Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 80, Issue 4 - December/January 2021
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedNovember 23, 2020
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 80, Issue 4 - December/January 2021

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Two example programs embrace design as their fundamental teaching and learning strategy.


For as long as the profession of technology and engineering education (TEE) has existed (the addition of engineering to the professional title marks the official beginning of the profession, and that occurred in 2010), there has been a struggle. Arguably, this struggle’s roots go back to the beginning of public education in the U.S. The struggle, specifically within TEE, is based on the question: Is the purpose of technology and engineering education to provide career and vocational value to the education of some students, or is it to provide the universal value of technological literacy to the education of all students? How we answer that question is dependent on a range of factors. One significant influence is how we perceive the purpose of public education in a democracy. To the field of TEE, the value placed on Standards for Technological Literacy (STL); (International Technology Education Association, 2000) molds how we answer that question. As Litowitz (2014) found in his study of TEE teacher preparation programs, STL’s impact on shaping the nature of what we teach about technology, why we teach what is taught, and how we ultimately go about teaching about technology has been significant. The acceptance of STL has formed the basis of how individual teachers have been answering this question for almost a generation.


TETDec20Warner1Several of the founders of the United States were advocates for some form of public education. Thomas Jefferson advocated for “the more general diffusion of knowledge” (Smith, 2012, para. 6) toward the goal of perpetuating a democratic society. In the 19th century, Horace Mann (1848) began advocating for universal public education through what today would be considered the elementary grades. Mann’s argument was that “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one” (para. 12). In the beginning of the 20th century, John Dewey (1916), an active proponent of universal public education, wrote that “a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated” (p. 101).


In the latter half of the 20th century, Neil Postman encouraged educators to see themselves as agents of change within the social/cultural setting of a democracy. In his book, The End of Education (1996), he wrote: 

Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public. And in creating the right kind of public, the schools contribute toward strengthening the spiritual basis of the American Creed. That is how Jefferson understood it, how Horace Mann understood it, how John Dewey understood it, and in fact, there is no other way to understand it. The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling (p. 18).


In the years since Postman wrote this passage, public education, and the American public in general, has continued to struggle with the question of what kind of public do we want to create. TEE’s answer to that same question is itself a conundrum. Our profession’s own struggles for a cohesive and agreed-upon identity extends back almost as far as there has been a profession. That lack of a solid identity, agreed upon by the members of the profession, makes it difficult for TE educators to have a voice in the cultural conversation seeking to answer Postman’s question.


Evidence of this existential struggle within the profession was manifest in a previous edition of Technology and Engineering Teacher (December/January, 2017) that asked on its cover the question, “Who Are We?” Articles in that publication provided the latest example of the differences in how members of the profession perceive the reason for the existence of technology and engineering education. One article made the case for a renewed emphasis on “an industrial-based curriculum and creating the professional development and learning materials needed to assist educators with integrating STEM concepts into an already established industrial arts or industrial technology program” (Rigler, 2017, p. 12). Another made the case that “Technological literacy is the right focus for the future because it provides an opportunity for T&E education to reach more students, not just those interested in specific vocational skills or becoming professional engineers” (Loveland & Love, 2017, pp. 16-17). The third argued that science education is dangerously close to usurping the content of TEE through such efforts as Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The authors argued that “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” (Strimel, Grubbs, & Wells, 2017, p. 23). If these three perspectives are representative of the philosophical divisions within the profession, and by all indications they are, then how the members of the profession answer Postman’s question—What kind of public does [public education] create?—can vary significantly based on where one is located upon the philosophical spectrum presented in the TET articles.   


In the opening decades of the 21st century, the goals of public education are still, in part, aimed toward what Kahlenberg and Janey (2016) identified as “putting democracy back into public education” (p. 1). They observed that “Americans have pivoted between whether the central priority of public education should be to create skilled workers for the economy or to educate young people for responsible citizenship. Both goals are important, of course” (p. 1). As evidenced by the articles in TET (December/January, 2017), the technology and engineering education profession has been experiencing its own version of the larger struggle in American education. The goal to create skilled workers is represented by the articles calling for both alignment with industry and the rebranding toward engineering, whereas the article calling for a continuation of a quest for technological literacy is in harmony with the need to educate young people for responsible citizenship. The relationship between these two goals has sometimes been complementary and sometimes oppositional. The field of TEE, and its predecessors, has often been at the center of that back-and-forth relationship between these two objectives.


Student presentations to community leaders and heads of business at

The strength of STL lies in both its underlying philosophy and the universal and enduring concepts upon which it is built. These strengths provide the foundation for the argument that there is a middle way by which technology and engineering education can and should provide all students with a sound footing in both technological literacy and the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in a career. These goals are not mutually exclusive. For both to be successfully attained in a TEE program, they must be recognized by the teacher as having equal importance toward the educational experience of all students. The teacher provides the first line of assurance that both goals are fully addressed appropriately for their type of school. If TEE is taught as a part of the general education curriculum in a public school that supports universal public education, the teacher is ethically obligated to address both goals equally. Even if the school is specifically designed to provide Career and Technical Education (CTE), the education students receive should still address both goals, though the emphasis will favor the career and vocational aspects (Career and Technical Education Foundation, n.d.). After all, even CTE schools are funded through public tax dollars and are intended to serve the common interests of the public.


