Not Just a Prop for Teaching Science
Engineering should come first in the K-12 STEM curriculum.
Opinion by Christine M. Cunningham and William S. Carlsen
Once upon a time, engineering was a subject that you studied only after you got to college. Today, K-12 educators widely embrace the view advanced by the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education that engineering supports science learning—and that because of this, young students should engage in engineering in the elementary grades, if not earlier.
Our own research (as well as that of others) finds that children who engineer do remember and understand science concepts better than students who study only science. That’s an exciting outcome. But the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which guide the current integration of engineering in K-12 schools, overemphasize the similarities between engineering and science practices while glossing over important differences. The standards also ignore the important advantages that the epistemic practices of engineering convey when deployed in K-12 classrooms. Instead of casting engineering as a prop to science learning, we should consider putting engineering first.
Consider NGSS Practice 3, “Planning and carrying out investigations.” Both engineers and scientists carry out investigations—but they do so with significantly different goals. For scientists, the intended outcome of an investigation is rhetorical—an explanation of a natural phenomenon. For engineers, the intended outcome of an investigation is tangible—a technology that solves a specific problem under specific conditions.
A practical, tangible focus is an advantage in the K-12 classroom. Engineering investigations have far more obvious connections to students’ life experiences than do science investigations; kids may not yet have been introduced to the concepts of force and balance, but they have almost certainly crossed a bridge. Kids who are challenged to design a simple model bridge will, through the engineering design process, naturally experience and explore the abstract science concepts of force and balance. The understanding they develop as a result will be an important resource when the abstract science concepts are introduced.
The carrying out of investigations naturally leads to NGSS Practice 6: “Constructing explanations” (for scientists) and “designing solutions” (for engineers). Scientists search for the single correct explanation of a phenomenon. Engineering investigations, on the other hand, routinely have more than one possible solution. Consequently, when students engage in engineering, there are many different ways that they can succeed. The opportunity to apply their creativity and design unique solutions makes engineering highly engaging for children.
Now consider NGSS Practice 1, “Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering).” In science, a good question is one for which the answer is not already known. To ask a good question, you need deep knowledge of the discipline—which students by definition lack! No wonder many student-initiated science “investigations” are not genuine investigations, but rather exercises in confirming what scientists already know.
The engineering-specific element of Practice 1, defining a problem, offers a clear advantage for young students: It’s comparatively easy to pose an engineering problem that’s both educationally productive and accessible for young students, even if they don’t yet have deep knowledge of the science concepts integral to solving the problem. For example, students can design a windmill that really spins—and lifts a small weight—long before they can calculate the work being accomplished or the efficiencies of the system.
Finally, look at NGSS Practice 7: “Engaging in argument from evidence.” Scientists present evidence to persuade peers that the explanation they’ve proposed is valid; they succeed if other scientists embrace the explanation. Engineers need to persuade clients. And they recognize that “success” involves more than producing a working technology; they must also consider criteria like ethics, safety, aesthetics, and economics. When students have to consider not just the cold, hard facts but also the social ramifications of an engineering project, they’re getting excellent preparation for participating in the world.
Instead of framing instruction in K-12 engineering as the handmaiden of science—valuable mostly for the way it supports science learning—we should embrace and celebrate engineering in its own right. K-12 educators should actively take advantage of all the ways that age-appropriate, hands-on engineering activities develop “engineering habits of mind,” like the ability to learn from failure, be persistent, and be open to multiple solutions. These are all ways of thinking that support learning across the curriculum—and prepare students for life.
Christine M. Cunningham is vice president of the Museum of Science, Boston, and director of Engineering is Elementary. William S. Carlsen is a professor of education and director of graduate studies in curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University.