K-12 engineering teachers lack education system support

K-12 engineering teachers lack education system support
© Getty Images

During this week’s Engineers Week we celebrate the power of engineering to make a positive difference for humanity and the future of our planet. Though we all reap the benefits of engineering, many Americans are unfamiliar with the field. Put simply, engineering is a way of creatively addressing society’s needs. It is distinct from science, which focuses on discovery. Along with science, engineering leads to innovation and technologies critical to America’s wellbeing and economic future. Engineering is essential to addressing a host of grand challenges, such as combating climate change, personalizing medical treatment and securing cyberspace.

We need a more engineering-literate public. This starts with our children. As a nation, we must invest in preparing the next generation — elementary, middle and high school students — to think creatively and optimistically about the future, to think like engineers. 

An engineer’s approach to understanding the world and addressing its challenges is structured and analytic yet also creative and humanistic. It requires knowledge across multiple disciplines, notably science and mathematics, and also an appreciation for history, culture, values and ethics. The central activity of engineering is design, an iterative process of defining a problem, need or opportunity; creating options in the form of products, processes and systems; and developing the optimal path to achieve the goal of the work. Hands-on aspects of engineering design — sketching, building, testing — are highly engaging, even for the very young.

ADVERTISEMENT

Early education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a strong predictor of future academic achievement. And though one might assume the main goal of engineering education at the K-12 level is to encourage more students to pursue engineering careers, the benefits of engineering thinking are far too valuable to be reserved just for those who aim to become engineers. These include improving understanding of what engineers do, supporting more effective forms of integrated STEM education and helping young people develop critical life skills such as problem-solving, communication and teamwork. 

Efforts to introduce engineering thinking in K-12 schools — as well as out-of-school settings, like clubs, science centers and STEM competitions such as FIRST Robotics — have been growing over the past 25 years. Yet compared to most subjects, engineering’s footprint in the K-12 curriculum remains quite small.

The unfortunate reality is that few K-12 teachers have had formal exposure to the concepts and practices of engineering. A just-published study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) found that less than 0.1 percent of K-12 teachers in the U.S. self-identify as teachers of engineering. One explanation is that there are almost no university programs preparing prospective K-12 teachers of engineering. As a result, most K-12 educators who bring engineering into their classrooms do so by studying on their own time or taking part in short-term professional development activities. These admirable yet piecemeal efforts are unlikely to lead to wider impact.

One hopeful trend is the widespread adoption by states of new standards for K-12 science education, the Next Generation Science Standards. NGSS recognizes the value of more integrated forms of STEM learning by explicitly linking the teaching of science concepts and practices to engineering. The field of technology education, which has historical ties to industrial arts, is also a potential source for change. Some programs that prepare these educators include engineering coursework, though the number of graduates, like the field itself, is small. And efforts to get undergraduate engineering students to consider K-12 teaching have so far met with limited success.

The NASEM report, however, found little evidence that the nation’s science teacher education programs are heeding the call to incorporate engineering. Given the large size of the science teacher workforce, getting states to implement the engineering components of NGSS should be a priority. States should also work to define appropriate preparation and credentialing guidelines at various grade levels so that young people interested in teaching engineering see a clear career pathway. Engineering schools must play a role, too, by partnering with schools of education to design curriculum that prepares K–12 teachers of engineering.

ADVERTISEMENT

During Engineers Week, tens of thousands of engineers visit K-12 classrooms to share exciting, hands-on activities with students and teachers. This week’s outreach efforts, and others, are important. Yet their impact would be much greater if more K-12 educators were equipped to support students’ opportunities to think like engineers.

John L Anderson is president of the National Academy of Engineering.

Ellen Kullman is president and CEO of Carbon, a retired CEO and chair of DuPont, and chair of the NASEM Committee on Educator Capacity Building in K–12 Engineering Education.