Jul 28, 2014

The Technology Framework: Teaching the T in STEM in a Changing World

Photo by chilipadi, via RGBstock.com
Moving engineering into the K-12 arena opened up ways of thinking about engineering in a very foundational way. As a major that requires calculus, physics, chemistry, and basic computing before starting engineering courses, engineers and educators have had to think about what the actual process of engineering is, absent of the calculations. They came up with The Engineering Design Process.

In a way, this parallels the use of The Scientific Method in K-12 science, shifting curriculum from fact-based, single-answer memorization and calculation to an inquiry-based method. The argument is that if we want innovative, creative problem solvers, we have to teach the process of venturing into the unknown rather than the drilling of what we currently believe to be true.

Technology may benefit from a similar “essentialization” of the discipline. It may also help solve some of the identity issues around the term, “Technology”: First, some think that it’s all about computers, or information technology (IT). Certainly, the computer world has usurped the word: “education technology” means the use of computers and other information technology products in the classroom. The International Society for Technologyin Education (ISTE) certainly assumes this. Personally, I don’t know how many “women in technology” events I have gone to and found myself surrounded by network, program, and database professionals—the only engineer in the bunch

When working with schools, I remind them that computers (as we know them today) were invented in the 1950’s. Technological development occurred for centuries before then. Once their definition of technology is expanded, they realize they have more work to do, but also more opportunities.

Those of us in an “older” generation remember “votech” school, a great opportunity for those students who were more “creative-ables” than bookish calculators. The Brookings Institution’s The Hidden STEM Economy outlines the importance of these talents in our economy as well and the importance of STEM for a larger population of critical workers.

But, how to prepare a kindergartener or third grader for technology? Many industrial arts programs don’t start until 5th or 6th grade at the earliest. One of the leaders in technology education, the International Technology and Engineering Education Association (ITEEA) has attempted to bring a technology awareness down into the early grades by addressing “technological literacy.”

While this is good for an appreciation for the technology around us, the content areas start to feel fragmented. In “The Designed World” criteria of the ITEEA standards, Technology explodes into a second identity crisis: How to unite the various types of technology (e.g. medical, transportation, manufacturing, construction, energy and power technologies, in addition to agricultural and biotechnologies) into a more manageable ways to teach concepts, skills, and abilities?

What technology education needs is a framework to streamline and simplify disparate technologies, similar to what the Next GenerationScience Standards (NGSS) used. Since technicians are a bit more pragmatic than scientists or engineers, the framework should reflect this practical nature, a touchstone to make sure students know what they need to be able to be great technicians – to construction, maintain, repair, and later dispose of the technology.

When teaching, I like to use this framework, with four main areas:
  1. Materials: What materials are commonly used in this field? What properties do these have? What happens to these properties over time or in different expected conditions?
  2. Manufacturing: How are these materials manufactured into the technology of interest? What are the common tools and instruments to create, maintain, repair, and dispose of this technology? What are the standard ways of communicating manufacturing procedures?
  3. Energy and Power: How is this technology powered? What is the energy requirement? How is this power transmitted to the technology?
  4. Information (data) and Intelligence: What data is needed to operate this technology (by humans, machines, or computers)? What kinds of decisions must be made with it?
A really good education explores how these are done in the past and what new scientific discoveries and engineering practices might be important in the future.

Some technology fields concentrate on one area more than others. For example, computer technicians may need more in Area 4 whereas welders are more concerned with Areas 1, 2, and 3. As technologies change and mature, a framework can guide the incisions needed to reshape the education without overwhelming the student or throwing out quality aspects of the existing curriculum. For example, machinists should still learn the basics on material properties, skills on creating and reading a blueprint, and selection and determination of cutters and speeds, but their understanding of these areas can be enhanced with a bit more knowledge about the data and decisions a computer does in NC (numerical control) systems.

As a curriculum designer, a framework provides a good way to check that all bases are covered. For students, it provides a structure on which to hang their understanding.

A simple framework may be able to transform technical education into a way for creative-ables to enlighten and make sense of the world, rather than a series of facts and procedures to memorize and follow.

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