Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 80, Issue 3 - November 2020
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedOctober 9, 2020
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 80, Issue 3 - November 2020

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SAFETY SPOTLIGHT: Safety in STEM Education Standards and Frameworks: A Comparative Content Analysis


As curricular resources are developed to align with the new STEL, curriculum writers and educators should ensure that safety is a key focus throughout all learning experiences, whether they occur in the classroom, laboratory, shop, or field.


STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) instruction involves direct and active laboratory/field student activities and teacher demonstrations. These forms of instruction have potential hazards and inherent risks that can result in unintended accidents. However, hands-on concrete learning has long been a defining characteristic of STEM disciplines like technology and engineering (T&E) education (Van de Walle et al., 2013). While safety should be a key consideration when planning and implementing every STEM learning experience, it is sometimes inadvertently overlooked, leading to serious safety incidents that potentially could have been avoided. For this reason, safety concepts and guidelines should be explicitly included in academic standards and benchmarks to ensure curricula, lessons, assessments, instructional practices, and teacher preparation programs address these important concepts. Moreover, safety concepts and guidelines should be an essential component of standards and benchmarks to help prepare safer, STEM-literate citizens (Love, 2015). Safety concepts and guidelines should be embedded throughout STEM content area standards, and not serve merely as one stand-alone standard for educators to “check off the safety box” (Love, 2019a, 2019b).


The purpose of this article is to examine the level of emphasis placed on safety concepts and guidelines in Standards for Technological and Engineering Literacy (STEL) (ITEEA, 2020) in comparison to other current STEM content area standards and frameworks. The authors who conducted this analysis have served on the National Science Teaching Association’s (NSTA) Safety Advisory Board (SAB) for a number of years, authored safety white papers and research studies for both NSTA and ITEEA, served on a number of state and national standards-development committees, and have received extensive training in Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that pertain to general industry, including schools. The views and opinions expressed in this article are based on the authors’ findings, academic preparation, and years of experience relative to STEM education safety and standards development. In addition, the views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not represent ITEEA or NSTA. The overarching goal of this article is to raise awareness about the importance of incorporating safety in every STEM learning experience, which directly relates to explicitly embedding safety concepts and guidelines throughout standards and framework documents.


Safety in National STEM Standards and Frameworks

Science Education

Science education, like T&E education, has a long-standing history rooted in engaged learning, requiring laboratory/field management and safety practices. For many years NSTA has published open-access safety resources, many of which focus on safety topics in the areas of physical, chemical, biological, and Earth and space science. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (Framework) (NRC, 2012), which informed the development of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013), briefly mentioned safety as a design constraint that students should consider in developing and testing their engineering design solutions (NRC, 2012, p. 52). Moreover, the Framework included a recommendation for the need for changes in teacher preparation, specifically educating teachers on protocols for safely implementing science and engineering practices (NRC, 2012, p. 258).


Framework (NRC, 2012, p. 7) and subsequently NGSS added engineering content and practices, inherently creating additional safety issues in areas that many science educators had not been expected or prepared to address in the past (e.g., hand and power tools to construct engineering design models and prototypes) (Love, 2017; NSTA Safety Advisory Board, 2016). Although engineering content and practices are now part of the national science standards, there is, alarmingly, no mention of safety in the NGSS document. In fact, the authors’ searches for the words “safe,” “safety,” and “safer” in NGSS resulted in zero occurrences. This concern was raised by NSTA’s Safety Advisory Board (SAB) in its white paper, Safety and the Next Generation Science Standards (NSTA Safety Advisory Board, 2016). This paper highlighted the exclusion of safety concepts and guidelines within NGSS despite the expectation for teachers to implement engaging science and engineering practices. Specifically, this paper called for curriculum developers, educators, and students to each conduct hazard analyses, risk assessments, and take appropriate safety actions prior to any scientific investigation or engineering design activity. NSTA’s SAB highlighted that: “In many cases, constructing models and engaging in engineering design will involve the use of hand and power tools more common to the technology education lab rather than the science laboratory” and further suggested: “Collaboration with the technology education teachers may help science teachers explore better professional practices with regard to tool use” (NSTA Safety Advisory Board, 2016, p. 4). Additional emphasis on teaching engineering practices safely via consultation with T&E educators was later highlighted in NSTA’s The Science Teacher (Love, 2018). Despite the absence of safety commentary in Framework or NGSS, including clear and unambiguous statements of safer activities, investigations, and the use of better professional practices, NSTA and the Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE) emphasized the necessity of safety in Standards for Science Teacher Preparation (Morrell et al., 2020). Safety is included as one of six standards teacher education programs should address when preparing educators to teach science and engineering content and practices. Additionally, safety is embedded within Morrell et al.’s standards on learning environments and content pedagogy to not only ensure teachers promote safer facilities and laboratory/field practices, but also demonstrate safer teaching practices.


