Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 76, Issue 4 - December/January 2017
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedNovember 15, 2016
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 76, Issue 4 - December/January 2017

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Engineering Education: A Clear Decision

The profession has reached a tipping point with respect to the need for recasting itself as Engineering Education and the impetus for returning to its original focus and alignment to engineering at the post-secondary level.


The core subjects in P-12 education have a common key characteristic that makes them stable over time. That characteristic is a steady content. For example, in the sciences, the basics of biology remain the same—the cell is the basic building block around which organisms are defined, characterized, structured, etc. Similarly, the basics of physics and chemistry are relatively constant, with incremental increases in understanding adding to those basics when impacted by new discoveries over time. The same case can be made for mathematics, whose basic content has been unchanged for centuries and only expanded upon as old theories make way for new. In the same sense, the content of language arts has remained relatively constant over time. As a result, these subjects have maintained their relevancy in P-12 schooling as core knowledge all students should acquire.


There are, however, some P-12 subjects whose content is far more fluid and that regularly change due to the very nature of that content. This is the case for what today is called Technology and Engineering Education (TEE). Unlike the core subjects, the content of TEE changes in concert with advances in global economies and their associated technologies and practices. This is evident in the periodic name changes that have occurred since Manual Training was included as a P-12 subject in the late 1800s. This focus on manual training did not last long and, by the turn of the century, soon fell out of favor in the context of newer education models and an ever-changing economy. Manual training evolved into Manual Arts, soon thereafter into Industrial Arts, and so on throughout the 1900s. The recurrence of these transitions has become a hallmark of a field attempting to be responsive to constant and rapid technological advances. And, like each advance, the transition made by the field soon became obsolete. This scenario is repeated throughout the history of the profession, as in the most recent case for Industrial Arts Education in a post-industrial era changing to Technology Education and, subsequently, Technology and Engineering Education in the context of STEM education. Again, this pattern of continual name change reflects a field repeatedly attempting to keep pace with evolving content associated with rapid technological advances. Moreover, the uncertainty of such advances makes it difficult to predict changes in associated practices to be taught. This is in stark contrast to core subjects. These subjects remain relevant in P-12 schooling over time because their content is relatively stable, and because of a clear recognition for the contributions they make toward maintaining the vitality of our democratic society.


The latest change in our professional identity occurred in 2010 when we renamed ourselves "Technology and Engineering Education." As in the past, the impetus for the name change was driven by a force external to education, in this case the STEM Education Reform movement that arose in response to national workforce issues. Within this acronym, our field positioned itself to be both the “T” and the “E,” and in so doing, has laid the groundwork for a potential paradigm shift. What is most significant to note as a result of this name change is recognition within the field of the strong parallels in content and practice found between the engineering and technology education disciplines. As a result, throughout the nation and at all levels, technology education programs have been incorporating engineering education content at an ever-increasing pace. This is not only evident in the national curricula, but in the extent to which programs across the country have renamed their courses to include engineering in their titles and focusing more on teaching the content of engineering education.


There is no question that our profession has aligned itself with engineering education—an alignment that is providing us with a pathway to firmly establish Engineering Education as a core P-12 subject. And like the other core subjects, one with a recognized content and practice that has remained resilient and constant over time. What remains is to have the profession be bold enough to take the final step in recasting itself as simply the International Engineering Education Association (IEEA) responsible for delivering general education literacy on engineering content and design practices at the P-12 level. In truth this is the exact role we strayed from in the late 1800s by not remaining aligned at the secondary level with the rise of engineering in higher education. Recasting now, however, realigns our pathway and will result in an independent core P-12 subject whose content and practice has recognizable value and that has been both constant and resilient over time.


The dialogue on transitioning to engineering education has already begun through publications in our field (Strimel & Grubbs, 2016) and will continue through public debate beginning at our 2017 national conference. Regardless of venue, there is ample evidence to support the rationale for transitioning out of our current paradigm and recasting ourselves as engineering education. This evidence can be organized around five main issues currently plaguing the Technology and Engineering structure, and which are remediated under Engineering Education. Specifically, P-12 Engineering Education provides:

  1. A subject area distinct and independent from all others.
  2. Clarity of content and practice to be taught.
  3. Alignment with goals/outcomes of core subjects.
  4. Scaffolding for grade-appropriate tool knowledge and technique.
  5. A professional pathway not currently afforded in P-12.


