Apr 6, 2013

Next Generation Science (and Engineering): Beware repeating history

Recently, I was invited by colleagues at the Minnesota Department of Education to take a look at the engineering aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

I was very excited by the Frameworks of the NGSS... they were simple, essential, foundational and included engineering. How exciting that the nation would consider introducing engineering to children as early as kindergarten!

The standards are the implementation of the Frameworks organized along main concepts (e.g. Physical Science) and grade level. For those of us in engineering who are trying to decipher the educational structures, the Frameworks are like the end objectives, the standards are the verification tests to show you met them. It was a challenge to get through them, and a bit disheartening as I saw the slim Frameworks document explode into densely packed volumes of standards. However, anyone who has implemented anything knows that the devil comes out when filling in details-- thinking of all the details is a job in itself.

I was interested in how folks tried to nail down specifics of what children need to demonstrate in order to show they have the foundations of what an engineer needs. As someone who recently read over the Minnesota state standards of science and engineering, the NGSS started to look familiar. I could see where traditional science standards were peeking out as I read through the various topics and grade levels.

I struggled to think of the larger picture of engineering, a field that until the last 10 years, was considered a "post secondary" topic... how could you ever teach engineering without calculus, physics, chemistry, and computer science? As both a practicing engineer and someone who has been teaching “engineering for everyone” classes, particularly to elementary and middle school teachers since 2003, I knew that Department of Ed folks were wanting me to think of what might be missing rather than what was there.  
I thought of the struggles my women students had, the insights my inservice teachers have given me about their immigrant and lower income students, and the research I have read and done regarding these underrepresented populations. The following were my concerns that arose from the current standards. The suggestions are shortened versions of what I submitted to the state.

ITEM 1: "Hand" as well as "Head" needed: The standards currently emphasize analysis (“head”) skills without complementary fabrication (building or “hand”) skills, especially at the lower grade levels.

CONCERN: The lack of “hand” oriented experiences will perpetuate inequities for underrepresented groups such as girls and low income students who often enter school without these experiences and who don’t have the resources or social environment to encourage further experiences in upper grade levels.

SUGGESTION: Parallel the analysis experiences dictated by the standards with specific hands-on experiences that are key to any engineering design challenge requiring the creation of physical devices. This ensures that challenges posed in the higher grades can be met by all students, not just those who have the benefit of these experiences at home. Throughout the Core Disciplines standards, remember that the creation of a solution requires more than hands-on and analyzing. Remember, in the basic Analyze-Design-Build cycle of the engineering design process:
  • Building is different from “hands-on” because it can be enhanced or limited by a student’s skill with different technologies (e.g. those who have not experienced working with wood or metal will not design with those in mind and may limit selves to familiar material technologies such as paper or cardboard).
  • Designing is limited by technological experience (as indicated above) but can also be enhanced with brainstorming practices (e.g. SCAMPER), technical drawing, physical modeling, etc. While some design in their heads, others design on paper or the physical world. Explicit instruction is needed to counter the phenomena of students deciding they are not “artistic”  or “creative”. 
These multiple design/problem solving methods need to be recognized or we may perpetuate the misconception that only the person who can do it all in his head is the one who should become the engineer.

ITEM 2: Engineering has its own path of development that is currently missing in the standards: The standards appear to be focused mainly on science with just a few engineering aspects. Engineering itself does have some very distinctly different aspects which would benefit from early development.

CONCERN: Framing engineering problems from a scientific investigation standpoint diminishes the authenticity of the engineering challenge. If the desire is to teach engineering early to widen the pool of interested students, it is important that engineering practices are distinctly problem-oriented and need to be taught explicitly, just as the scientific method is, especially at the lower grade levels.

SUGGESTION: Tweak the “engineering” intended practices and core discipline objectives to underscore not only the similarities of engineering design with the scientific method (this is done rather well already) but also to scaffold the development of design strategies used by engineers. Guidelines in this process follow what real engineers do naturally:
  • Develop the ability to transfer essential ideas that solve one problem to solve others that share constraints or specifications: One example of this is the computer. Originally, it was developed to accurately process large amounts of data. But then, someone realized that the elements of storing alphanumeric data and outputting it to a printed page could also be used for text editing/word processing which allowed quality printing by an individual (instead of having to go to a printer or hiring a typist).
  • Have students reverse engineer and modify existing engineered solutions before having them create something completely new: Creating something completely new is one of the most advanced practices of engineering and is usually done after trying to understand and improve existing designs. To require students to be able to develop something substantially new without knowing how to improve the existing technology is to set the inexperienced student up for frustration and failure.
Without more authentic engineering experience, we will not give engineering its own identity as a field or career of its own separate from science.
ITEM 3: Provide specifications of the function of the engineering challenge. “Function” needs to be more explicit in the objectives intended to develop engineering abilities. Currently the objectives are vague and may result in emphasis on aspects that will not give insight into meeting future engineering challenges.

CONCERN: Without developing the ability to identify, describe and investigate functional aspects of problems, technologies, and designs, engineering challenges posed may seem either too large or intimidating to students without a natural instinct for engineering.

SUGGESTION: Use the engineering profession’s typical practices as guidelines to develop more specific objectives. This ensures that these practices are recognized, named, and taught so that all students can benefit from them in their design challenge. For example, Matter and Its Interactions engineering-related objectives can be made more specific and focused when considering how an engineer would use the concepts to solve problems: In kindergarten, instead of just classifying by use or natural/human-made, name the process of discovering material properties, compare those properties (e.g. stronger, harder, tougher, smoother), and determine how the properties were selected with a particular function in mind such as holding something heavy up, turning smoothly, spinning quickly or bending frequently. Other standards can be adjusted to develop key practices used in engineering such as consideration of "trade off" or use of data charts to make design decisions.

The ability to develop usable products requires more than scientific knowledge and the opportunity to create for many, especially those who are risk averse, grade conscious, or lack previous engineering-like experience. Failing to teach strategies to brainstorm or design will not widen the pool of potential engineers.

The official "final" standards are to be released this week. Let's hope that some consideration has been given to lay out these inclusive strategies. Otherwise, we may fail to provide the needed foundations to widen the net of potential STEM professional and end up with the same situation we have now. Wouldn't that be a shame?