STL was built upon a democratic philosophy. Its predecessor, Technology for All Americans: A Rationale and Structure for the Study of Technology (International Technology Education Association [ITEA/ITEEA], 1996), indicated even through its title how it would set the stage for STL to serve the needs and interests of all students in preparing them to be successful in an increasingly technological world. In the STL Executive Summary (International Technology Education Association, [ITEA/ITEEA] 2000), the relationship between STL and the goals of a democratic society are on full display. The summary explicitly acknowledged the need for both an educated and responsible citizenry and a skilled and competent workforce when the document noted that:

  • Technological literacy enables people to develop knowledge and abilities about human innovation in action.
  • Technology Content Standards establish the requirements for technological literacy for all students—Kindergarten through Grade 12.
  • Technology Content Standards provide qualitative expectations of excellence for all students.
  • Effective democracy depends on all citizens participating in the decision-making process. Because so many decisions involve technological issues, all citizens need to be technologically literate.
  • A technologically literate population can help our nation maintain and sustain economic progress (p. 2).


Further strengthening the democratic foundations of STL are the universal and enduring properties of the standards. Each of the 20 standards was written to endure the inevitable changes that attend technological obsolescence, new technologies that would arise, educational initiatives that run their course, or political or economic forces that oscillate across time. Though some of the vignettes used to explain the standards may be dated, the actual standards have maintained their value as signposts toward the goal of teaching technological literacy.


Another aspect of STL that makes it a perfect fit for the goals and objectives of a universal education within the context of a democratic society is the emphasis it places on design as a fundamental tool for developing, using, repairing, and disposing of technological artifacts. Designer-like thinking (designerly) has a harmonious fit with the traditional explanation of a liberal education. Heidt (2017), citing the works of Cross (1982), observed that:

The best way to provide all learners with a hands-on, experiential education that bridges the distance between the established academic cultures of the humanities and the sciences is a third culture of general education in design and design awareness (Cross, 221-222). Doing so would create a truly liberal education, one that…positions and engages the learner to explore the world through curiosity—and creativity-driven self-determined inquiry and empowers her to act upon her findings to make the world a better place.


Additionally, such an education would help eliminate the illusion that education is an end-state, the belief that when we finish school or graduate college we have been educated (para. 16-17).


Over the past decade we have seen a rise in the prevalence of the word design in the literature and professional development opportunities surrounding education. As pedagogy, design thinking represents “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit” (IDEO, 2019) for problem finding and solving. Design thinking is one way to engage in innovation—the process of changing or making alterations in existing products or systems to improve their function or marketability (American Society for Quality, 2019). However, when applied to education, design thinking and innovation represent something more than a means to an economic end. They present as the methods and outputs resultant from the pursuit of two questions fundamental to the human race: Why are things the way they are? and How can we make them better? While they serve well as primary outlines for the work done by designers, they also act as driving questions for educators the world over. The first question reminds us to kindle the flame of students’ curiosity in pursuit of knowledge. The second empowers learners as agents of change—as diligent, persistent inquirers whose work and discoveries can have impacts beyond their own improvement.


Designers, like educators, have as their goals not only the creation of a viable product but of products that make the world better for all users or citizens. Likewise, public education’s goals are individually localized but socially oriented. They represent the goals of a liberal education as described by William Cronon (1998) when he wrote, “Education for human freedom is also education for human community. The two cannot exist without each other” (para. 23).


TETDec20WarnerWhile it may be argued that its economic aims have pulled American public education further from its civic and socially minded goals, such arguments are not new; nor is the view that a public education ought to produce a liberally educated populace. Nor is the tension between these ends new. What is new is the view that pedagogies modeled on design and its iterative, creative process might represent a clearer picture of how a society increasingly impacted by technologies should understand and honor the enduring, eternal importance of a liberal education—an education for the responsible exercise of our liberties. As Cronon (1998) pointedly argued, “[liberty] is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves” (para. 23).


Design is one of the most prevalent forces expounded upon within the 20 STL standards (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000). Design’s prevalence is one more data point indicating the strength of STL toward supporting the importance of democratic philosophy to the mission of American Public Schools.


Undoubtedly, examples of successful public school programs that specifically seek to achieve the full spectrum of the goals of technological literacy put forth in STL can be found across the country. Among these programs are those that use a designerly approach to their teaching and learning about technology. The intentionality of such an approach moves students toward good citizenship. After all, citizens who work and engage with the world through intention and attention to how their actions and/or products impact those around them are thinking with habits of mind that can at least develop citizens who care not only about profit, but impact. Two programs that have successfully found strategies for providing equal emphasis on citizenship and career objectives within their technology and engineering education curriculum are Walkersville Middle School in Frederick County, MD, and York Suburban High School in York, PA. Warner (2016) wrote in detail about the nature of the program at Walkersville Middle School. Warner’s observations apply to both of the example programs. The characteristics that allow those programs to be successful include:

the personal experiences, education, and characteristics of the teacher (or teachers); the support of his (or her) supervisor, administrators, colleagues, and community; his (or her) dynamic use of design as a teaching and learning strategy; and the importance of physical space and place and the role of the program’s location within the school building (p. 69).


