Effective Engineering Pedagogy for Upper Elementary Teachers

Article Review 4 – Lori Sowa

We expect quite a bit from our K-12 teachers – and with the increased focus on STEM education, we are now expecting teachers to incorporate engineering into their classrooms.   While all teachers have taken science and math classes during their high school and college years, it is safe to say the vast majority of teachers have never formally studied engineering (unless they are recovering engineers who decided to make teaching their career).   Quality professional development opportunities must be provided if we expect meaningful engineering experiences to find their way into K-12.

In a recent paper, a team of engineering education researchers (Guzey, et al., 2014) provide a qualitative analysis of the results of a year-long professional development workshop on   integrating engineering content for third through sixth grade science teachers. The results are measured by analyzing posters documenting each teacher’s implementation of engineering activities in their own classrooms using a framework that identifies the required components of a successful engineering activity.   The professional development served 198 teachers and included 30 hours of face-to-face workshops (spread out in one or two-day increments over the course of an academic year) along with 16 hours of time spent within professional learning communities developed within their school districts to reinforce what they had learned and share ideas.   One the final day of the workshop, teachers presented their own implementation of engineering design projects in their classrooms through posters.

The framework the researchers used defined the necessary components of an engineering curriculum unit.   According to the framework, the engineering unit should:

  1. have a meaningful purpose and engaging context;
  2. have learners participate in an engineering design challenge for a compelling purpose that involves problem solving skills and ties to context;
  3. allow learners to learn more from failure and then have the opportunity to redesign;
  4. include appropriate science and/or mathematical content;
  5. teach content with student-centered pedagogies; and
  6. promote communication skills and teamwork.   (p. 141)

The teachers’ posters were electronically captured and then coded for each of the elements above.   The authors note that all of the posters included evidence of items 5 and 6 above (student-centered pedagogy and teamwork), thus these elements weren’t included in the coding.   Although not highlighted in the paper, I feel this is a substantial accomplishment in itself.   Forty-seven percent of the posters were found to incorporate all of the criteria above, with the remaining projects categorized based upon the missing components.

The use of the specific framework is somewhat limiting (I feel that successful classroom experiences can be produced that do not meet each goal above), but I think the framework does a reasonable job of outlining the elements of a robust engineering experience.   It also gives teachers a framework to measure their own lesson plans, and provides a pathway for improvement.   I will use the framework myself to re-evaulate the project assignments I give in my own classroom.

Once again, we see the focus on “learning from failure”.   Failure is a somewhat peculiar way to characterize this phenomenon, as many of the projects likely met the goals the first time (so not really a failure), but then students were provided an opportunity for improvement which allowed an overall improved design.   But I have seen true “failure” in my classroom with design projects.   I use a scaffolded approach in my freshman engineering course, starting with small design projects, leading up to a large, final design project.   In the second of three projects, I actually assign points for how well their design functions.   The project is to create a device that will extinguish a candle in exactly 20 seconds, and I take off points for each second outside of this range.   I always feel a little uncomfortable with this grading scheme, but there are other aspects to their project grade (final report, etc).   However, the level of effort usually goes up when their grade depends on the outcome.   I felt particularly bad with a recent group of students who, despite their good effort, failed to produce a design that met the criteria.   I allowed them an extra week (with a minor points penalty) to come back with an improved design, and was pleasantly surprised when they came back with an excellent design that met the criteria exactly.   I learned quite a bit from this exercise myself.

The focus on integrating engineering through science education, rather than as yet another, separate topic, is a valuable approach in a number of ways.   In recent conversations I’ve had about STEM education in K-12, a local school principal indicated that she thought that STEM activities were great – but were most likely to be implemented as after-school activities rather than full-class activities.   I have to disagree with this method of incorporation.   After-school activities can provide quality education experiences to those who choose to (or have the means to) participate, but full class activities reach all students.     Engineering can be a vehicle to apply math and science skills, but can also be used in a non-quantitative way, incorporating social and political aspects of technology and problem-solving.   Helping teachers incorporate it in this way is a challenge but is certainly not impossible.

Overall I believe this article highlights a successful model for professional development aimed at providing guidance for upper elementary teachers to include engineering in the curriculum, and uses a well-defined qualitative approach to measure the success of implementation.   However, the authors do not address what I believe is one of the most important aspects of this project.   Were the teachers given this feedback on their own projects?   The teachers are “designing” engineering opportunities for their students – where is their opportunity to learn from “failure”, improve their lesson design and try it again?   I’m sure much of this will happen on its own as teachers are constantly improving their teaching through experience, making adjustments, and trying it again next year.   But the teachers themselves could benefit from having some specific feedback using this framework. By publishing the research, it is shared with the research community, but I would like to see this aspect built in as a major component of the professional development.   It would be quite interesting to follow up on these particular teachers through a longitudinal study, looking at improvements in the implementation of engineering design projects over time.   This study also begs for follow up from both students and teachers in terms of measuring student learning gains, student attitude and motivational factors, and teachers’ satisfaction in implementing the projects, and their perceptions of the success or “failures” in the classroom.

Guzey, S., Tank, K., Hui-Hui, W., Roehrig, G., & Moore, T. (2014). A High-Quality Professional Development for Teachers of Grades 3-6 for Implementing Engineering into Classrooms. School Science & Mathematics, 114(3), 139-149.

3 thoughts on “Effective Engineering Pedagogy for Upper Elementary Teachers

  1. Jenny

    Lori,
    I am intrigued by your article review and will definitely be reading it myself. As a K-12 science teacher, I am always looking for ways to incorporated STEM activities and I think that any activity that asks students to problem solve using real models of application is worth class time. I agree that allowing students to “fail”, learn from thier mistakes and revise thier work is vitally important to the scientific process.

    Reply
  2. Alda

    I appreciate that you mention using a “scaffolded approach” where students start with smaller projects or activities that lead up to a larger project at the end. Combined with the fact that you are open to allowing students to “try again,” it seems that you may favor a “mastery” approach to learning where it is more important for students to practice and eventually “get it right” even if it takes extra time and effort. In that case, what is your preferred method of measuring learning? You mention that the study needs a follow-up where “learning gains” are measured. How that is done partly depends on whether students are judged against external criteria, or their own gradual progress, or some combination thereof.

    Reply
  3. Bob

    I love it, particularly your discomfort with the learners failure and yet you mastered yourself and let them fail. You rescued them a little and let them come back to succeed. YAY You! I want a t-shirt with this paragraph on it.

    “Once again, we see the focus on “learning from failure”. Failure is a somewhat peculiar way to characterize this phenomenon, as many of the projects likely met the goals the first time (so not really a failure), but then students were provided an opportunity for improvement which allowed an overall improved design. But I have seen true “failure” in my classroom with design projects. I use a scaffolded approach in my freshman engineering course, starting with small design projects, leading up to a large, final design project. In the second of three projects, I actually assign points for how well their design functions. The project is to create a device that will extinguish a candle in exactly 20 seconds, and I take off points for each second outside of this range. I always feel a little uncomfortable with this grading scheme, but there are other aspects to their project grade (final report, etc). However, the level of effort usually goes up when their grade depends on the outcome. I felt particularly bad with a recent group of students who, despite their good effort, failed to produce a design that met the criteria. I allowed them an extra week (with a minor points penalty) to come back with an improved design, and was pleasantly surprised when they came back with an excellent design that met the criteria exactly. I learned quite a bit from this exercise myself.”

    Reply

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