Engineering education in the K-12 grades still only reaches a small fraction of U.S. students. Experts say new content standards could raise its profile in more classrooms and bring engineering in line with standards used in science, technology and math. In a new report, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) contends that, while set standards for K-12 engineering are doable, their usefulness and implementation would be limited.

 HANDS-ON A student at a high school engineering “academy” run by a business-university group explains a design project. The group now runs 29 such programs, with more set to start.
Photo: National Academy Foundation
A student at a high school engineering “academy” run by a business-university group explains a design project. The group now runs 29 such programs, with more set to start.

Better standards “could create an identity for engineering as a separate and important discipline in the overall curriculum” that would boost quality, relevance and popularity of instruction, NAE says. But with only five million of about 56 million K-12 students exposed to engineering education, the students’ experience is too limited to implement standards and assess benefits, it says.

The report, released in September by the U.S. government’s engineering policy and research arm, arrives as education reformers in the public and private sectors push for more rigor and less variation in all K-12 subjects taught in the U.S. “Common core” standards proposals, an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that already has been unveiled for English and math.

Orders of Magnitude

NAE says that, based on experience in other subjects, 10% of available teachers must be willing and able to teach engineering. That percentage would require 380,000 U.S. teachers, “a figure orders of magnitude larger than the estimated teaching force,” researchers point out.

The study also found no reliable state data on how engineering is taught and learned. “There is relatively little practical experience to guide decisions about when specific engineering ideas or concepts should be introduced and at what level of complexity,” says the review, chaired by Robert White, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. The study also notes differing opinions on linking engineering education with math and science and suggests a separate standard may dilute benefits of unified instruction or temper student interest; further, schools already overloaded with curricula may likely push back.

Instead, NAE recommends federal agencies, foundations and professional engineering groups fund a document that describes the profession’s “core ideas,” adapted for K-12 level students. Furthermore, it calls for new guidelines on instructional materials, overseen by academic experts and engineers.

The study also recommends new research funded by federal agencies and the private sector to focus on issues such as how children understand or misunderstand core engineering concepts; how to introduce and sequence concepts and skills at the elementary, middle and high school levels; optimal settings, such as classrooms or after-school programs, for instruction; and how to design materials, programs and educator training to “engage all learners,” including those who historically are underrepresented in the engineering profession.

One private-sector proponent of K-12 engineering education says he supports these kinds of standards. These benchmarks would push “development of assessments that enable students to demonstrate both content knowledge and the application of that knowledge through engineering projects,” says Andrew Rothstein, chief academic officer of the New York City-based National Academy Foundation, which runs engineering programs at 29 U.S. high schools. The corporate-sponsored group, founded in 2007, is not part of NAE.

Despite the study’s findings, NAE sees much value in teaching engineering in grade school. “Even if standards for engineering education are never developed, the core ideas will benefit curriculum developers, cognitive scientists, teachers, those working in informal and after-school learning environments and others,” it says. “We can think of few areas of education as critical as engineering to building an informed, literate citizenry.”