Building the capacity of K–12 teachers of engineering depends on a complex system of interrelated components. (One version of such a system is shown in figure 6-1.) Components include state boards of education, federal and state education agencies, funders, industry, and education-related organizations (e.g., professional societies, out-of-school-time learning institutions, nonprofits). The interconnections among these and other entities may be thought of as an ecosystem (e.g., NRC 2014a) that affects the preparation and support of teachers of engineering in various ways.
For example, individual teachers, schools, districts, and even states can partner with outside organizations to support high-quality teacher professional learning in engineering. Out-of-school-time institutions can partner with teachers to bring engineering into the classroom or can engage teachers in design activities. Cultural and community organizations can provide space, materials, design challenges, or other support for teachers to implement engineering. Professional societies can develop or expand programs and inducements that encourage precollege educators to become members and take advantage of opportunities for professional development at national or regional meetings or through online learning experiences. Finally, many US industries employ engineers at various levels of corporate structures and in recent years some companies have stated a willingness to become more active in STEM education in their communities by providing funding for
equipment or supplies needed for engineering activities, classroom visits by working engineers, or both.
Partnerships can benefit efforts to prepare teachers to teach engineering, but only under the conditions of mutual respect and an openness to learning by all partners (Diefes-Dux 2014). For example, while engineers have expert knowledge of the field, they have little knowledge of either the culture of a K–12 school or professional knowledge for teaching. Thus, teachers and engineers can each contribute their expertise in an environment with multiple opportunities for teacher professional development, ongoing revision and adaptation of created instructional materials, and an intentional effort to create learning experiences for diverse teacher and student audiences, including rural, suburban, and urban contexts and traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM.
It is important to note that a systemic approach to effective teacher preparation and support, as with other educational transformation, requires sustained work across many elements of the system. Principles proposed (NRC 2015) to guide state implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States 2013) are instructive:
- Make certain that the system aligns at the horizontal (curricula, instruction, assessment, professional learning), vertical (classroom, school, district, state), and developmental (grade band) levels.
- Form teams at the district and school levels that include administrators, teachers, and researchers who have the support needed to implement changes. Teacher leaders, in this case those who have expertise in teaching engineering at the K–12 level, are critical to the work of these leadership teams.1
- Collaborate and share information across multiple levels—state, district, school, individual teachers.
- Recognize that time will be needed to develop new materials and assessments and build the knowledge base and skills of teachers.
- Prioritize equity and inclusion across the system.
- Develop effective communication across the system that ensures all stakeholders understand priorities and plans.
It was beyond the committee’s scope to consider all aspects of the broader ecology that shapes preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering. In this chapter we consider five components not already discussed in the report that we believe have the greatest potential to affect K–12 engineering education:
- federal legislation governing elementary and secondary education
- state policies around learning standards and assessments
- school and district policies and culture
- higher education
- research infrastructure.
The primary legislation governing federal investments in K–12 education is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The current version of ESEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA),2 authorizes funding through the 2020–21 school year for a number of programs and initiatives, many of
1 The category of teacher leader encompasses many different roles in a school or district, such as “lead teacher, curriculum specialist, mentor, collaborating teacher, instructional coach, professional development leader” (NASEM 2015, p. 85). They perform a variety of tasks: “instructional support (e.g., observing and giving feedback to teachers), communications (e.g., sharing information from district level to teachers), school administration (e.g., selecting instructional materials or evaluating teachers), and general administration (e.g., organizing and managing instructional materials)” (Schiavo et al. 2010, p. 2).
which the states are expected to design and carry out. For the purposes of this study and consistent with the focus of this chapter, the most critical elements of the law address the preparation of K–12 STEM teachers, credentialing options for these educators, and the development of statewide student assessments in science. State assessments of student achievement (described in the next section) are an important component of the education system, because they can influence the emphasis that districts, schools, and teachers must place on particular subjects.
