What is Engineering’s Place in STEM Certification? ASEE Responds

Engineering historically has had a very limited presence in K-12 education outside of specialized schools and a few out-of-school activities.  That changed dramatically with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards which explicitly included engineering design as a subject area.  However, the explosion of efforts to address the standards as well as the rising popularity of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as a construct compels attention to the question of what is engineering anyway.

Engineering can be seen through at least three lenses:

  • Engineering as context for mathematics and science – as an answer to the question how will I use this (math or science) in the “real world”;
  • Engineering as an integrator of math and science – as a framework that provides context for the application of specific mathematical and scientific principles; and
  • Engineering as engineering – as an approach to problem definition and to the solution of real-world problems affecting the human condition.

Irrespective of how it is looked at, engineering, to be worthy of the label, must include attention to problem definition and analysis as well as “design.”  Other things may be interesting, and even useful, but they are not necessarily “engineering.” One audience member, a special education teacher, made the point that she viewed STEM as something distinct from science, engineering, technology, or mathematics.  It was a special thing that helped her students to learn.

Is such narrow parsing even necessary?  Isn’t this like medieval arguments over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?  Not really.  From the perspective of the engineering community, how the discipline of engineering is represented is a critical one driven by the possibility of two very negative outcomes – a student being exposed to something called engineering that they dislike and therefore never exploring the actual field; and a student liking something called engineering only to find out in college that it has little relation to the collegiate field of study.  The later student in particular will feel mislead and may incur a real penalty in terms of time and money.  We seek to avoid these outcomes and ensure “truth in advertising.”

For this reason, the idea of “STEM certification” or even “engineering certification” of content, instruction, and program (at elementary, middle, and high school levels) has some attractions even though there are significant logistical hurdles that would impede implementation.  For us, there is value in Boyer’s assertion of pedagogic content knowledge.  Knowledge of how to teach that is intimately tied to knowledge of the discipline.

Editor’s Note

This is the fourth post in a series from expert voices in STEM education who together are pondering questions about STEM certification. The first post in the series can be found here. Consider adding your thoughts about STEM certification in the comments below. As we tackle this issue and others like it, the steering committee for the STEM Forum & Expo will be building the program for the 7th Annual STEM Forum & Expo, hosted by NSTA, to be held July 11–13, 2018, in Philadelphia, PA. Please subscribe to the conferences category at http://nstacommunities.org/blog/subscribe/ to get updates as these blogs are posted.


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