Elevating and Enhancing the “E” in STEM Education

Photo of Catherine McCullochCatherine McCulloch leads national initiatives focused on bridging STEM research and practice to improve outcomes for students. She is the co-Principal Investigator (co-PI) of Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education (CADRE) and STEM Smart, and a member of EDC’s Interactive STEM R+P Collaboratory team. As co-PI of the Massachusetts Engineering and Innovation Dissemination Community initiative, she recently concluded a landscape analysis of K-12 engineering education in Massachusetts with PI Darryl Williams of Tufts University and EDC colleagues Tracy McMahon and Leslie Goodyear. A new report by the team, Engineering for Every K–12 Student, presents key findings from the study that have important implications not just for Mass. K–20 educators, policymakers, and business and industry leaders, but for all of those who are interested or involved in expanding access to engineering education nationwide. In this post, Catherine reflects on the status of engineering education and shares a few key takeaways from the report.

When I was a teenager, I became interested in fluids and flows (you can still view classic resources on fluid mechanics that EDC and MIT developed long ago). I did not wake up one day and think, “I want to learn all about fluids and flows!” I certainly did not learn about it in school. Instead, my interest grew during some very intriguing chats with my dad, who is an aeronautical engineer. I thought about this a lot as I worked on EDC’s and Tufts’ landscape analysis of K–12 engineering education. The reality is that while engineering is a highly diverse field, with over 30 college engineering majors offering great career opportunities, many young people know nothing about the field. Most of their friends, teachers, high school counselors, and parents also know nothing about the field.   

The majority of engineers decide to pursue a career in the field because, like me, a relative sparks their interest and encourages them to explore engineering ideas. I did not go on to become an engineer. But those chats with my dad gave me a lifelong interest in STEM, propelled me to a job leading professional development institutes for science and math mentoring around the world, and landed me in my current role at EDC—where I developed an out-of-school time engineering curriculum module that engages kids in making rockets out of straws.

Viewed through one lens, this “legacy” aspect of the field is rather lovely. It is great for parents to share the work that is important to them and to encourage their kids to explore ideas related to that work. Viewed through another, very few students have the chance to explore engineering before they reach college. Despite the inclusion of engineering in the National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Science Education and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a recent study found that “only a dozen states clearly define and lay out engineering curricula for K–12 students in their science standards, and only four of these states present a ‘comprehensive’ inclusion of engineering.” Massachusetts is one of these four states.

As noted in the background section in our report, Massachusetts played a major role in the creation of the NGSS, as well as leading the nation in the wide array of formal and informal engineering education experiences available to many (but not all) children and youth. In conducting our landscape analysis, we interviewed 45 key informants from Massachusetts who represented diverse stakeholder groups, and we surveyed a purposeful sample of individuals that key informants suggested or that we identified via a literature and web search (we received 137 responses to our survey). The following video provides a fast overview of our major findings:

Top Takeaways

While the report shares a variety of findings, and recommendations based on those findings, here are a few top takeaways:

  1. Stakeholders do not share a common definition of engineering education.
  2. Although stakeholders generally agree on what the goals for K–12 engineering education should be, those goals do not necessarily match the goals of current efforts.
  3. Most stakeholders identified STEM literacy as a primary goal for engineering education.
  4. Some students in the state (e.g., those in Cambridge and Somerville, where many resources are concentrated) enjoy greater access to engineering education opportunities than other students (e.g., those in Brockton or Mattapan).   
  5. Although engineering education assessments are recognized as the greatest area of need, most of those who are engaged in K–12 engineering education in the Greater Boston region do not expect to work on assessments in the next year.
  6. Stakeholders most want to work on raising awareness of engineering education opportunities and resources, but they think that there needs to be a mechanism that matches resources with those who need them.
  7. With further attention to fostering collaboration, National Science Foundation (NSF) awardees with engineering education projects can be key contributors to both state and national engineering education innovation efforts.

Even in a state with a substantial amount of engineering education resources, there are still significant systemic obstacles to overcome that many other states share. For example, engineering is often woven into science classes, and most teachers do not even have time to teach science, let alone engineering. Further, most teachers do not know how to engage students in learning engineering and, as noted, lack assessments to gauge progress and deepen students’ understanding. Engineering instruction is just now beginning to be added to pre-service teacher preparation programs, there are few on-the-job learning opportunities, and more research is needed to deepen understanding of learning progressions.

engineering for every k-12 studentBy mapping and sharing the “state of the state’s” K–12 engineering education—highlighting opportunities, illuminating gaps, identifying resources, and revealing areas of overlapping interests among National Science Foundation (NSF) awardees and other stakeholders—we are hoping to inform and ignite purposeful action to strengthen engineering education nationwide.

As Jim Stanton noted in a recent post, it is unwise and unfair for only a few students to be able to access learning experiences that—like engineering and computing—prepare them to be informed decision-makers, hone key workforce skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, and raise their awareness of great jobs in the innovation economy. Even if students start out fascinated by fluids and flows and then pursue different careers, as I did, they will apply the habits of mind they learn from exploring engineering in life and at work.


Monday, June 20, 2016 - 11:30am