Evidence Supporting the Transition to Engineering Education

Distinct and Independent Subject Area

The challenge in communicating the role of technology education in P-12 education has long plagued the profession. Perhaps the most evident challenge is being misperceived as a subject centered on electronic devices, such as the confusion with “computers” and “educational technology” (Dugger & Naik, 2001). Or, perhaps being cast as solely “shop” class or a nonacademic subject due to its historical roots in industrial arts. Likewise, technology education is often convoluted with career or technical education (Wicklein, 2006), which hinders its ability to reach all students. Conversely, many in our field have recognized that recasting ourselves as engineering education “separates us [technology education] from educational technology” and clarifies our subject area because “people understand what engineering is” (Starkweather, 2008, p. 28). For example, in the following definition, what term immediately comes to mind?

“______________ is the application of mathematics, empirical evidence and scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge in order to invent, innovate, design, build, maintain, research, and improve structures, machines, tools, systems, components, materials, and processes.”


Those in our profession are likely to say technology education is the term that comes to mind. In truth, the above definition is one commonly employed to describe the field of engineering (ICJE, 2016, para. 3). Yet, though a definition of engineering, it clearly encompasses the intent of the TEE school subject.


Based on results from a 2008 survey, Starkweather reported a majority agreement among technology education professionals that changing the name of the discipline to include engineering would have a positive impact on the field. In turn, recommendations were made to recast the subject as Engineering Technology Education (ETE) to better align with the structures of higher education. However, the discipline was instead renamed Technology and Engineering Education (TEE) in 2010 and to date continues to struggle in communicating itself as a distinct and independent school subject. This struggle is aggravated by the incorporation of engineering content and practices in the new national standards for science education. Since the release of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in 2013, science education gained both attention and support as a key subject area for implementing P-12 engineering education. In turn, the distinction between science education and technology education has become increasingly vague, adding to the ambiguity of technology education as a P-12 school subject with a unique content and practice.


Although science education has received attention for including engineering within its national standards, NGSS states it is not intent on establishing a full scope of coursework in engineering. The inclusion of engineering practices in NGSS was to provide a mechanism for teaching science concepts and developing practices beneficial to all students for the 21st century. Given the current position of science education, it is therefore still necessary at the P-12 level to have engineering education as a stand-alone program providing learning progressions for engineering content and practices within and across all grade bands (Samuels & Seymour, 2015). As Pinelli and Haynie (2010) state, “it is imperative that engineering be included in the K-12 school curriculum, both as a discipline and as a source of enrichment and context for teaching other subjects” (p. 65).


The argument for a distinct and independent engineering education program is gaining traction among those who recognize engineering as both a discipline and as a pedagogical practice that helps students develop valuable skills while connecting them with potential pathways for postsecondary study (Cogger & Miley, 2013). Capitalizing on this recognition, a shift in focus from technology education to P-12 engineering education promotes greater public understanding, thereby increasing its support and acceptance as a requisite subject alongside the other core disciplines.


Clarity of Content and Practice to be Taught

Consider for a moment just what makes TEE an irreplaceable and valuable component of a student’s general education. One may look to pedagogies supporting experiential or situational learning facilitated through minds-on/hands-on design challenges as characteristics defining this school subject. However, increasingly teachers of other school subjects are providing instruction using hands-on problem- and inquiry-based practices within the guise of engineering practices. For example, NGSS specifically employs engineering practices as a mechanism for teaching science concepts. Moreover, schools, particularly within their media centers, are beginning to establish makerspaces where students can work with their hands to produce or “make” products using some of the latest technological tools and software. Consequently, such pedagogical approaches are no longer unique to, nor distinctive of, TEE. In this context, TEE is increasingly challenged to clearly establish itself as a stable content and set of practices all students should know and be able to demonstrate as part of secondary schooling. The logical direction appears evident—recast as engineering education or become irrelevant within P-12 education.


