Stow the Popsicle Sticks
A new framework empowers P–12 educators to create authentic engineering learning for every student. Colleges and industry should lend support.
Opinion By Michael E. Grubbs
As the career and technical education (CTE) coordinator in Maryland’s third-largest school district, I and my colleagues are responsible for preparing our 115,000 students to become informed citizens in an increasingly technology-driven society. This includes honing their engineering literacy and providing a solid grounding for those who aspire to pursue an engineering-related career. However, our efforts have suffered from a lack of guidance on how to create and implement authentic engineering learning experiences that not only equip students to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace but also promote equity.
As a result, our school system has devoted countless hours to defining, refining, and implementing engineering-related instructional materials that align to our community’s needs while also meeting our state department of education’s technology and engineering standards. This often-frustrating process requires considerable coordination between educators and central office administrators as well as meshing with teacher professional development. Moreover, with no road map to help structure learning experiences, instructional leaders must rely on limited vendor-supplied curricula or develop curricula from scratch. For example, one high school may choose to align instruction with an engineering technology pathway and high-wage, high-demand occupations, while another may focus on creating a precollege engineering route.
Putting the “E” in P–12 STEM need not be such a struggle. That’s one of the major takeaways our school district gleaned from piloting an early version of the new Framework for P–12 Engineering Learning to overhaul our high school engineering program. Created through a community effort facilitated by ASEE in partnership with the Advancing Excellence in P–12 Engineering Education (AE³) research collaborative, the framework stresses consistency and continuity, enabling teachers and school leaders to build grade-spanning—and developmentally appropriate—curricula that support the use of authentic instructional materials. The blueprint helped us introduce such industry-standard tools as MATLAB as early as ninth grade, for example. And modeling and design projects no longer are limited to craft sticks, glue guns, tape, and other low-tech building materials—a beneficial advance, given their now-widespread use in the early grades thanks to Maryland’s 2013 adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
Perhaps the biggest transformation was in how our team, which included a professional-engineer-turned-educator as well as science, technology, and engineering teachers, approached the daunting work of revising the entire four-course, four-year engineering sequence. The framework’s focus on mechanical, electrical, civil, and chemical engineering represented a significant departure from our programs, which were built around general engineering concepts such as 3-D modeling, electric circuits, and robotics. Also new was the framework’s emphasis on mapping the sequence of knowledge and skills students must learn as they progress through grade levels. Therefore, we began with the desired outcomes in mind.
Rather than solely culminating in a capstone project, for example, our program incorporates cornerstone projects from freshman year on, so that coaching and support can be provided in all four years. We also expanded opportunities for teachers and students to develop competence in quantitative analysis and incorporated more in-depth engineering design concepts that increase students’ sophistication over time. These additions are proving to be particularly effective for students with no prior authentic engineering learning. They also support professional growth for teachers, especially outside their area of expertise. We have introduced design heuristics cards for better brainstorming and team member effectiveness assessments (CATME) to foster smarter teamwork.
As our curriculum-development process became better aligned with authentic engineering practice, it also grew more student- and community-centered. The lesson for higher education is clear: By breaking down learning outcomes, the Framework for P–12 Engineering Learning can help us improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. Whether students enter ninth grade with only a vague notion of core concepts or a slew of middle school technology or engineering courses under their belts, educators now have a way to assess background knowledge and differentiate instruction to bridge learning gaps. This is an instructional tool that did not previously exist.
The framework’s open access encourages tinkering, innovating, and establishing best practices for P–12 engineering teaching and learning. We now have a starting point to refine—and redefine—curriculum, learning standards, instruction, assessment, and professional development. Baltimore County is just one suburban school district. Imagine our collective impact if engineering outreach offices and faculty joined us in embracing the framework and helping to spread its use.
Michael E. Grubbs is the coordinator of career and technical education for Baltimore County Public Schools, where he oversees nearly 40 programs of study, including curriculum development. He is the author of Foundations of Engineering & Technology (7th edition) and director of strategic initiatives and partnerships for the Advancing Excellence in P–12 Engineering Education research collaborative.