Higher Reach

Higher Reach Cover Story

Proponents say an engineering Advanced Placement program would bring prestige, broaden the field’s appeal, and assure better K-12 preparation. Will engineering schools agree?

They’ve weighed the advantages of various hull shapes, pondered the boater’s needs versus design constraints, and created mathematical functions to generate 3-D computer models and construction templates. Only then do the students hit the cardboard and duct tape, sprawling on the floor to draw, cut, and assemble a sturdy, 12-foot canoe they will race in late spring. Such hands-on projects may be par for first-year engineering programs. But these aspiring engineers are still navigating Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz., the first of 29 partner schools to teach the University of Arizona’s ENGR 102 introductory course — for college credit. “It really helps build interest,” says Hamilton’s pioneering principal, Fred DePrez. The class’s enrollment has doubled since its 2008 debut and “the whole school turns outs” for the annual canoe competition, he says. Many graduates go on to study engineering in college. “We have designed the course around our freshman-level engineering, so we know it works for us,” notes Jill Rogers, who oversees the high school program for the university.

Challenged by President Obama to produce 100,000 more graduates over the next decade, engineering schools across the country have ramped up their K-12 outreach, bolstering summer programs, hosting competitions, and introducing initiatives to attract and retain more women and other underrepresented groups. Now, an influential group of engineering deans is moving a step further, seeking to add engineering to Advanced Placement’s suite of 10 science, technology, and math courses. Their work is far enough along to have warranted a high-profile panel in February at the ASEE Engineering Deans Council’s Public Policy Colloquium, where it drew praise from Tom Kalil of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the National Science Foundation’s assistant director for education and human resources.

“The big issue now is on a better educated and prepared pipeline, the K-12 STEM pipeline,” says Darryll Pines, engineering dean at the University of Maryland. He chairs the EDC’s committee on K-12 STEM education, which is leading the AP Engineering review. Pines, who moderated the panel, cites such recent developments as the Obama administration’s $100 million program to redesign high schools and the Million Women Mentors network for STEM. “The K-12-to-undergraduate pathway is crucial,” agrees Ferrini-Mundy. As one of the panelists, she called for “a national effort to introduce engineering at the K-12 level in a sustainable way.” She said it was “terrific” to hear about the AP engineering process and the prospect of courses “that actually count toward graduation.”

Mixed Response

Academe has responded cautiously. In a survey of deans, department chairs, and faculty conducted last October by ASEE and the College Board, the nonprofit research and advocacy group that administers the Advanced Placement program, 58 percent said they were “very interested or interested” in AP engineering. They represented schools that collectively enroll more than 76,000 engineering students. Roughly 1 in 5 respondents were either disinterested or very disinterested in AP engineering, and a similar share was neutral. If an AP course were introduced, some 57 percent favored Introduction to Engineering, with Engineering Design Principles running a distant second, at 21 percent. EDC’s curriculum committee will study two introductory options, engineering and engineering principles, says Pines.

It’s easy to see AP engineering’s appeal. As Pines explains, “Kids come in and don’t know anything about engineering,” and that often translates to comparatively low retention and graduation rates. Advanced Placement may offer a way to “brand engineering at the high school level” and capture more of the cohort that otherwise would pursue math or science. “Our numbers will go up,” he says, high schools will do a better job of educating students about the field of engineering, and there could be a “seamless transition to introductory classes.” Another potential plus, says Jim Baygents, academic dean of engineering at the University of Arizona, is attracting women and other underrepresented groups who might never have considered engineering had they not had a robust route to discover their aptitude for it in high school. It would also discourage the “false positives” – students who learn engineering isn’t their passion only after taking costly college courses.

AP engineering has received serious consideration before. Leigh Abts, a research associate professor of bioengineering and education at the University of Maryland, College Park, has spent nearly a decade as an NSF-funded principal investigator developing a pre-AP and AP program. Research revealed that no single course could cover the range of opportunities for students to learn, practice, and demonstrate their design skills, so the idea failed to gain traction in the engineering community. But Abts has made major strides in assessment, distilling university, industry, and secondary-school expertise into a rubric for scoring students’ engineering design work from middle through graduate school. His team’s standardized template anchors a free, online “innovation portal,” where individuals or teams can build e-portfolios of videos and sketches documenting their problem-solving process and submit them for review. “This is really going to break the mold for how the College Board and others look at student work,” Abts told Education Week last year. Portfolio assessments, currently used in AP studio art and being developed for computer science principles, could replace traditional exams as a way to award credit for design projects. As Arizona’s Rogers notes: “Sitting alone taking a test is not an indication of anything in engineering.”

