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The State of K-12 Engineering Education

National Engineers Week prompts a look at how far engineering education has come and where it's headed.

by Tanya Roscorla / February 23, 2016

Engineering education is starting to gain a larger foothold in K-12 classrooms.

Global competition and a dearth of qualified engineers have helped drive engineering into the national spotlight, with places in the Next Generation Science Standards and the Every Student Succeeds Act. As more schools incorporate projects into the classroom, engineering is taking its place as a gateway into science and math, and helping students understand how to apply what they learn in the two subjects.

"It's a really exciting time for engineering education here in the United States," said Thea Sahr, director of programs for DiscoverE, which kicked off National Engineers Week on February 21. "It feels like after many years and many folks doing lots of hard work, that engineering education is making inroads in the classroom." 

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has elevated the status of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Engineers from Fortune 500 companies and smaller firms have also been volunteering their time to do hands-on projects with students. But there's still work to be done.

For engineering education to reach its pinnacle, technology and engineering literacy should be mandatory in K-12 education, said Steve Barbato, executive director of the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association.

"Every student needs to learn and understand engineering design, engineering design concepts, engineering habits of mind to help improve their quality of life moving forward," Barbato said.

Concepts and practices in the four STEM subjects should also be combined in active, cross-disciplinary learning opportunities, Barbato said. In a regular chemistry class, a teacher would teach gas laws to help students understand the natural and known world. But in an interdisciplinary class, students would understand gas laws in chemistry and use them to help solve problems and extend human capabilities in the human-made, known world. 

University programs don't always prepare teachers to incorporate engineering concepts into their regular classes, Barbato said. However, some teacher prep programs are starting to train teachers in this interdisciplinary approach — particularly at the elementary level.

Teachers often think that engineering is hard and scary, but it's actually fun and engaging, Sahr said. For example, the Future City Competition this year challenged middle school students to create a safe environment and a sound waste management system in a city 100 years into the future.

"It really asks them to think about the world as it is today and what do they want the world to look like tomorrow," Sahr said. "And it kind of puts them at the center of being the drivers of tomorrow." 

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