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Improving the Nation's K-12 STEM Education: One School’s Program for Educating Future Teachers

By Julie Thompson

America is losing its lead in the global marketplace and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon.

This is the daunting message that was first delivered more than five years ago with the release of the National Academy of Science’s (NAS) famed report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. For the first time, frightening facts — such as the drastic reduction in national research and development funding, and the disproportionate number of foreign workers receiving American engineering doctorates — seemed to create a map of America’s future as they were laid out one by one.

The conclusion was undeniable. If America did not make radical advances to support innovation, it would no longer remain the world leader in science and technology. The report forced the country to face the reality of where it was heading, but it also provided a specific plan to change its course.

 At the heart of its recommendation was the K-12 educational system, which lagged among industrial countries on average. NAS urged the country to take drastic action, including an annual recruitment of 10,000 science and mathematics teachers who could potentially impact and inspire 1,000 students in their field over their career.

Despite the academy’s stern warnings, America is in no better shape today than it was nearly five years before, according to a follow-up report released by the academy in 2010. Still, the crisis has not gone unnoticed. Since Gathering Storm was first released, the discussion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education has exploded, spawning new reports on how the crisis should be handled, and creating private sector consortiums dedicated to solving the issue.

While the nation’s different sectors discuss engineering education standards and invest billions of dollars into programs like engineering camps, one university has decided to address the issue where it matters most. The T.J. Smull College of Engineering at Ohio Northern University has created one of the country’s first Bachelor of Science degrees in Engineering Education in an effort to educate teachers who can accurately introduce K-12 students to engineering and encourage them to enter the field.

“Now more than ever we need to provide effective exposure to engineering in the K-12 classroom and cultivate a deep desire for students to study the subject at the college level,” said Ken Reid, Ph.D., director of freshman engineering at Ohio Northern. “This degree will produce the teachers needed to bridge the gap between the two.”

The four-year degree, which will launch this fall, will prepare graduates to become licensed secondary math teachers but with a more specialized perspective than teachers who have a traditional education diploma. Ohio Northern believes its program will help maintain America’s place as a global leader in science and technology by graduating educators who will inspire young people to become the country’s next great innovators.

“Ohio Northern’s Engineering Education program will produce teachers who have a fundamental knowledge of engineering,” said Eric Baumgartner, dean of the T.J. Smull College of Engineering. “As such, these teachers will be in the strongest position to educate our nation’s youth in engineering principles and will bring engineering to life within the classroom.”

Providing a Proper Introduction

Research has shown that K-12 students are exposed to potential careers through relatives, teachers and the media, yet all three of these groups rarely hold an accurate view of what engineers actually do.

As a result, middle and high school students are often unaware of the engineering profession and misunderstand the role of engineers in society. For instance, students may think of engineers as people who fix cars rather than those who create, innovate and better society. Teachers who are unaware of the importance of engineers in society may perpetuate misconceptions, and discourage students from pursuing a career in engineering.

The American Society for Quality commissioned a market research firm to study teacher knowledge and passion for math and science. The results show that, while students consider their teachers knowledgeable about math and science, they do a poor job of discussing STEM careers and/or encouraging students toward the STEM disciplines.

For several years now, engineering advocates have put programs in place to turn the tide. Many school districts have increased the amount of in-service days to educate teachers about engineering, while industry advocate groups and universities have kicked off summer camps to help students experience the exhilaration that comes from creating with their hands and mind.

 Such efforts, however, provide a temporary fix and mainly reach students who are already predisposed to enter the engineering field. So, what about those who have the in-born abilities to create, but have yet to understand what engineering is all about?

“The most effective way to reach students is through the influence of a teacher who inherently integrates the principles of engineering into everyday learning,” Reid says.

Reid experienced this first hand when he partnered in 2008-2009 with Christine Floyd, an Indiana middle school teacher to create The Tsunami Model Eliciting Activity (MEA). The curriculum was designed and implemented in a seventh-grade classroom to teach students that engineers help society. As a result, the accuracy of the student’s perception of engineering significantly increased.

Better yet, since the course was required of all students, it had an impact on those who had already been exposed to engineering as well as those who had not. Examples such as this are very rare, but Reid believes it can become a norm as more engineering-minded teachers enter the nation’s school systems.

Reid's involvement with K-12 programs includes a long history with the IEEE-USA Precollege Education Committee and development of the IEEE-USA K-12 STEM Activity Fund, offering resources to K-12 teachers who want to implement activities into their classroom such as lesson plans through the IEEE Teacher In-service (STEM-TISP) program.

Preparing the Way

Creating new engineers isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for America. While only four percent of the nation’s workforce is composed of scientists and engineers, these professionals help create jobs for the other 96 percent, according to the National Science Board.

Despite its importance, engineering remains the only discipline in the STEM acronym that does not yet have its own set of national education standards. Though standardization has been greatly discussed and researched it has been determined it cannot be carried out because of its complexities.

The nation has learned from past experiences that creating national standards is no small task. Such an undertaking requires significant funding, strong leadership and the organized effort of hundreds of people over a period of several years. Moreover, experts would have to determine how engineering standards should relate to those already in place for mathematics, science and technology, according to the National Academy of Engineering.

Some argue that the issue runs deeper than the creation of the standards and really rests on whether they could be accurately measured once they were in place. In its report, Standards for K-12 Engineering Education?, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that while it is “theoretically possible to develop standards for K-12 engineering education, it would be extremely difficult to ensure their usefulness and effective implementation.” Among its concern is the absence of a critical mass of teachers qualified to deliver engineering instruction.

Reid believes it’s not a matter of if, but when engineering standards will be created. And once it does happen, schools will need qualified teachers to teach the engineering curriculum.

“We can sit on the sidelines and debate about the storm that is upon us or we can get busy addressing the issue with the resources we already have at our disposal,” says Reid. “We’re excited to be a part of laying the foundation for what we believe will become the future of engineering education.”



Julie Thompson is a freelance writer in Dayton, Ohio.

Ken Reid is the Director of First-Year Engineering, Director of Engineering Education and an Associate Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Ohio Northern University. He has a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. He was named the Herbert F. Alter Chair of Engineering in 2010. His research interests include success in first-year engineering, introducing entrepreneurship into engineering and engineering in K-12

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2011 IEEE

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