When Elizabeth Parry was a child, she looked at the world around her with wonder and curiosity. She was drawn to physical phenomena, like motion and the play of external forces on objects. In math class, Parry's inquisitive mind reached out for more than a theoretical understanding of lines, vectors, and angles. She yearned to know how these mathematical concepts related to the world and the lives of people.
As a student, Parry had strong parental guidance and a network of mentors and teachers that inspired her passion and boosted her creative energies–a support group that steered her down the pathway of engineering. She has since embarked on a successful career in the field, which has taken her to IBM and to her current position as a professor of engineering at North Carolina State University.
For thousands of other young students, engineering is the road not taken. They do not pursue careers in engineering–in fact, never even get a toehold in the field–because they are unaware of the potential enrichment and rewards of technology, according to advocates of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. They are, according to STEM leaders, victims of a pre-college educational system in the U.S. that has failed to incorporate engineering content in curricula and teach it in a manner that is engaging and fun.
"Children are natural problem solvers and engineers, but often get buried in an educational system that places engineering very low on the list of curriculum-based priorities," says Parry, who serves as chair of the K-12 and Precollege Division at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). "If we in the United States were to add engineering design to the lexicon of young children, many more students will choose engineering as a career path."
Fixing a Century-Old Problem
Parry is part of a growing coalition of STEM education experts who are trying to reform K-12 curricula to include subjects and exercises devoted specifically to engineering. Nationwide STEM initiatives, over the last two decades, have succeeded in increasing students' exposure to science in the classroom; even so, engineering is virtually ignored in K-12 curricula.
The problem dates to 1893, when Charles Elliott, then the president of Harvard University, met with other education leaders to discuss the scholastic requirements for entrance to college. Taking a rational approach, the leaders determined that science subjects–biology, chemistry, and physics, for example–should be included in the classroom curricula because these topics were typically not taught in the home. Engineering, however, did not make the list. Elliott and his committee associated engineering with farm machinery and reasoned that young people were learning "technology" in their homes. Hence, engineering was omitted in the famous Committee of Ten report, which served as the template to create textbooks and curricula in the years that followed and right into the twentieth century.
"As engineering and technology advanced to become a major influence in our lives, textbooks and the core curricula never caught up," explains Ioannis Miaoulis, president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, and founder of the museum's National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL).
Now, Miaoulis and others involved in STEM advocacy, including ASME, are trying to reverse a century-old trend in elementary school education. Much of the focus has been on the development of student workbooks, teacher guides, and other printed curricula material that bring engineering directly into the classroom and into the learning experience of students. Miaoulis' NCTL, with the support of corporate and foundation funding, has published a series of child-friendly storybooks that have reached more than 23,000 teachers and 1.8 million elementary school children in the U.S.
Another effort to engage young people in the wonder of engineering is ASME's Heroes of Engineering: Design Challenges, which exposes students to inventors and famous individuals in engineering who have used their creativity and critical thinking to solve problems.
Training K-12 Teachers
Another area of focus is teachers, whom STEM education experts believe must be trained to effectively teach engineering and engage students' interest in problem solving, teamwork, and hands-on design projects. "K-12 teachers receive precious little content training in science and technology, and particularly in engineering," says Parry. "The education system in the United States today does not do enough to train teachers in the best practices of engineering instruction."
In an effort to make a difference, NC State and several other top-ranked engineering schools have developed outreach programs in which professors are mentors and advisors to K-12 teachers. Parry has been working with teachers and administrators at the Freeman School in New Hanford, NC, since 1999, implementing a professional development program that is demonstrating strong outcomes. Duke University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, among others, sponsor a fellowship program that pairs professors and graduate students with K-12 teachers. In New York University's SMART (Science and Mechatronics Aided Research for Teachers) program, K-12 teachers receive inquiry-based, hands-on orientation and training in mechatronics and robotics. ASME and the ASEE are two engineering societies that sponsor interactive workshops for teachers. The most recent of these, ASME's Inspire Innovation Workshop, held in Dallas in June, drew 30 teachers from the local area.
A Call for a Standards-Based Movement
According to STEM education experts, the development of learning standards and their implementation statewide would go a long way toward ensuring that engineering be a part of the K-12 student experience. "The most significant step toward inclusion of engineering in the K-12 curriculum is to introduce engineering learning standards at the state and federal level, along with regular assessments of student performance," says Miaoulis.
To this end, the National Research Council last month issued the report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas, which for the first time includes engineering as a disciplinary core idea.
"We must focus on developing a systemic and sustainable way for students to learn engineering in K-12," says Parry. "There is much progress, and I'm excited to be involved in the ongoing effort."
The education system in the United States today does not do enough to train teachers in the best practices of engineering instruction.
Elizabeth Parry, professor of engineering, North Carolina State University
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