Further support for the inclusion of safety concepts and guidelines in science and engineering instruction was expressed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018). In its report, Chapter 8 focused on considerations to facilitate safer scientific investigations and engineering design challenges in secondary education settings. More specifically, this report discussed the various benefits of flexible learning spaces for STEM education (e.g., makerspaces), yet cautioned about increased safety considerations as a result of these collaborative learning environments. It found that: “Lack of training in hazard recognition and safety as it relates to implementing the use of hand and power tools has been reported for science teachers” (p. 229). It concluded that: “Better comprehensive training in safety and safety enforcement for science teachers is needed to establish preventive measures against accidents and injuries, while engaging in science investigation and engineering design” (p. 239).


Safety concerns raised by NSTA’s SAB and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine highlight the importance of embedding safety concepts throughout science and T&E standards for students and teacher preparation programs. Furthermore, these documents raise awareness about the importance of incorporating often-overlooked safety concepts and guidelines at the state and local levels. Thoroughly addressing science and engineering safety concerns will require collaboration among science and T&E educators, who have unique safety expertise in different areas of STEM education (Love, 2015, 2017, 2018; NSTA Safety Advisory Board, 2016).


Engineering Education

“Engineering is defined as ‘design under constraint,’ where the constraints include the laws of nature, cost, safety, reliability, environmental impact, manufacturability, and many other factors” (NRC, 2009, p. 25). Safety is a key factor that students and teachers must consider in designing solutions to problems. In 2014 the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) published Standards for Preparation and Professional Development for Teachers of Engineering, “intended to ensure teachers develop engineering literacy sufficient to teach engineering to students at the appropriate level” (Farmer, Klein-Gardner, & Nadelson, 2014, p. 1). It identifies five standards related to teaching and learning engineering. Specifically, it acknowledges that educators teaching engineering should introduce students to tools that can help solve engineering challenges (Standard A-2), have effective classroom management strategies for enabling learning in engineering (B-1), model effective engineering teaching practices (E-4), employ differentiated instruction techniques (E-5), and encourage risk-taking by participants (E-7). However, the terms “safe,” “safety,” or “safer” do not appear in this document despite numerous studies indicating that safety is a critical component of professional development related to teaching engineering practices (Grubbs et al., 2016; Love, 2017; National Academies, 2018). Conversely, Lomask et al. (2018) view safety as an important component of teaching T&E design. Their Design Teaching Standards aims to define what middle school T&E teachers need to know and be able to do in order to support students’ learning with engineering design-based curriculum. Within these standards, safety criteria is included in the prototyping and practical learning (use of tools/machines/materials) dimensions of classroom instruction.


Advancing Excellence in Engineering Education’s (AEEE) Framework for P-12 Engineering Education (AEEE, 2020), another engineering education standards-related document, was also analyzed. Unlike ASEE’s document detailing teacher professional development standards, AEEE’s work focuses on P-12 student learning. One core part of AEEE’s vision is “to develop a coherent and dynamic content framework for scaffolding the teaching and learning of engineering at the secondary school level” (AEEE, 2018, p. 4), which requires appropriate and safer hands-on engineering design experiences for students.  


Within the AEEE framework is an acknowledgement that safety is one of nine core concepts of material processing. It defines safety as knowledge related to laboratory guidelines and standards, machine and tool safety, and PPE (personal protective equipment), and indicates that engineering-literate individuals should be able to apply an understanding of safety to inform their designs and perform work-related operations (AEEE, 2020, p. 12). Safety is also mentioned in a limited number of other areas within the AEEE framework, specifically in relation to conscientiousness, professional ethics (e.g., public safety), workplace behavior/operations, and safer transportation of people and goods. Safety is inferred through appropriate processes and tool/machine use in the core concepts of manufacturing, fabrication, and measurement. However, safety is not mentioned nor inferred within the hazardous core concepts of engineering design, prototyping, modeling and simulation, casting and molding, separating/machining, joining, conditioning, technological impacts, and role of society in technological development. Furthermore, safety concepts are omitted from many of the auxiliary concepts in the hazardous technical areas (e.g., chemical applications, electrical power, electronics, mechanical design, process design, and structural analysis). While the AEEE framework attempts to address safety in engineering education, it omits critical safety considerations in a number of its hazardous core concept areas. Furthermore, the AEEE framework lacks mention of any current safety research and relevant resources that support the importance of safety in P-12 engineering education and facilities (West & Motz, 2017).


