BU and AAPT on overcoming roadblocks of introducing engineering to K-12 classrooms

December 2, 2016

How might we better support our teachers in bringing engineering content into the higher grades? Here’s a sneak peek into our next Networked Improvement Community share-out webinar in which Boston University College of Engineering and the American Association of Physics Teachers will discuss experiments they have run to better understand how we might support 9-12 teachers’ ability to integrate engineering into the classroom.

Tell us about your program’s focus on integrating K-12 engineering.

_Gretchen (Boston University College of Engineering): _
At the Boston University College of Engineering, we have been working with teachers for last 6 years bringing engineering into secondary science classrooms to help students understand engineering, do engineering, and work with collaborators who look like them. Our focus is to supplement and complement what teachers are doing in the classroom and address the NGSS. I know we have made good progress in getting students interested in engineering, but we haven’t been able to get traction in the teachers themselves taking it on and putting it into their curriculum and sustaining it - that’s the real opportunity right now.

_Rebecca (American Association of Physics Teachers): _
We’re an organization primarily focused on physics, but there’s a lot of demand on teachers since most teachers don’t teach just physics. They also may teach engineering. We pride ourselves on being discipline-specific, and so we haven’t really ventured beyond the scope of physics at the K-12 level; by joining the Networked Improvement Community we were able to begin to address some of the issues of integrating engineering into the classroom.

What motivated you to participate in the Networked Improvement Community?

When I did the fellowship I found it to be tremendously valuable in terms of being able to dig deep, interview people, and design K-12 engineering in a way that makes the most sense for teachers. The whole human-centered design process, emphasis on collaboration and especially being coached was tremendously valuable for me and what I was trying to accomplish. What’s neat is a lot of the tools I had done in engineering years ago, as far as process improvement, were also used in the Networked Improvement Community; we were doing experimentation and quick and dirty studies as far as what works and what doesn’t work.

_Rebecca: _
When I came into my position at AAPT I knew I would have to expand our horizons. As a teacher, I knew my weakness was engineering, and with the NGSS now adopted in my state of Illinois I felt uncomfortable. But we want to prepare kids for the workforce, so we as teachers have to expand that capability. I joined out of my own need and desire to better integrate K-12 engineering. Physics and engineering seems like a marriage that can happen but there really hasn’t been a lot of time to sit down and talk through what engineering looks like in the physics context.

Describe the projects that you worked on as part of the Networked Improvement Community. What did your projects entail?

_Gretchen: _
We’ve been working with math and science teachers over the years and have found they are often not willing to take on and adapt the engineering lessons we provide. So we started with something we thought was very simplistic and would be rich with opportunities for teachers to adopt: an engineering design process, where they actually go through several design processes. “Here’s the problem you’re going to solve, here’s the goal, here’s how you’ll measure the success, and here’s how you’ll collect data.”

We kept it pretty vague and open ended in the beginning. We did this with a few of our teachers and at the end talked about what they did from an engineering standpoint and had a conversation as far as mathematical concepts and skills relevant to this exercise. There was an incredible amount of enthusiasm and teachers enjoyed doing this because they felt they could get a lot of leverage out of it in the classroom. They began applying it to their own context, asking “How could I do that in my classroom? What kind of analysis would I ask my students to do?”

So the next step for us is, how do we get the materials together to get teachers to do an engineering design process on their own?

To evaluate the experiment, we did two different types of surveys, one quantitative and one qualitative. We did a pre- and post-test and saw gains in teachers’ understanding of the value of engineering as a way to teach math. Qualitatively, we gained insight into what prevents teachers from doing this type of engineering on their own. We saw pretty concrete things, like how it needs to align with the standards and how they need buy-in from their administration.

In the end, though, if you can change somebody’s mind at the beginning of your career there’s a huge multiplier effect.

_Rebecca: _
For my project, I went to the NSTA STEM forum and led a one hour workshop with 60 teachers using smartphones and sensor apps. For the workshop I did a pre- and post-test with eight questions on the participants’ value, knowledge and skill related to engineering integration in the classroom. We selected three engineering practices and looked at the science practice and engineering practice and took a look at the differences between the two. We did two activities that had both a science and an engineering component.

We did an exercise using the magnetic field sensor in the smartphones, asking participants to do some “reverse engineering” and find the location of the sensor using a variety of magnets of different sizes. We then looked at the accelerometer, studying the relationship between speed and acceleration, and then using those principles we applied the engineering concepts to find the location of the accelerometer. As we worked through those activities, the teachers were incredibly motivated. They were excited to find that maybe materials and lack of space weren’t as much of an obstacle as they thought to doing engineering in the classroom. The motivation was there. I saw that their value, knowledge and skill increased, with their knowledge ranking the lowest at the beginning and seeing the most improvement.

In this experiment we’ve seen there’s a learning curve and there’s an investment, it takes time to see how incredibly valuable something is. All in all, integrating engineering into physics teaching merits a much longer experience than a one hour workshop.

If you were to run your project again, what would you want to do differently or try out?

I worked with a self-selected group at the NSTA STEM forum, who likely already see themselves as integrated science teachers. I would work with a population that you feel you might get the most resistance from, although that’s not the group of people I would choose to work with at first. You have to have a crew of core people who can demonstrate that teaching engineering in context can be effectively done.

I would like to have some more experienced math teachers in the room because many of our teachers said they could make the engineering activities happen if they had the classroom norms in place. They didn’t yet know that they can create an environment where they can put things together and take things apart. They just didn’t have enough experience and comfort in the classroom yet to would help them implement the activities.

What are you walking away having learned?

There needs to be much stronger messaging about what science and engineering are. It’s easy for people to say science is the “scientific method” and engineering is the “engineering cycle,” but that’s not accurate, and sells both of those disciplines short. What’s important is that whenever engineering is in context, it’s teachers who build out the similarity and differences that complement their science teaching. We want teachers to integrate that understanding - that science and engineering have to be braided together in some sense - into their own teaching philosophy. It’s very easy in any discipline to add something and have it become peripheral or superficial.

There’s a big intimidation factor. If you can help teachers understand that they can iterate and design, if they’re more comfortable with a process they’re using then they can embrace it.
What I really like about this process is it forced me to make this exercise as open-ended as possible as far as thinking about how to make teachers do engineering on their own. With most PD you want to have everything ready to go, all tied up with a bow. But the reality is that the more you can have teachers have an open mind and think about doing it on their own the better the product will be in the long run. It was a challenge and a good one to think about, giving someone something to try that wasn’t fully vetted, because you’ll learn from that.