Historically, engineering and STEM careers have been a primary upward economic path for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That opportunity still exists, but today such students are severely underrepresented in STEM careers, and too few students overall are prepared to meet projected STEM workforce needs. Texas will generate three-quarters of a million STEM-related job openings by 2018, jobs that pay an average of $75,000 a year. Many of our students are not prepared to pursue these STEM career opportunities. The grade 8 NAEP science score for Texas students ranks just 25th among the 50 states. Clearly a change in the approach to STEM education is needed to engage and motivate Texas students.
Research Points to a Solution
According to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council, introducing engineering concepts into K–12 education has the potential to improve student learning and achievement in science and mathematics. Recent studies show that design-based teaching of middle school science concepts results in superior student knowledge gain, engagement, and retention compared to scripted-inquiry teaching. In one study, the engineering design pedagogy was most helpful to low-achieving African American students. Students working to solve interesting, real problems see the relevance of science and mathematics skills, are motivated to master those skills, and have the opportunity to practice them in a setting that is fundamentally different from learning science and mathematics through traditional methods.
There are a variety of ways to introduce engineering topics into secondary school, including stand-alone courses, and adopting new science curricula based on design. We are working on an Infusion Approach that introduces engineering problem solving, team design challenges, and open-ended activities into core science classes. This approach requires minimal school or curriculum restructuring, and reaches every child, but it does require specially trained teachers, since few teachers are prepared to teach design or to mentor student team projects.
We have developed programs that provide sustained, intensive, and high-quality teacher professional development through summer workshops and academic year meetings, with over 100 contact hours per year. The activities are designed to give teachers the content and implementation skills to develop and integrate project-based learning lessons, open-ended activities, and design challenges into science courses, to provide teachers with the experience, knowledge, and skills necessary to guide students through engineering design problems that integrate science and mathematics concepts, to provide teachers with instructional resources to implement effective strategies for their own students and subject area, and to familiarize teachers with engineering professional practice, the content of the different engineering areas, and the nature of various engineering degrees and their requirements, so that they can advise students. The training also introduces activities and effective strategies for serving historically underserved and underrepresented populations, including English language learners.
Texas Teacher Quality Grant #468, 2009–2012, Physics and Engineering Design. Rice University School of Engineering partnered with Houston ISD to provide training to high school science and technology teachers. The menu at left contains a link to further information.
We are just starting Texas Teacher Quality Grant #509, Engineering Design for Middle School Science, that partners Rice University School of Engineering with Spring ISD to provide professional development for middle school science teachers. The menu at left contains a link to further information.