As stated in the 2010 Standards for K-12 Engineering Education? report, establishment of engineering content for P-12 can provide the identity for a necessary and separate school subject—one that can stand alongside the already well-established core subjects, such as mathematics and science. A shift to engineering enables the profession to focus on delivering stable engineering content that aligns with postsecondary studies and fosters designerly ways of knowing and engineering habits of mind. In doing so, it provides crucial opportunities for students to use tools, materials, and software to design, make, tinker, troubleshoot, and eventually create effective solutions to meet human needs based on an engineering-design process that inherently requires higher-order cognitive abilities (Wells, 2016). Action is necessary to advance the TEE curriculum and instruction to address an engineering education focus. Work on organizing content and practices has already begun and is available to guide such transformation towards engineering education.


As a first step in clarifying content and practices for P-12 Engineering, the profession can build upon current practice and content structures provided by the Nine Big Ideas for Engineering Standards (Table 1) and the Core Engineering Concepts, Skills and Dispositions (Table 2) as identified by the National Research Council (2010, p. 35-36). In so doing, P-12 Engineering Education would be aligning with postsecondary engineering education as a potential career pathway for those who are inclined to enter a related field of study. Tables 1 and 2 reflect well-established structures for current engineering practices and content respectively that provide the vertical alignment necessary across all grade bands that better articulate potential pathways to postsecondary STEM education.


Concurrent with the acquisition of engineering content is development of engineering practices requisite for promoting designerly ways of knowing and engineering habits of mind. Close alignment with the practice of engineering design in P-12 engineering education serves to direct students away from a routinized approach to designing and toward a more rigorous engineering practice requiring student use of appropriate mathematics and science concepts in conjunction with technological tools for optimizing solution designs. This focus overcomes the current challenges TEE faces with implementing an analytical engineering-design approach focused on optimization (Merrill, Custer, Daugherty, Westrick, & Zeng 2009).


Such approaches provide a solid starting point for the subject to become a clear and distinct field of engineering education content and practices at the P-12 level. While Standards for Technological Literacy (2000/2002/2007) includes an emphasis on engineering, engineering education offers more exclusive and engaging content and practices in areas such as electrical circuits, robotics and automation, design and modeling, statics, dynamics, material properties, project management, executive functioning abilities, proper use of tools and materials, and concepts of each engineering discipline. The specificity of this content and practice presents a stable P-12 Engineering Education framework that avoids the fragmented teaching of engineering concepts and practices currently found in TEE curricula. Specifically, P-12 Engineering Education provides explicit content, concepts, and processes not presently taught, developed, or intentionally assessed as part of developing technological literacy.


Alignment With Goals/Outcomes of Core Subjects

Though the philosophy of TEE has always been grounded in general education, the field has often found itself positioned under the umbrella of vocational or technical education. In most states, TEE is therefore not considered a core subject for all students—rather, it is relegated to being an elective, or vocational, pathway. Recast as P-12 Engineering Education, the subject area is better positioned to achieve the goals of general literacy and development of targeted cognitive abilities that other core subjects strive to achieve. In aligning with core subject learning outcomes and goals, all students achieve similar benefit from engaging in the content and experiences within P-12 Engineering Education. Furthermore, as is currently the case with other core areas, a recast P-12 Engineering Education program aligns with higher education and provides a distinct educational pathway with valuable content and practice that will remain consistent and resilient over time.


Scaffolding for Grade-Appropriate Tool Knowledge and Technique

The national Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) assessment results indicate that grade eight students have few valuable opportunities to practice tinkering, designing, making, and testing solutions during school (Change the Equation, 2016). These opportunities have traditionally been core characteristics of technology education programs, which have conventionally provided authentic learning environments for students to explore and understand the proper use of industry-standard tools, materials, and software through project and problem-based instruction. Currently though, these features are fading from high school TEE programs forced to transition toward use of low-cost, low-technical materials such as Popsicle sticks, tape, and hot glue as their main sources for production or making (Grubbs, 2014). While still acknowledging the economic constraints many high school programs face, materials of this level may only be appropriate for exploratory programs at the elementary and middle school levels. However, this lack of authenticity at the higher grades leaves many students with an absence of experience in material testing, analysis, and processing that would provide them the abilities to conduct experiments and perform predictive analysis when developing real solution designs. A shift to Engineering Education necessitates use of industry-quality software, tools, and equipment to properly engage students in an authentic engineering design process.


