WHAT should students learn for the 21st Century?

Luminaries answer CCR’s seminal question


Ioannis Miaoulis

Ioannis N. Miaoulis

President and director of the Museum of Science, Boston

Engineering:  The Missing Core Discipline in K-12 Education

We live in a human-made world. From the moment we wake up until we lie down to sleep, we are immersed in technologies. The faucet we use to wash our face, the toothbrush we use to clean our teeth, the clothes we wear, the car we drive, our office or school, our home, and even the mattress we sleep on are all the results of engineering processes. The water we drink has undergone an engineered purification process. The food we eat is the result of countless engineering technologies. If you are reading this inside a building, take a moment to look around. Imagine how your environment would look without any human-made things. Almost nothing you see or experience would be present – no electricity, no chair, no walls, no book, and maybe no YOU. Without human-made pharmaceuticals and sanitation processes, life expectancy would be 27 years.

We live in an engineered world. Engineering design creates the technologies that support our health, convenience, communication, transportation, living environments, and entertainment – our entire day-to-day life. We school our children so they can live a healthy, productive, and happy life. Our curriculum includes disciplines that prepare students to understand the physical and social world around them so they can be informed users, producers, and citizens. Science prepares them to analyze and understand the physical world around them. Beginning in preschool, students learn about rocks, bugs, the water cycle, dinosaurs, rain forests, the human body, animals, stars and planets, chemical reactions, and physics principles. These are all important topics, but they address only a minute part of our everyday life.

The science curriculum focuses exclusively on the natural world, which, arguably, occupies less than 5 percent of our day-to-day activities. The classic K-12 curriculum essentially ignores the other 95 percent, the human-made world. Although students spend years in school learning about the scientific inquiry process, the process scientists use to discover the natural world, they never learn the engineering design process, which is responsible for most of the things that support their day-to-day lives.

Why Should Engineering Be Part of the Core Curriculum?

  1. Technological Literacy is Basic Literacy. How can one claim to be literate if she does not understand how 95 percent of her environment works, or how it was made? Understanding how an engineer designs is just as important as understanding how a scientist thinks.
  1. Engineering Promotes Problem Solving and Project-Based Learning. The engineering design process starts by identifying a need or a problem. It follows an organized path to arrive at one or more solutions that satisfy the need or solve the problem. Problem-solving skills are far more valuable than many of the other skills that are the focus of our K-12 educational systems. Engineering pulls other disciplines together, enabling students to work as a team to solve a problem they are passionate about.
  1. Engineering Makes Math and Science Relevant. Why do students lose interest in math and science in the middle school years? Some blame teacher quality and preparation. That may be a factor; however, I believe it is primarily because curriculum content is disconnected from the content of the students’ daily lives and interests. In elementary school years, students love science because they learn about rocks, bugs, dinosaurs, and rain forests. These topics are exciting in elementary school, but quickly lose their appeal as the students reach puberty. In middle school, science begins to become more abstract; rocks become earth science; bugs become life science; and physical science deals with forces, energy, and other things that are “invisible” to students. These “natural world” topics are not so natural for children that live in inner-city, urban environments with few opportunities to travel and enjoy the natural world.

Engineering makes math and science relevant, which is critical in the middle school and high school years. Relevance is particularly important for retention of girls in science fields. Girls gravitate toward science disciplines that have an evident benefit to society. Engineering in K-12 can make science relevant and improve student interest, especially among girls.

  1. Engineering as a Career. There has been considerable discussion and expressed panic for the prospective lack of engineers in the United States and Europe. The role of engineers could be better understood if public media represented the profession more prominently and accurately. Engineers are largely absent from mass-market television, where both kids and adults get their information. News programs could be encouraged to solicit input from engineers on topics such as cutting-edge technologies, port designs, earthquake prevention, and heart stents. Newspapers could include more statements from engineers when new designs suc­ceed (vs. during failures). The world has missed great opportunities to celebrate engineering achievements and to excite young people to pursue engineering careers. Unless we make an effort to teach students about engineering early and to present the engineering profession in a realistic light, there is little chance of improving the career-choice statistics.

Understanding how the human-made world works, and how it is developed, is an essential component of contemporary basic literacy. Although the value of this understanding was largely ignored in K-12 schools until the mid-1990s, significant progress has been made. Engineering and technology standards are being included in many state curriculum frameworks. Federal legislation and national assessments now also include technology and engineering, and thousands of schools are using engineering curricula. This is a long road, but at the end we will have a world of technologically literate citizens.

Suggested Reading

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Copyright – Ioannis N. Miaoulis