Our Nation's Challenge Engineering Offers a Solution
The Museum of Science launched the National Center for Technological Literacy® (NCTL®) in 2004 to enhance knowledge of engineering and technology for people of all ages and backgrounds and to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. Through the NCTL, the Museum is integrating engineering as a new discipline in schools nationwide via standards-based K-12 curricular reform and developing technology exhibits and programs.
The NCTL is not only preparing students to live and work in the 21st century but also working to expand students' understanding of technology and engineering in order to widen the pipeline to careers in STEM fields so that a diverse array of talented students can pursue them.
Engaging students in engineering skills — identifying a problem, designing a solution, testing, and improving the design — can offer a platform for applied and integrated learning in math, science, English language arts, and history and social studies. Allowing for failure and hands-on activities, engineering can also open doors for different kinds of learners, sparking the imagination of children who do not learn logically or sequentially, but through kinesthetic, sensory experiences. Traditional education often plays to the strengths of the logical and sequential learner — making school difficult for those who learn in other ways.
Engineering lessons that appeal to different learning styles are a compelling way to inspire children of color and different ethnic or cultural backgrounds who might otherwise be discouraged from pursuing science or engineering. Introducing engineering in K-12 learning opens career opportunities for children of all backgrounds. More than 70% of U.S.-born engineers are influenced by a relative to become an engineer. Children from ethnic groups underrepresented in technology and engineering do not have the relatives or counselors to guide them to pursue these fields.
That's why the Museum strives to make the "technology" and "engineering" in STEM education as important as the "science" and "math" in all policy-making, funding, K-12 standards and curricula, teacher professional development and certification, and student programs and assessments.
Changing the K-12 curriculum
By involving students in engineering before stereotyping about math and science discourages them, the Museum's curricula are geared to both sexes and people of all colors, backgrounds, and cultures. Its Engineering is Elementary® (EiE) curriculum, for example, integrates engineering and technology with science, language arts, social studies, and mathematics via hands-on design activities for 1st - 5th graders. The EiE curriculum has reached over 19,400 teachers and over one million students nationwide.
View Map to See EiE's Current Reach
Each unit includes an illustrated storybook with a child from a different country and culture who uses the engineering design process to solve a problem. One unit, for example, features a water filtration lesson in India, where children test filter materials to clean contaminated water, a real-world problem.
According to a September 2009 report by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC), EiE materials are "very attentive to issues of diversity," including "the needs of underrepresented and underserved populations, especially females….the units feature a variety of cultures, ethnicities, languages, exceptionalities, and geographic locations."
EiE is a research-based program that has incorporated research, evaluation, and assessment into all aspects of curriculum design and testing. During the development, pilot and field testing of EiE units, students complete pre- and post-assessments that measure pupils' understandings of engineering concepts, technology concepts, and science concepts. National, controlled studies indicate that children who engage with engineering and science through EiE learn engineering, technology, and related science concepts significantly better than students who study just the science (without engineering). This was true for both sexes and all racial/ethnic groups. Teachers also report that EiE curricular materials work well, whether students are low- or high-achieving, including those with cognitive, linguistic, and behavioral challenges, who are girls, children of color, or at risk in other ways.
Promising preliminary research indicates that Engineering is Elementary may be narrowing the achievement gap. In a national controlled study, thousands of students who participated in an EiE unit and related science instruction were compared to a control group that studied only the related science instruction. In two of the three units studied, the performance gap between low and high socioeconomic students was significantly smaller after participation in an EiE unit.
Students also need diverse role models. That's why the Museum's standards-based high school engineering text, Engineering the Future®, is narrated by practicing engineers — female and male — from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The September 2009 report by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC) cites this text's effort "to portray engineering as an interesting and accessible career" for people of diverse backgrounds.
The curriculum engages students in hands-on design and building challenges reflecting real engineering problems and encourages them to explore what engineering and technology are and how they influence our society. The Museum's middle school Building Math curriculum, developed with Tufts University, also encourages both sexes and people of all colors, backgrounds, and cultures to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Building Math was awarded 2008 Distinguished Curriculum Award as a math curriculum package by the Association of Educational Publishers.
The Museum of Science is conducting an analysis to determine how it can improve its efforts to engage girls in STEM learning in informal settings. Since 2003, Museum of Science educators have engaged over 125,000 young visitors in Museum-based Design Challenges involving the engineering design cycle and intended to appeal to girls and boys. Engaging engineering activities for girls can provide an opportunity to develop problem solving skills as well an accurate and positive perception of engineering. Such a paradigm shift in middle school might influence more girls to pursue rigorous math, science, and engineering course work in high school.
In 2009, the Museum of Science's established the Deshpande Endowment Fund for Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math to support Museum-based programs inspiring girls to be excited about careers in science and engineering.
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Much work needs to be done. There are some early successes. BEST, tasked in 2001 by Congress to build a more diverse U.S. workforce in science, engineering and technology by increasing participation of underrepresented groups, convened three blue ribbon panels to identify "what's working" across the country to develop the technical talent of these groups in pre-K through 12, higher education, and the workplace.
The 2004 report, "What it Takes: Pre-K-12 Design Principles to Broaden Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics," showcased nine programs with significant evidence of effectiveness and 11 warranting further research. Direct Instruction in Mathematics, an instructional approach developed in the late 1960s at the University of Illinois, and Project SEED (Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged), a supplementary mathematics program also launched in the 1960s in Berkeley, California, received the highest BEST rating. See the entire list. BEST is currently drawing on NCTL's resources to strengthen the K-12 STEM component of its National Defense Education Program.
The September 2009 report by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC), Engineering in K 12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects, includes an extensive analysis of existing K-12 engineering curricula.
While most people spend 95% of their time interacting with the technologies of the human-made world, few know these products are made through engineering, the missing link that connects science and math with innovation.