In the ideal situation, P-12 Engineering Education provides the scaffolding for grade-appropriate tool knowledge and technique that is both engaging and valuable for students. Students in the early grades will begin experimenting with tools and materials through more structured engineering design problems while building confidence in their design and creative abilities. As students construct their knowledge of technologies or tools, science, mathematics, and design across the grade levels, engineering education engages them in more authentic, structured challenges that increasingly require their knowledge of more complex and complicated technologies that are obligatory for engineering design. Consequently, Engineering Education revitalizes the scaffolding of tool knowledge and technique as it better imposes the need to use these technologies in authentic situations.


In the context of this proposal to transition to Engineering Education, consideration must be given to the appropriate funding structures to support the change. Given the ideal scaffolding for grade-appropriate tool knowledge and technique, a concern may be the cost of such resources. However, P-12 Engineering Education positions technology education to take advantage of funding opportunities for establishing makerspaces or for implementing resource-rich engineering programs such as Project Lead the Way. In addition, an Engineering Education focus necessitates the use of design, data visualization, and application development software, which continue to be offered free of charge to teachers and students. Therefore, the content and practices of P-12 Engineering Education will ensure that the safe and grade-appropriate tool knowledge and techniques necessary to design and “make” remains a critical and engaging feature of every student’s educational experience.


A Professional Pathway Not Currently Afforded in P-12

The argument has been made that one objective of P-12 Engineering Education programs should be to encourage more students to consider engineering and related career pathways to address the challenges facing U.S. innovation (NRC, 2009). In addition, there are several identified factors that impact a high school student’s decision to pursue an engineering degree, such as lack of guidance, lack of knowledge about engineering, and low aptitude (Samuels & Seymour, 2015). These and many other drawbacks are addressed through a coherent and consistent general education approach to Engineering Education. In addition, P-12 Engineering Education will help improve retention in undergraduate engineering programs, as many students leave engineering pathways over lackluster exposure to the type of work performed by engineers (Hirsch, Carpinelli, Kimmel, Rockland, & Bloom, 2007) or because of a lack of sufficient preparation for the rigors of mathematics and science at the postsecondary level (Fleming, Engerman, & Williams, 2006). Exposure to Engineering Education at P-12 levels affords students the opportunity to experience and understand engineering and engineering technology as a means of gauging its potential as a career pathway. Even a decision not to pursue an engineering-related career will help students achieve their postsecondary goals sooner while obtaining knowledge and skills from their pre-college engineering studies that will be helpful in any career pathway.


A Clear Decision

The earlier forms of TEE in the late 1800s were closely aligned with higher education and originally intended as precursors to postsecondary studies of manual training, which transitioned to engineering as it became established as a core field of study. In the years since, TEE has strayed from this path, with subject content and practices becoming increasingly unstable and devalued over time. This is poignantly reflected in findings by Litowitz (2014) depicting a steady decline of TEE programs since the 1970s. These and other data demonstrate the profession has reached a tipping point with respect to the need for recasting itself as Engineering Education and the impetus for returning to its original focus and alignment to engineering at the postsecondary level. The multitude of evidence clearly indicates the need for transitioning to P-12 Engineering Education. Equally clear is that, should we decide not to transition or should we hesitate further, others are poised to claim the “E” regardless of their disciplinary history and experience.


To illustrate this point, one can look at the first national assessment of technology and engineering literacy (2016) results. These results indicated that only 43% of eighth graders assessed in 2014 were on track to become proficient in systematically using engineering information and technology to efficiently develop the best possible solutions to authentic problems. While these results highlight a need for more engineering/technology learning opportunities, the Change the Equation (2016) report refers to science classrooms rather than technology classrooms as a means to address this need due to science education’s ability to reach all students. Clearly it is time to make a decision. Drawing from the evidence presented in this paper, there is only one viable pathway for the field—recast itself as P-12 Engineering Education. Not doing so signals a profession that is resigned to becoming irrelevant and a subject destined to lose its presence in P-12 schooling.  



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Greg J. Strimel, Ph.D.*, is an assistant professor of Engineering/Technology Teacher Education in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University. He can be reached at


Michael E. Grubbs, Ph.D.*, is the Supervisor of Technology and Engineering Education for Baltimore County Public Schools. He can be reached at


John G. Wells, Ph.D.*, is an associate professor of Technology at Virginia Tech in the Integrative STEM Education graduate program. He can be reached at


*These authors contributed equally to this work.


This is a refereed article.