What’s Missing in K-12 Education?

Answer — engineering and technology

09/03/2009  |  CHRISTINE M. CUNNINGHAM, PH.D.
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As our society increasingly depends on engineering and technology, it is more important than ever that everyone understand what engineers do, and the uses and implications of the technologies they create. Yet few citizens are technologically literate, largely because technology and engineering are not taught in our schools. Children (and adults) know shockingly little about technology and engineering: the vast majority of citizens have a narrow conception of technology, believing that the term refers only to computers and electronics, and that engineering and science are basically the same thing. To understand the world in which we live, it is vital that we foster engineering and technological literacy among all people, even young children!

v  What Are Technology and
Engineering?

Although Americans tend to use the term “technology” to describe “high-tech” or information technologies, such as computers or iPods, in reality most humans spend over 98 percent of their lives interacting with technology. Pencils, chairs, water filters, toothbrushes, cell phones, and the Air Traffic Control System are all technologies — solutions designed and created by people to solve a problem or to fulfill human needs or wants. The term “technology” includes objects as well as processes and systems. To visualize how pervasive technologies are, imagine your life without them; if you were to remove everything designed by people in your surroundings, most likely you would be left standing naked in a field or forest.

While there are many different kinds of technologies, they are all designed through the processes of engineering. There are many definitions of engineering. One of the easiest to remember because of its brevity is “design under constraint.” At its core, engineering revolves around the Engineering Design Process: a series of steps that engineers use to design technologies that solve a problem. There are many versions of the Engineering Design Process — those used at the high school or collegiate level may encompass 8-12 steps, those designed for elementary children may have 4-6 steps. While having a model is useful for novices who are learning about engineering, it is important to note that practicing engineers do not adhere to a rigid step-by-step interpretation of the process. Rather, there are as many variations of the model as there are engineers. The engineering design process is cyclical and can begin at any step. In real life, engineers often work on just one or two steps and then pass along their work to another team.

Engineers not only utilize the engineering design process but also their creativity and understanding of materials, tools, mathematics, and science when approaching and designing solutions to problems.

v The Relationships among Science, Engineering and Technology

Science, engineering, and technology are interrelated. How? There are many similarities between science and engineering. These include strong foundations in mathematics and critical thinking, a reliance on creativity and innovation, and the use of models, simulations, and experiments to refine ideas. The primary difference between science and engineering lies in their goals. Science’s goal is to describe, predict, and understand the natural world, while engineering’s is to solve a problem or meet a need by designing devices or processes. There are often many solutions to an engineering problem — which is “best” may depend heavily on the population that is using it and the geographic location. The solutions — objects, processes, and systems — that engineers create are technologies.

v  Engineering for Children?!? 

Professional, certified engineers usually have many years of schooling and degrees. But across the globe, people old and young engineer solutions daily as they informally employ a similar problem solving process when confronted with challenges. To help all people understand the human-made world in which they live, engineering needs to be taught in our K-12 educational system. There are many reasons to introduce children to engineering in elementary, middle, and high school. These include:

  • Engineering and technological literacy are necessary for the 21st century. As our society increasingly depends on engineering and technology, all people need to understand these fields to understand our world.
  • Engineering projects integrate other disciplines and make them relevant. Engaging students in hands-on, real-world engineering experiences can enliven math and science and other content areas and motivate students to learn math and science concepts by illustrating relevant applications.
  • Engineering fosters problem-solving skills, including problem formulation, iteration, and testing of alternative solutions.
  • Engineering embraces project-based learning.
  • Learning about engineering increases students’ awareness of and access to such careers. Early introduction to engineering can encourage many capable students, especially girls and minorities, to consider it as a career.

Children are natural engineers; they are fascinated with building, with taking things apart, and with how things work. To help prepare the next generation for its participation in a world that rests heavily on engineering and technology, our schools need to rise to the challenge of including these subjects in their instruction. The creative problem-solvers will contribute to our society in a myriad of ways, in part by designing new technologies that we can only begin to imagine.

Christine M. Cunningham, Ph.D. is Vice
President, Research & Educator Resource Development Director, Engineering is
Elementary, Museum of Science in Boston. www.mos.org/eie.
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