ESSA offers the option for states to receive funds for the development and implementation of professional learning experiences and “other comprehensive systems of support for teachers, principals, or other school leaders to promote high-quality instruction and instructional leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects, including computer science.”3 In addition, as noted in chapter 4, requirements for becoming certified as a teacher of engineering vary across states but may include alternative certification. Although the committee found no evidence of formal efforts to provide alternative routes to certification for K–12 teachers of engineering, ESSA allows states to expand or improve programs for alternative certification, including in engineering.4
State education policies, programs, and practices can support efforts to make engineering a better-integrated component of the K–12 curriculum, including by prioritizing state or district funding for professional learning opportunities. Supportive practices might also include informed decision making about the extent to which a state will embrace and implement recommendations about the role of engineering in K–12 education that have been published in national standards documents and about how learning in this subject is assessed. On the other hand, policies can hinder K–12 engineering education by not funding professional learning or incorporating engineering in state standards. State boards of education, which often approve which textbooks school districts are allowed to purchase with state
4 Part A—Supporting Effective Instruction, Sec. 2101 [20 U.S.C. 6611] Formula Grants to States, (c) State Use of Funds, (4) State Activities, (B) Types of State Activities, (iv).
funds, influence what content will be taught and thus can promote or ignore engineering.
Subject-specific content standards have been a key driver of US K–12 education reform since the early 1980s, prompted in part by US students’ poor performance on international comparative assessments of achievement (e.g., USDoEd 1983). State curriculum standards are often based on standards documents developed at the national level through a consensus process involving input from multiple stakeholders. There are no standalone standards for K–12 engineering but, beginning in the late 1990s, a handful of states included engineering-related learning goals in their science standards (Carr et al. 2012). More recently, A Framework for K–12 Science (NRC 2012) and the resulting Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) called for even closer ties between the teaching and learning of science and engineering with an emphasis on students learning about both subject domains through active practice rather than passive exposure. According to the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), 20 states and the District of Columbia, representing 41 percent of all US K–12 students, have adopted NGSS; 22 additional states, representing another 43 percent of students, have developed their own standards based on recommendations in the NRC Framework (NSTA 2019).
All of the aforementioned documents elucidate principles and standards for integrating engineering and science. In contrast, the International Technology and Engineering Education Association (ITEEA) has published standards for engineering and technology as standalone subjects and has revised those standards twice, with the latest version released in 2007.
The existence of standards, by itself, does not lead to meaningful or lasting changes in education. For that to happen, standards must be not only adopted (or adapted) but also implemented. And the translation of national standards into practice occurs at the state and local levels. Standards implementation requires coordinated effort across many components of the education system, including curriculum, assessment, and teacher professional learning, over an extended period.
Assessments of Student Learning
Accountability provisions of ESSA require states to assess student achievement in English language arts and mathematics (yearly from grades 3 to 8 and again once in high school) and science (once per grade band). States must report these data yearly to the federal government. Schools can be punished for not making adequate progress toward achievement goals, and this creates pressure to focus classroom instruction on the topics to be tested (Darling-Hammond et al. 2016).
Historically, assessments for accountability have probed student recall of concepts in a single school subject area, rather than requiring students to connect ideas across two or more subjects (NAE and NRC 2014). As NGSS implementation proceeds in the adopting states, science assessments presumably will need to measure more complex learning outcomes, in keeping with the standards’ performance expectations that combine practices, crosscutting concepts, and core disciplinary ideas in science and engineering (NRC 2012). Thus, students will be expected to solve problems by applying their knowledge and skills rather than choosing the correct answer from a list of possibilities. This approach will increase the amount of time needed for assessments and suggests a need for a broad assessment system that includes both formative and summative tests that can be used for both classroom performance and state-mandated assessment (NRC 2014b; Osborne et al. 2015).
The committee could not determine how many states are working toward these new accountability tests. Some federal grants encourage the development of state science assessments that fit with NGSS standards (O’Keefe and Lewis 2019). Under ESSA, states may use federal dollars to integrate engineering design skills and practices in their science assessments, but they are not required to do so.5 One knowledgeable expert who has responsibility for assisting states grappling with NGSS-related assessment indicated that very few states are incorporating engineering in a meaningful way (personal communication, A. Badrinarayan, Achieve, 8/30/19).
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment of Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL; see chapter 3) provides a high-level indicator of eighth grade students’ understanding of engineering and technology concepts and their ability to solve scenario-based design challenges. Unlike the ESSA-driven statewide tests, TEL is a “low-stakes” assessment. It is administered only every four years (2014 and 2018, thus far)
5 Part B—State Assessment Grants, Sec. 1201, [20 USC 6361], Grants for State Assessments and Related Activities, (a) Grants Authorized, (2), (G).
and, because of its sampling methodology, cannot provide results at the level of individual students, classrooms, or schools. The assessment is therefore unlikely to spur state education leaders to prioritize support for the preparation of K–12 teachers of engineering.
