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Bringing Engineering to K-12 Classrooms

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STOMP students

Fifth-grade students at the Stratton School, Arlington, MA, participate in the STOMP program.

Credit: Elsa Head / Tufts University

Chris Rogers at Tufts University is working to improve science education by bringing engineering into K-12 classrooms. Rogers and his colleagues think it is important to start teaching engineering early since the engineering principles of building and designing to solve problems motivates young students to pursue science and math. Rogers stresses that we "need to make a K-12 education something students are excited about and something that promotes creativity. In order to be creative, you have to problem-solve."

When Rogers started this work, there were very few studies researching the benefits of introducing engineering to the K-12 curriculum. According to Rogers, "There were only anecdotes on how teaching engineering benefits students, but no research studies to prove that." To change this, Rogers started the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) in the School of Engineering at Tufts University.

One of the first programs the CEEO started was the Tufts Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program (STOMP). The STOMP program enlists undergraduate engineering students to mentor K-12 teachers and students. STOMP Fellows create about 10 activities focused around engineering, and bring those activities to the classroom throughout the semester. A core principle behind STOMP is that all elementary school students are capable of learning engineering concepts and that those concepts can be built on throughout the years.

View a video of students in the STOMP program having a great time learning engineering.

The STOMP program has been an enormous success. Last year, with support from the Kodosky Foundation, Tufts created an engineering education minor program for students who complete the STOMP program along with five additional credits. The STOMP program has grown beyond Tufts. There is now a STOMP Network that includes almost 10 universities that all have STOMP outreach programs.

Along with working with K-12 teachers to teach engineering, researchers at the CEEO have been studying the impact of bringing engineering to the classroom. Adam Carberry's recent Ph.D. dissertation looked at a range of university students engaged in engineering service learning, including STOMP. He found that participating in engineering service opportunities had a prominent effect on the students' learning of technical and professional skills. Elsa Head and Adam Carberry, who have managed the STOMP program, are also studying the teachers that participate in it. In a paper presented at this year's American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, they reported that the teachers who participated in the STOMP program demonstrated higher confidence in their ability to teach engineering and had greater knowledge of engineering and technology concepts. This study suggests that participating in the STOMP program has a positive impact on teachers by increasing confidence in teaching technical concepts and in content knowledge.

At the same engineering education conference, Kristen Wendell, a CEEO graduate student, presented her research on the benefit of bringing engineering to 3rd- and 4th-grade students. Her study examined two groups of classrooms— one that used an engineering-design-based science curriculum and one with a traditional science curriculum. Wendell and her colleagues found that students in the engineering-design-based curriculum group scored higher on science exams than students in the regular science curriculum group. This exciting research suggests that an engineering-design-based science curriculum in K-12 education could lead to better science scores overall.

Rogers and his colleagues also have been studying the different methods used to understand students' knowledge. In a traditional classroom, students use reading and writing to show what they know about a subject. Rogers and his colleague, CEEO graduate student Brian Gravel, have been working on developing software where students could report their knowledge in a form other than writing. The output of their work is the Stop Action Movie software, which allows students to create animations of science and engineering concepts. According to Merredith Portsmore, the CEEO Director of Outreach Programs, the stop action movie software, "provides another window into what the students can do and know."

Since its creation, the CEEO has grown from just a handful of staff and professors, to a large organization with a director, assistant director, several staff members and a number of graduate students. Additionally, Tufts Department of Education has started a graduate program in mathematics, science, technology and engineering education that grants both masters and Ph.D. degrees in mathematics education, science education and engineering education.

Rogers and his team at Tufts University are putting the concept that people 'learn by doing' into reality by working directly with educators to help them bring engineering into elementary and middle-school classrooms. To continue this work, Rogers and his CEEO colleagues just received a major NSF grant to develop and test curriculum materials for introducing engineering concepts in grades 3-5. Further, Rogers and his team are exploring how to take advantage of different learning styles by bringing novel learning and testing methods into the classroom. They also were among the initial champions of the inclusion of engineering in the K-12 curriculum frameworks at the state level, making Massachusetts the first, and only, state with statewide engineering standards for the K-12 level.

This research was funded by several research grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation, LEGO Education, National Instruments, NASA, the Kodosky Foundation and the LLL Foundation.


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