One national engineering education document did a commendable job including safety concepts across various facets of teaching and learning P-12 engineering—Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects report (NRC, 2009). This document emphasized and provided examples of the importance of safety in lesson preparation, design challenge criteria and considerations, reverse-engineering challenges, evaluating technological impacts, pedagogical practices, testing guidelines, student responsibilities, use of fabrication tools/machines/processes, and formative assessments (e.g., open exploration discussions). Future documents addressing criteria for P-12 engineering teaching and learning practices and facilities should aim to holistically integrate safety concepts like those demonstrated in this report.


Career and Technical Education (CTE)

CTE has long had close ties to T&E education, with programs in some states benefiting from Perkins funding. Additionally, pre-engineering, manufacturing, and other programs are classified under CTE career clusters in some states that are directly responsible for enhancing educational programs vital for economic growth and development (Bartholomew et al., 2020). Both CTE and T&E involve a heavy focus on practical learning and laboratory practices, and each has benefited from shared safety resources over the years. The 2018 ACTE Quality CTE Program of Study Framework (Imperatore & Hyslop, 2018) identifies 12 elements and 92 criteria that high-quality CTE programs should exhibit. Element 7 specifically focuses on Facilities, Equipment, Technology, and Materials. It “addresses the alignment, appropriateness, and safety of the physical/material components of the program of study, including laboratories, classrooms, computers, industry-specific equipment, and tools and supplies that support learning” (p. 4). It outlines the need for facilities, materials, equipment, maintenance, and practices to meet local, state, federal, and industry standards. It also focuses on students demonstrating appropriate and safer use of facilities, equipment, and materials. While each CTE area may have more specific safety criteria relative to its field, this framework highlights safety as one of the 12 elements critical to any CTE program. Safety concepts are explicitly mentioned in Element 7, but implicitly appear in other areas such as criteria “e” from Element and Instruction, “Instruction incorporates relevant equipment, technology, and materials to support learning” (p. 3). It is evident this framework acknowledges that safety is an important aspect of hands-on laboratory-related instruction. However, outside of Element 7, the concept of safety was only briefly mentioned in one other area: work-based learning. It is not embedded in the other standards with critical safety implications such as staff preparation, engaging instruction, assessment, access and equity, and collecting data for program improvement. Embedding key safety criteria across these standards would help strengthen the focus that CTE educators and administrators are expected to place on safety.


TETNov20SS2Computer Science

Computer science (CS) concepts are often integrated within T&E contexts through computational thinking, physical computing, and other applications. STEL specifically includes computational thinking as a context area. The authors found the Computer Science Teachers Association’s (CSTA) CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards (CSTA, 2017) have a different focus in regard to safety than the aforementioned analyzed documents. This is no surprise given previous differences highlighted between the focus of the K-12 Computer Science Framework (CS Framework) (K-12 Computer Science Framework, 2016) and Standards for Technological Literacy (STL) (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007). Love and Strimel (2017) found that “The CS Framework focused on legal issues and tradeoffs related to computing, specifically internet usage, whereas STL focused on a broader scope of safety and ethical issues that affect society such as, safety reliability, economic considerations, quality control, environmental concerns, manufacturability, maintenance and repair, and ergonomics” (p. 82). However, Love and Strimel (2017) and the recently released STEL also highlight areas of overlap where physical products may be designed, constructed, and programmed to improve human needs and wants (physical computing, smart home devices, etc.). When the authors of this article examined the more recently published CS Standards (CSTA, 2017), they found the focus on safety topics limited to digital technologies (cybersecurity, law, and ethics). The authors’ analysis reflects similar findings to those published by Love and Strimel in 2017.


One concerning safety issue: the CS Standards (CSTA, 2017) included standards on troubleshooting electronic hardware devices, but omitted any mention of electrical safety practices inherent with these devices (Roy, 2007). Moreover, some CS curricula include physical computing activities to apply CS concepts. There are a number of potential hazards associated with the electrical and physical construction aspects of physical computing. These should be included in CS teacher preparation and instructional standards to raise awareness about electrical safety issues so that they are not overlooked.


Instructional Technology

When examining standards for digital technologies, the International Society for Technology in Education’s ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE, 2017) must also be considered. Similar to the CS Standards (CSTA, 2017), the ISTE standards were found to have a different safety focus than standards documents from science, engineering, and CTE content areas. The ISTE standards focus primarily on developing safer digital citizens through standards related to actions and identity in the digital world, rights and obligations of intellectual property, personal data security, and ethical behavior when using digital technologies. While these safety concepts are vastly different than those included in the other documents, they are applicable across STEM education content areas that utilize digital technologies.