At the local level, school and district policies are influenced by state and national standards, providing opportunities for educators to craft local procedures that they have ownership of and that are aligned with other education levers (teacher professional development, teacher evaluation, student assessments). Achieve Inc., which coordinated the state-led effort to create NGSS, has developed various guidance documents to assist states and districts in the standards implementation process. One such publication, the 2013 NGSS Adoption and Implementation Workbook, poses questions intended to help education leaders think critically about the conceptual shifts required to implement the standards, including questions related specifically to the integration of science and engineering (box 6-1).
More recent guidance from Achieve (2017), directed at school and district leaders, proposes 13 indicators that can be used to judge the success
of efforts to implement NGSS. Engineering is specifically called out in just one of the indicators, related to assessments, and then only as one of eight recommended actions. The limited attention to engineering in this document, particularly when compared with the issues raised by the questions in box 6-1, suggests to the committee that there is considerably more that needs to be done to educate and support local and district education leaders about how to make engineering a meaningful part of NGSS implementation.
School culture also affects preparation to teach engineering. Principals who are knowledgeable and supportive of STEM will empower teachers to increase their knowledge and skills for teaching engineering, especially if they include teachers in decisions about STEM in the classroom (Nadelson and Callahan 2014). One form of support is the development of professional learning communities of teachers who are experimenting with new materials and new approaches to instruction and can support each other as they implement educational innovations. These professional learning communities can be within one school, conducted as follow-up for a professional development program (e.g., Hardré et al. 2013; High et al. 2009), or conducted online (e.g., Liu et al. 2009).
Teachers who have experience using engineering activities to engage their students and improve their performance on both classroom and state assessments might provide critical leadership to both school administrators and other teachers as they gain the skills and knowledge to implement engineering. These teacher leaders, who promote change from within the school and district governance structures, can help support professional learning in engineering for other teachers and can also shape policies at the local level (NASEM 2017).
Postsecondary institutions play a major role in supporting current and preparing new K–12 teachers. Disciplinary departments offer courses that enhance content knowledge of prospective and practicing teachers; schools of education offer courses and programs for initial and ongoing certification and licensure.
One source of engineering content expertise for K–12 teachers of engineering is postsecondary engineering education programs, housed in both schools of engineering and schools of engineering technology (ET; box 6-2). To the committee’s knowledge, apart from the small number of
engineering colleges participating in the UTeach6 program and a handful of other programs (see chapter 4, Professional Learning Experiences for K–12 Teachers of Engineering, and chapter 5, Teacher Learning Opportunities), no engineering or ET schools are involved in the preparation of prospective teachers of engineering.
Two cohorts of engineering schools may have special incentive to consider a role in teacher preparation. One is the roughly 100 engineering schools that have expressed strong interest in and agreed to grant college credit for a potential new high school engineering course that could become part of the Advanced Placement offerings of the College Board (see
chapter 1). The second is the small group of universities (box 6-3) that have established graduate departments of engineering education, many of which conduct research on issues relevant to teaching engineering at the K–12 level.
Expanding and improving teacher preparation programs may require engineering programs and schools of education to collaborate. Chapter 5 describes several such collaborations. Students who take engineering and education courses as well as courses offered by other university departments or schools may have difficulty scheduling classes, labs, and times for design teams to meet, particularly because the respective departments have not traditionally communicated well (Zarske et al. 2017). In addition, engineering credit loads are typically higher than for other majors, thus making adding other curriculum elements more challenging. This suggests that effective partnerships to provide engineering-specific curricula to teacher candidates will require planning and cooperation across multiple schools or departments. However, many engineering schools have struggled to implement changes to their own pedagogy and curriculum, and because faculty need to emphasize technical research as part of the promotion and tenure process (Matusovich et al. 2014), even those who value the idea of teaching engineering content to prospective K–12 teachers may be reluctant to add to their
workload (Besterfield-Sacre et al. 2014). These barriers will need to be taken into account for collaborations to work.