Momentum for engineering is building at the K-12 level, where engineering courses and specialized academies have proliferated. Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit provider of K-12 engineering programs and an ally in the AP effort, started with 12 upstate New York high schools in 1997. It now reaches more than half a million students in all 50 states and has dozens of university affiliates, including Duke and the University of Illinois. In Tuscarawas County, Ohio, some 2,100 students in six high schools are enrolled in PLTW courses; those who earn higher than a B and score at least 70 percent on the national exam qualify for college credit at Kent State University. “It’s a prestigious program in our schools,” says the Tuscarawas campus’s engineering technology director, Kamal Bichara, who introduced PLTW along with a dual-credit engineering technology course and 12 after-school cyber clubs to inspire and prepare more high-school students to pursue engineering. “They love this stuff.” While PLTW’s preparation is usually geared toward engineering technology, its courses can lead to college credit at a few full-fledged engineering schools, including the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

High-school teachers with professional engineering experience are building college-prep engineering curricula from scratch. That was the case for Mark Conner, founding director of the Engineering Academy at Hoover High School in Birmingham, Ala., who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Duke and has taught electrical circuits courses at the University of Alabama, Birmingham as an adjunct assistant professor for more than a decade. The four-year course sequence he developed and has been teaching since 2004 with other engineering teachers covers ABET criteria a-k, and includes calculus-based AP physics, programming, engineering ethics, technical communication (with the kind of tough “feedback” on papers a professor might bestow), entrepreneurship, and a senior capstone design project. “It’s a whole lot more fun to teach” than traditional math and science, says Conner, who is piloting an online MATLAB and LabVIEW programming course he developed. In traditional classes, he says, “we spend four years answering the question: When are we going to use this?” Since its inception, the program has graduated more than 150 students. This year’s freshman cohort is 90. Students from the first graduating class are either now in industry, making more than their former teachers, or in graduate school.

High-level Push

The policy winds also now favor K-12 engineering. Last year, California, seven other states, and the District of Columbia adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which include engineering practices and design. Other states are poised to follow suit in 2014. The briskest breeze, however, continues to blow from OSTP, which encouraged the engineering community and College Board to revisit Advanced Placement. “We’re very excited about the [AP] conversation,” Kalil, the deputy director for technology and innovation, told ASEE’s public policy colloquium. “It’s an important opportunity to put the ‘E’ in STEM.”

The conversation coincides with a surge in AP participation. Conceived by academic elites as a way to accelerate high performers into America’s Cold War talent pool, Advanced Placement soon took off following its 1955 debut. Federal and state programs to increase access for low-income and minority students have fueled recent growth. This past May, 2.2 million students in more than 18,000 schools worldwide took about 4 million AP exams in 34 subjects, including two levels of calculus and three of physics, plus chemistry and computer science. That was almost double the number of test takers from a decade ago. Reflecting studies showing that a challenging high-school curriculum is the biggest factor in college success, College Board researchers have found that students who succeed on an AP exam – scoring 3 or above on a five-point scale – are more likely to earn higher GPAs in college, take more demanding courses in the discipline, and graduate within four years.

AP courses are no guarantee of college success, however. Strong performance may reflect family affluence and school quality, caution researchers. In a study of 28,000 Texas high-school graduates, Kristin Klopfenstein, founding head of the University of Northern Colorado’s Education Innovation Institute, and Mississippi State University economist M. Kathleen Thomas found AP students were no more likely than their non-AP peers to have higher first-semester grades or to return for sophomore year. The one exception – Hispanics who took AP science, economics, and psychology – could be traced back to one exceptional college-prep program. Other researchers have found that students with low grades in honors or AP courses actually fare worse in college science classes than their counterparts who did well in regular courses.

AP participation and achievement vary widely. Although African Americans made up 14.5 percent of the 2013 high-school graduating class, they represented only 9.2 percent of AP exam takers and just 4.6 percent of successful scorers. The gap in STEM subjects is particularly acute: Only 3 in 10 African American students with high potential for success in AP science took such a course, compared with 6 in 10 Asian students. In 11 states, no black students took the 2013 AP computer science exam, and Wyoming had no takers at all. To narrow that gap, the College Board recently launched an AP STEM Access program at 335 schools nationwide. Funded by a $5 million Google Global Impact Award, the program aims to create new AP science and math classes for 36,000 underrepresented minority and female students over the next three years.

However, AP engineering might help increase the ranks of women. In a 2012 ASEE paper on recruitment lessons, researchers from California State Polytechnic University found that 79 percent of first-year female engineering undergraduates chose the major during junior or senior year of high school. Nearly all had taken AP calculus and received credit for it.

Blue-chip Credibility

Undeniably, AP carries world-class cachet. The courses add weight to a student’s GPA, shine on college applications, and convey tuition-shaving credits. AP courses also can whet young appetites for subjects they might not encounter until college – if ever. Engineering schools might “get to kids earlier with the STEM story,” College Board Vice President for AP Curriculum and Assessment Auditi Chakravarty told the deans, by “harnessing the power of AP.” Psychology, for example, has become the sixth most-popular of AP’s 34 subjects, growing from 3,914 exams in 1992 to 238,962 last year. That represented a 106 percent jump over 2007. Economics has seen similar gains.