The ISTE standards also include one area (Standard 4) focused on the design process and developing solutions to authentic open-ended problems. Specifically, Standard 4c states, “Students develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.” Whether these standards are referring to developing digital, physical, or both types of prototypes is not specified. Upon further review of the standards-aligned resources provided by ISTE on its website, it is clear that it advocates for makerspaces, robotics, physical computing, and other STEM learning environments or activities that can pose safety risks. If these are important components for learning about technology, then the ISTE standards need to include criteria that not only address digital safety concerns, but also safety concepts and guidelines associated with developing physical prototypes and design solutions. 


Safety in STEL

At first glance there is a greater focus on hands-on safety embedded throughout STEL in comparison to other STEM standards. A quick search revealed the word “safe” 15 times, “safer” 6 times, and “safety” 32 times throughout STEL, greatly exceeding the mention of safety in other documents analyzed. Further, STEL cited foundational resources on P-12 STEM safety to support the importance of its inclusion, something that was lacking in several other documents reviewed. In contrast to other standards documents, STEL not only mentions safety concepts at the standards level, but embeds them throughout the benchmarks, practices, context areas, and exemplars at all grade levels. Safety is not merely included as a stand-alone standard to be viewed as a “check the box” item in STEL, it intentionally has a prominent role: “Students must also be taught to keep safety foremost in their minds” (p. 64). The prominent role that safety should play in the planning and implementation of all T&E instruction is also evident from the way it is interwoven throughout the document. For example, safety concepts are discussed in detail related to elements of design, facilities, fabrication tools/machines/processes, assessing technological products and systems, troubleshooting, following safety protocols, empathy for the safety of others and the environment, and optimization of designs/products. Embedding safety throughout the document in this manner makes STEL unique from other P-12 STEM education standards and also raises awareness of addressing safety for state/local/commercial curriculum writers, architects, teacher preparation faculty, administrators, instructors, and students to provide a safer learning experience.


Conclusions and Recommendations

As curricular resources are developed to align with the new STEL, curriculum writers and educators should ensure that safety is a key focus throughout all learning experiences, whether they occur in the classroom, laboratory, shop, or field. There needs to be an emphasis on legal safety standards and better professional safety practices to not only better protect students, but to also support teachers’, administrators’, and school systems’ legal responsibilities for duty or standard of care of students. Revisions to state-level science and T&E standards are currently in progress using STEL as a guiding resource. For example, in Pennsylvania’s latest draft of its 2020 standards for T&E education (based heavily on STEL), the writing committee specified that safety concepts and guidelines should be explicitly included throughout the document (PDE, 2020). As other states update their standards, this same approach should be strongly considered.


In addition to STEL, accompanying documents providing standards for the preparation of T&E teachers should be created with safety as a core component. ITEEA’s Advancing Excellence in Technological Literacy: Student Assessment, Professional Development, and Program Standards (ITEA/ITEEA, 2003) provided a strong focus on safety in alignment with STL (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007). Maintaining a strong focus on safety in alignment with the new STEL will be important for guiding T&E education programs and science programs in implementing engineering practices. Based on the authors’ analysis and experiences from years of developing safety guidelines, recommendations, and conducting safety-related research, we commend ITEEA for making safety a core focus throughout its new standards and hope that states and local schools will adopt a similar focus on safety. We also strongly encourage collaboration among STEM educators to consider the full breadth of safety issues when creating and implementing standards.



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Tyler S. Love, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Elementary/Middle Grades STEM Education at The Pennsylvania State University’s Capital Campus. He serves on the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) Safety Advisory Board and holds an OSHA 511 General Industry certificate. He can be reached at

Brian C. Duffy, Ph.D. is Chair of the NSTA Safety Advisory Board and is a Chemistry Instructor at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, NC. He can be reached at

Mary L. Loesing, Ed.D. is STEM Chairperson at Connetquot Central School District in Long Island, NY. She serves on the NSTA Safety Advisory Board and is President-Elect of the New York State Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (NYSASCD). She can be reached at

Kenneth R. Roy, Ph.D. is Director of Environmental Health & Safety for Glastonbury Public Schools (CT), NSTA’s Chief Safety Compliance Adviser/Safety Blogger, NSELA’s Safety Compliance Officer and ICASE Safety Advisory Committee member. He is a nationally and internationally recognized safety expert who has authored over 10 science safety books and 700 safety journal articles. He is a scientific researcher and serves as a safety consultant for the ACS, EPA, ITEEA, OSHA, and other state and federal governmental departments/agencies and professional associations. He can be reached at

Sandra S. West, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Biology and Science Education emeritus at Texas State University. She also serves on the NSTA Safety Advisory Board and the International Council of Associations for Science Education Safety Committee. Her research interests include Safety in K-12 Science settings, particularly class size. She can be reached at