Undergraduate engineering programs have evolved to incorporate more design and problem-based learning courses earlier (e.g., Fortenberry et al. 2007) or throughout (e.g., Pierrakos et al. 2012) the curriculum, with the necessary mathematics and science concepts taught either concurrently with those courses (e.g., Pierrakos et al. 2012) or integrated in the courses (e.g., Carlson and Sullivan 2004). Some institutions include prospective K–12 teachers in those courses. For example, the Engineering Plus curriculum described in Chapter 4 provides flexibility for students interested in both an engineering degree and a secondary education teacher certification (e.g., Salzman et al. 2018; Zarske et al. 2015, 2017). As described in chapter 5, several institutions require at least one engineering design course for all elementary education majors (e.g., Bottomley and Osterstrom 2010; O’Brien et al. 2014) to prepare them for implementing engineering in their K–8 classes.
Chapter 4 noted that current national standards guiding K–12 science teacher preparation include mention of engineering. Yet the committee could find no hard data regarding the extent to which science teacher education programs are integrating engineering ideas and practices in their curricula.
US schools of engineering and industry also provide engineering-focused professional development experiences for K–12 educators, such as workshops and summer institutes; some of these were described in chapters 4 and 5. Engineering-related curricula and professional learning experiences were also developed by recipients of NSF’s Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) in engineering and computer science,7 which allow local K–12 teachers to experience engineering research firsthand and support teachers as they develop curricula based on that research. (Data on the impacts of RET programs are discussed in chapter 5.) Research-based engineering-related curricula and professional learning experiences were also developed by some recipients of NSF’s Math and Science Partnership program, many of which involved collaborations between higher education institutions and local school districts.8 In addition to workshops and other professional development experiences (e.g., Berry and DeRosa 2015), local companies have provided summer externships for teachers to allow them
to experience engineering in a workplace and apply that experience to their teaching behaviors (e.g., Bowen 2016).
Education, social science, and learning science research can lead to improvements in how teachers are prepared and supported throughout their careers. For example, research has contributed to evidence-based curricula for engineering. In addition to the curricula developed through collaborations with higher education researchers (e.g., through RET or MSP funding), some engineering curricula such as Engineering is Elementary have attempted to map components of their programs to national and state standards in science.9
Research has also influenced classroom assessments of student achievement (e.g., Darling-Hammond et al. 2016; NRC 2006, 2014, 2015; Osborne et al. 2015). Formative and summative classroom assessments of student achievement in engineering depend on whether the engineering activities evaluated are presented as standalone lessons or integrated in larger STEM activities (NAE and NRC 2009), but because most assessments focus on single topics, integrated STEM activities will need new classroom assessments (NAE and NRC 2014). Some independent research groups have developed NGSS-aligned classroom tasks with accompanying assessments. Achieve, Inc. has developed several classroom assessment tasks that include integrated science and engineering tasks, and it encourages teachers to continue to improve them.10 The Stanford NGSS Assessment Project (SNAP11) conducts research, provides assistance to educators and those who provide professional learning experiences, and develops performance assessments, including for engineering, that support implementation of NGSS in states that have adopted the standards. The Next Generation Science Assessment,12 a collaboration of experts in engineering and science education, assessment, learning, and instruction, also develops NGSS-aligned assessments that include engineering design. However, these task-based assessments for engineering practices and concepts are not as numerous as those for other subjects (Wertheim et al. 2016), and it is also not clear how many teachers of
engineering know how, or are developing their capacity, to use them appropriately, let alone design such assessments for their own classes.
As noted throughout the report, the evidence base that might inform effective approaches to preparing K–12 teachers of engineering is thin and uneven. There are a number of reasons for this deficit, including the fact that engineering is relatively new as a K–12 subject. Another important factor is the size and capability of the research workforce. It is the committee’s impression, based on personal knowledge and experience, that there are few education or social science researchers and learning scientists studying issues relevant to K–12 engineering. This is likely true absolutely as well as in comparison to the number who study teaching and learning in the other STEM subjects. Although growing, the field of engineering education research is still relatively small; few engineering educators have the training and experience needed to conduct quality education research, and of those who do, their focus tends to be on postsecondary engineering.