Besides lending credibility, College Board branding could give engineering educators a way to standardize what constitutes a college-level course. “There is a wide range of well-intentioned high school engineering programs out there but the quality of course content and instruction varies widely,” remarks Nicholas Altiero, science and engineering dean at Tulane University and president-elect of ASEE. “I believe that an AP engineering program is the best mechanism for engineering educators to set appropriate standards for course content and teacher preparation.” Right now, Hoover High’s Conner notes, “There’s so much that’s called engineering at the high school level that isn’t.” Conner revised his AP physics and calculus courses so aspiring engineers wouldn’t stumble at the college starting gate and quit. “An AP course should map to something at the undergraduate level. But if you’re not teaching the math and science that go alongside it, you’re not necessarily preparing students to be successful in engineering school.” Hamilton High principal DePrez agrees, which is why he sought to partner with the University of Arizona on an integrated course rather than sign onto Project Lead the Way. “What good is it if you don’t give them the math?” he asks. “If you haven’t given them the academic part, they’re never going to be an engineer anyway.”

AP engineering also could forge new opportunities for engineering educators to develop coursework and strengthen K-12 teaching. Currently, nearly 5,300 college faculty – including a few from engineering schools – help create and validate the AP curriculum, write and score exams, review each teacher’s syllabus, and establish college-level performance standards. ASEE members, who include faculty, administrators, industry representatives, and K-12 STEM educators from a wide spectrum of engineering fields, seem uniquely positioned to assist, Maryland’s Pines believes. He sees the Society “working closely with the K-12 community to help foster programs and workshops to train the next generation of engineering teachers in the K-12 environment.” Several programs could serve as guides. The University of Texas, Austin’s UTeachEngineering, for example, equips engineering majors with strong education coursework and pre-service teaching. The University of Colorado, Boulder, launched a similar program this year that prepares undergraduates to earn a secondary math or science teaching license through engineering.

Despite a more favorable climate, AP engineering is no slam-dunk. Credit is high on the list of faculty concerns. Many engineering schools have invested in revamped first-year programs that emphasize hands-on learning and real-world design projects and would be loath to let freshmen bypass them. “The challenge is there are not many courses that map easily to fulfill credit and replace our existing curriculum in the same way that an AP calculus course does,” explains Duke University’s engineering dean, Tom Katsouleas, who nonetheless thinks that “minor adaptations are well worth the benefits” possible from AP engineering. Some 42 percent of ASEE/College Board respondents were receptive or very open to awarding credit, while an equal share had no opinion. Yet credit is the third biggest reason students say they take an AP course – the boost in college admissions ranks first – and “research consistently shows it’s a driving factor,” says the College Board’s Chakravarty. Therefore, she says “there needs to be evidence that significant numbers of institutions will offer credit or placement” before AP engineering can move ahead. Further complicating the issue: Engineering is considered a career-technical course or an elective in many states, not a science class that counts for a diploma. “If colleges don’t pony up and say, ‘We accept AP credit,’” and offer placement, says Pines, high schools are unlikely to respond.

Determining credit is hardly a new challenge. At Washington University in St. Louis, for example, AP courses can carry weight on an application but don’t count toward fulfilling an engineering degree beyond an option to place out of general science or calculus, explains Tobin Harris, associate registrar in engineering student services. Many engineering programs require students to take a math placement test, even if they scored top marks on AP calculus.

Who Would Teach?

Instruction could prove the toughest challenge. AP’s syllabus submission requirement and recommended summer institute for teachers may be insufficient for engineering. “You don’t train someone to be an engineer in two weeks,” says Conner, noting that “the biggest barrier” to replicating his program was “not technology or funding but personnel.” Part of the reason the Engineering Academy works so well, he says, is because “the developers are all degreed engineers who are in the high school classroom every day.” Conner’s misgivings about AP engineering stem from current offerings: “Will the course be developed by engineering educators who aren’t high-school teachers or by high-school teachers who aren’t engineering educators?”

“Part of the secret sauce” in Arizona’s successful pilot high schools “always involves a teacher who is a kid magnet, someone students like and trust,” says Academic Dean Baygents, who co-authored a 2011 ASEE paper with Dean Jeffrey Goldberg about the program. At Hamilton High, that kid magnet was Jim Clark, a Motorola electrical engineer with a master’s in education and five years of classroom experience. His industry background was the top selling point for student Kellie Seamans. “I knew that I liked math and science, and was good at it,” she recalls. “But this was completely different from most high school classes.” Not having to pay tuition to test-drive engineering was an added bonus. Since graduating from high school in 2009, Seamans has earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Arizona and now works on environmental-control equipment as a plant support engineer for Arizona Public Service, a power company. She is also taking online courses toward a master’s in environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

Even if the stars line up behind AP engineering, it typically takes four or more years to design, develop, and fully implement an AP course, cautions the College Board’s Chakravarty. Standards, objectives, and core competencies must be defined and a curriculum developed, a process in which university, industry, and policy leaders all have a role. “We want to do it right,” she says. Meanwhile, the trend toward increased college-high school collaboration in engineering seems likely to continue. This means Hamilton High’s principal, who has yet to predict the winner of the cardboard canoe race, has more chances to try.

By Mary Lord

Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.

Cover and image by Nicola Nittoli/Thinkstock