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Teaching Tomorrow's Engineers Today

by David A. Janosz, Jr. - January 2007

Everyone seems to know that one needs a solid background in mathematics and physical sciences in order to be an engineer.  Professional engineers draw upon this knowledge every day in their professional life as they set out to design, create, invent, innovate, and solve problems.  Yet, there is an important piece of what could be considered “pre-engineering” missing from the public’s consciousness, and that is to have students that aspire to be engineers study technology during their K-12 education.

Just because a student is good in math and science doesn’t mean that they would like being an engineer.  Further, with the dropout and transfer rates in engineering programs at the university level so high, we owe it to our younger students to teach them more about what engineers do and how they design and develop new technologies.  Part of the reason we are importing engineering talent from other countries is because students do not explore technology, innovation, design, and engineering in every K-12 school.

I’ve asked several engineers what abilities they think are most valuable to them in their profession day-to-day.  Many cite things like the ability to create and innovate, the ability to apply math and science to practical design situations, the ability to work as a member of a team, and the ability to solve technological problems.  While math and science courses K-12 provide an appropriate math and science background, where are students given opportunities to explore and develop these other, sometimes intangible, things that seem to be so important to professional engineers?

Many do not realize that there are Technology Education programs in some schools that introduce these things with a direct approach and give students a taste of what it would be like to be an engineer.  Teachers in such programs challenge their students everyday with problems designed to spur creativity.  I’ve also asked a number of engineers if and how they got interested in the field as children, and they almost always say, “I was the kid that was always tinkering with things around the house and driving my parents crazy in the process.”

Technology Education programs at all grade levels seek to afford students opportunities to tinker, to discover how things work, and to explore the designed world.  At the elementary school level, students may learn about the basics of electricity by actually building simple circuits or about simple machines designed for specific tasks.  In middle school, students may explore concepts in more detail, perhaps by designing and building a model of a bridge or a gliding aircraft.  In high school, students may have opportunities to design an affordable home, take something apart to see how it works, or design and build a robot that would be used for a rescue mission or some other specific purpose.  All of these experiences are akin to the processes of engineering.

This is the type of learning that can enhance a future engineer’s experience, but also the type that cannot be included in the typical upper grade level math or science classroom for one main reason: math and science teachers generally do not have the time and may not have the interest or expertise needed for in depth study of technology. 

There is another underlying issue related to this discussion, and it is the under-representation of women in the engineering field.  One of the reasons the study of technology and engineering should happen early in elementary school is because research shows that negative attitudes about such topics stem from a lack of experiences at primary grade levels. Unless Technology Education is required off all students at all grade levels, it will be tougher to get young women interested in engineering and technology related fields.  This is the foremost reason that elementary educators will also need the tools to be able to integrate these concepts into their lessons.

The state of New Jersey has incorporated technology content into its Core Curriculum Content Standards, though its call for infusion of this knowledge into other areas of the curriculum is a soft mandate.  These programs are not even close to being included in all schools at all grade levels in a way that would ensure we would not have to continue to import engineering talent from other countries.  Schools are so bogged down in tradition and programs that date back to the early to mid 1900’s that new ideas in education take years to gain any momentum.

Technology education and technological literacy can have other broad reaching impacts for all students.  While engineering is considered by most to be a challenging field, there is an element of technology education that is good for all to know.  It is important for all students to understand the nature and process of technological development and activity on some level.  It will help them make informed decisions about whether to buy a hybrid car or whether to invest in Blu-ray or HD DVD.  Finally, it would help them to develop the soft-skills needed in any job such as teamwork, creativity, and the ability to apply knowledge.

Right now, most schools have two parts of what may be considered the “pre-engineering” equation in place in math and science.  What’s needed to ensure future economic prosperity and technological innovation is the third piece, the study of technology.