Engineering an Education Revolution

January/February 2016

Engineering an Education Revolution



As we approach Engineers Week, I recall I last talked with PE magazine, then known as Engineering Times, in February 2001. I was dean of engineering at Tufts University. We were introducing engineering into the Massachusetts public school curriculum. Happily, our state was first in the nation to develop a K–12 statewide curriculum framework and assessments for technology and engineering.

How far engineering education has come!

When I arrived in the United States in 1980 from Greece to study engineering, I was shocked that so many people didn’t know what it was. Today, science curricula still focus more on the natural than the engineered world, even though the technological world facilitates 95% of life—from bridges and smart phones to pacemakers.

As we know, the best way to prepare children for success is to introduce them to the engineering design skills that will give them real experience solving problems. Engineering is the missing link, making math and science relevant and sparking a process that can lead to innovation. Identifying a problem, designing a solution, testing, and improving a design also involve learning communication skills, history, and social studies. Hands-on engineering activities allowing for failure can also make learning accessible to different students.

Starting Early
But, if more than 100 engineering deans are serious about creating 20,000 Grand Challenge Engineers in 10 years, as they told President Obama in 2015, we must start this process early. After the primary grades, students often lose interest in math and science because the courses seem disconnected from their lives. This connection to reality is especially important for girls who are drawn to sciences benefitting society.

To focus on the “E” in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), the Museum of Science, Boston, created the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL) in 2004. As one of the world’s largest science centers, attracting nearly 1.4 million visitors a year, the museum was positioned to lead a national movement to advance engineering in schools and museums. The strategy: create classroom curricula and museum programming; provide teacher professional development; enhance public perceptions of engineering; reform standards and assessments; and advocate for engineering education.

In the Classroom
Responding to the lack of elementary engineering curricula, the NCTL piloted Engineering is Elementary (EiE) in 2004 with eight teachers and 200 students. The award-winning grade 1–5 curriculum inspires girls and boys from all backgrounds to design everything from model bridges to knee braces. The curriculum integrates engineering and technology with science, language arts, social studies, and math via lesson plans, hands-on activities, and storybooks with children from different cultures who use engineering to solve problems. Research suggests EiE improves student attitudes about the value of science and engineering, particularly girls, and promotes student knowledge of engineering and interest in science and engineering careers.

The NCTL has also created middle and high school curricula, Building Math and Engineering the Future, respectively. As of fall 2015, NCTL curricula had reached an estimated 9.6 million students and 105,000 teachers nationwide. Further, the NCTL is supporting educators with onsite and online professional development, building a network of teacher-educators, using a train-the-trainer model, and helping school districts develop strategic plans to implement K–12 technology and engineering programs. The NCTL hosted its first virtual conference in November 2015 to engage educators nationwide in focusing on the engineering in STEM—an acronym not yet fully realized.

Outside the Classroom
Since out-of-school-time (OST) programs help close the “opportunity gap” for underserved children—in part by offering an environment where kids can tackle challenges without fear of failure—the museum has developed OST programs based on Engineering is Elementary for students in grades 3–8. Four activities, including modeling an insulated house and engineering a safety helmet, are inspired by the National Academy of Engineering’s “grand challenges” for engineering.

The museum has also engaged 600,000 visitors in Design Challenges, from prototyping minisailboats to satellites. Its Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibition, created with Lucasfilm Ltd., has promoted engineering to three million people. Recently, by transforming the complexities of computer science into compelling visitor experiences, Pixar Animation Studios and the museum have shown how much creativity is involved in the art and STEM of filmmaking in The Science Behind Pixar. Summer attendance was the best in 17 years.

Leading this educational revolution, the museum advocates for engineering in learning standards, assessments, and funding. States including New Hampshire, Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, Oregon, and Washington have revised their standards to include engineering. The NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment includes engineering design and systems thinking, and the Next Generation Science Standards includes engineering design skills and practices. The NCTL has also championed federal engineering education legislation.

Join Us
Ask your elected officials to fund engineering programs. Mobilize your engineering and other industry colleagues to partner with schools to offer engineering activities. And, you can inspire your own child to imagine and build a robot toy or solar oven.

Ioannis N. Miaoulis, Ph.D., is president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston. He is also former dean of the Tufts University School of Engineering.