Funding for K–12 engineering education research exists, but generally at lower levels than for research on other STEM subjects. As an example, between 2014 and 2019 the National Science Foundation (NSF) made 369 awards totaling almost $550 million in the Discovery Research PreK–12 program (DRK–1213), which promotes research on teaching and learning in preK–12 STEM education. Of those awards, only 23, totaling just over $30 million, focused on engineering education.
However, the research infrastructure continues to grow. As mentioned, several colleges of engineering have departments of engineering education that train engineering education researchers. Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education houses the INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering,14 with approximately 20 researchers at the faculty, staff, or postdoctoral levels and another 75 or more at the graduate and undergraduate levels. These researchers examine topics related to the integration of engineering with other school subjects, broader participation in engineering, and engineering mindsets in K–12 education. Purdue University also publishes the Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), an open-access, peer-reviewed journal that that was launched in 2011 and is dedicated solely to research in K–12 engineering education.
Many professionals in the engineering education and engineering education research communities are represented by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), which has considerable interest in K–12
engineering. The group has a large membership division devoted to K–12 engineering education issues, and the ASEE board of directors and Engineering Deans Council both have committees that focus on K–12 engineering education. ASEE is also the source of much of the published research on K–12 engineering education in the United States, primarily through annual conference proceedings papers and its peer-reviewed Journal of Engineering Education, which focuses on both K–12 and higher engineering education.
The impact of ASEE’s organizational and publishing activities in K–12 engineering has not been measured, and it would be difficult to do so. Nevertheless, it seems clear the society’s efforts and the combined influence of its many engineering educator members have stimulated the development of K–12 engineering education in the United States.
We have highlighted elements of the system that supports K–12 teachers as they develop the capacity to teach engineering. Although the system is far more complex and includes other stakeholders and components, we have described elements and interactions with great current and potential future impact on that capacity. But there are opportunities to improve the system’s support of teachers and to improve teaching and learning of engineering at the K–12 level.
For example, ESSA provides openings for states to support K–12 engineering teacher preparation and leadership development, but because states are not required to spend their federal money in these areas, it is not clear that any spending actually has occurred or will in the future. The same is true regarding the ESSA-required science assessments. The law allows but does not require that states develop assessments that include engineering concepts and practices.
As noted, research is needed to move the field forward. Such research can be conducted by researchers who specialize in K–12 engineering education research as well as by collaborations that involve interdisciplinary teams of scholars and practitioners. Design-based research (DBR) and design-based implementation research (DBIR) methodologies (Kelly et al. 2008; see http://learndbir.org), which are used for studying complex problem solving with multiple stakeholders, are highly iterative, nimble, and adaptive, and may be particularly useful. In DBIR, practitioner teachers and researchers,
along with other stakeholders (e.g., students, administrators), consider problems from multiple angles; in all cases the teachers help define them. The process focuses on building theory and practical capacity to support program enactment and improved student learning outcomes (LeMahieu et al. 2017b). Teacher Design Research (Bannan-Ritland 2008), which employs a teacher-as-researcher model and investigates complex instructional tasks such as teaching with engineering design activities, might also be relevant.
However, merely building research infrastructure will not necessarily lead to improved teacher development. For research to improve professional learning experiences and materials, results must be translated into practical guidance and disseminated to the community. A research-to-practice cycle, in which researchers and practitioners collaborate to define and answer research questions that are translated into tools that improve educational practice, can yield both evidence-based change and more research questions to drive further improvements. This interaction of innovation and research on teaching and learning can improve efforts to develop more engaging learning environments and a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students (ASEE 2009).
Similarly, networked improvement communities (NICs; LeMahieu et al. 2017a) merge the concepts of “networked science,” which applies the shared knowledge of a group to solve multifaceted problems, and “improvement science” that formalizes continuous and iterative improvements in an organization or system (p. 6). In a NIC, individuals learn and reflect on information or behaviors and share that knowledge with others in their own organization. The larger network of organizations then learns and improves from gains at the individual and organization levels (LeMahieu et al. 2017a).
In the context of preparing K–12 teachers to teach engineering, individuals may be teachers, teacher leaders, principals, teacher educators, and engineering education researchers, among others. At the organizational level, the teachers, teacher educators, and principals form a school organization, while the teacher educators and engineering education researchers might work together at higher education institutions. In a NIC, these organizations would work together and communicate with others in their district or state to share promising practices. However, all components of the system must develop an institutional culture that supports change.
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