Skip to main content
School of Engineering

How to teach engineering

Monday, March 18, 2019
Assistant Professor Kristen Wendell, the McDonnell Family Assistant Professor of Engineering Education, and colleagues recently published research on the preparation of elementary school instructors to teach engineering topics.
Assistant Professor Kristen Wendell

By Joel Lima, E21

In research published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Assistant Professor Kristen Wendell, the McDonnell Family Assistant Professor of Engineering Education, and colleagues from the University of Michigan and UMass Boston's Center of Math and Science in Context studied how elementary school teachers learn engineering topics, and how teachers' approaches and goals for their own learning affect the learning goals set for their students. Recognizing that more and more elementary school teachers are being asked to teach engineering, Wendell of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach  and colleagues found that the stances of teachers toward engineering knowledge and learning have a strong effect on their students' opportunities.

The researchers set out to understand this relationship by following two novice elementary school teachers through their preparation for and initial attempts at engineering teaching. While the two teachers took part in the same engineering programs and both stood out as leaders and volunteered for more programming, one viewed engineering as an opportunity to build knowledge about how things work while the other approached it as an exercise in task completion. Wendell and her colleagues identified these stances by conducting line-by-line analysis of video recordings of the teachers’ interactions with peers and materials as they solved an engineering design challenge during a professional development institute. 

Having identified the teachers’ stances toward their own engineering learning, Wendell and colleagues explored whether they prompted similar stances among elementary students. When the two teachers later facilitated engineering workshops for different groups of elementary students, the researchers analyzed the kinds of learning opportunities that the student groups experienced.  Students of the first teacher, who learned engineering as a means to build knowledge, were much more involved in the prototyping, testing, and sense-making phases of their project. They had more opportunities to participate in collaborative reasoning.

The students of the second teacher, who approached engineering as task completion, were given an opportunity to brainstorm and design, but were supplied with pre-selected materials and procedures for prototyping and testing. Their engineering design experience involved less collaborative reasoning.

The research team concluded that these findings indicate that more emphasis should be placed on what novice teachers take away from their own engineering learning experiences, and that that focus will, in turn, benefit students.

Authors: Assistant Professor Kristen Wendell (Tufts University Department of Mechanical Engineering), Jessica Swenson (University of Michigan; Tufts alumna: AG13 and EG18), and Assistant Professor Tejaswini Dalvi (Center of Science and Math in Context, UMass Boston). Read more in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.