–12 STEM education initiatives.
Chapter 2 outlines the key concepts, practices, and habits of mind in engineering, and compares these with how science frames similar issues. Chapter 3 addresses goals that the committee sees as drivers for K–12 engineering education. Chapter 4 presents data on the K–12 engineering education workforce and the status of teacher preparation and professional development in this domain. Chapter 5 summarizes what is known from research about the professional learning needs of K–12 educators generally and teachers of engineering specifically, as well as what is known about opportunities to meet these needs. Chapter 6 discusses elements of the larger US education system that shape the preparation and ongoing learning of K–12 teachers of engineering. Chapter 7 presents the committee’s conclusions and recommendations.
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