The teachers in both examples, Korbin Shoemaker (Walkersville) and Korbin Shearer (York), are key to the success of their respective programs. The teachers have a common narrative that springs from their respective training and background. Though both teachers went through their undergraduate program at different times, they had very similar experiences and training to use design as their primary teaching and learning tool.


At Walkersville MS, students have the opportunity to take elective courses in different areas of TEE. In sixth grade, students can take Technology Exposition, which serves as an introductory course, including units on basic areas of technology and engineering with a focus on the design process. Seventh-grade students can elect to take Computer
Science Investigation
, a redesigned elective focusing on and supporting the global computer science education initiative. Problem Solving is an eighth-grade elective that focuses on exploring different components of the designed world through design-based units.


Teams from inNOVAtion Lab present initial prototypes of solutions to problems identified using "The Extraordinaires Design Studio" characters from Hub Games.

The standards and indicators for these Technology Education classes are based on STL and thus designed to increase students’ technological literacy. However, course assessments also assess career-ready practices through Frederick County Public Schools’ (FCPS) Career and Technical Education (CTE) Competencies and Performance Standards:

  1. Responsible Citizen
  2. Skilled Professional
  3. Creative Communicator
  4. Innovative Designer
  5. Computational Thinker
  6. Model Integrity
  7. Ethical Leadership and Effective Management.


These courses develop students’ technological literacy by providing opportunities to practice and apply skills that transcend the confines of the classroom, allowing students to be more adaptable, versatile, and prepared for a career and to become active members of a global community. The challenges at Walkersville MS are open-ended enough to allow students to pursue their own interests. As the appropriate opportunities present themselves within the challenge, students receive custom lessons to help them be successful.


In the end, students develop a solution to a problem and are tasked with presenting both the product and the process, ultimately coming to answer the question of “why?” Why did you design it the way you did? Why is it that shape, that size, that color? Why was that material, option, version, text, selected? If students can answer the “why” question with evidence of intentional decision making, they are then demonstrating aspects of technological literacy. The solutions that students develop in class might never leave the classroom, but the lessons they learn and the skills they develop will positively impact their ability to navigate this problem-filled world.


Students at Walkersville MS are being provided with knowledge and skills that go beyond technology and engineering education and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Combining STL and FCPS’s Competencies and Performance Standards with everything taught produces an extremely well-rounded human being.


The TEE program at York Suburban HS (YSHS) was crafted to provide students with a design-based approach to solving problems. The program has developed learning activities that are deeply rooted in the design process, promote creativity, and support student self-efficacy. By the time students get to ninth grade at YSHS, they have experienced three years of TEE at the middle school level. They learn the basic concepts of TEE, including the design process, safety skills, research and computer skills, machine and equipment usage, and more. Though the learning activities at the middle school level are more structured and rigid, they still contain a component of individuality.


YSHS’s TEE program blends the hands-on and practical skills so commonly associated with technological literacy with the design skills associated with TEE. Because of this, students still learn what may be considered basic maker skills like woodworking, metalworking, drafting/CAD, graphic design, and others, but those skills are applied differently than they would have been in past decades. For example, a project that students completed in this program prior to revamping was a simple wooden pen. Students would turn the pen, sand and finish, and assemble. While many useful skills were taught through this project, there were several things missing, such as creativity and design, research, and documentation of a process.


TETDec20Warner5After the revamping of the YSHS program, a project example was a self-designed passive phone amplifier, which offered several learning opportunities. Students performed research about the science of sound and amplification and applied it to their design, then created multiple ideas following the design process and refined those ideas into one idea that was developed into drawings for production. Throughout this process, students received feedback from the teacher and other students. They then went to work producing their designs, many encountering issues along the way that required them to revisit parts of the design and production process. While these two projects taught similar hands-on skills, the latter allowed the students more individuality, creativity, and the chance for learning through failure.


Problem-solving skills, critical-thinking and decision-making abilities, analysis and research skills, applying creativity, using technical knowledge and skills, and a host of other characteristics that develop through design thinking, are skills that are integral to the processes of design as well as to the dual goals of good citizenship and career preparedness. The two example programs embrace design as their fundamental teaching and learning strategy. It is interesting to note that both teachers talked openly about their goals of teaching students to become good citizens as well as making them well informed about their career choices (personal interviews, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019). Shoemaker and Shearer have recognized that, by teaching their students how to think and act like designers, they are teaching them both transferrable skills and important behaviors toward being good workers and fully engaged citizens.


Finally, STL is a guide in both programs toward what is taught and the methods by which that content is taught. The success of these example programs is, in large part, because of their use of the universal and enduring aspects of STL toward achieving technological literacy. The programs show that the answer to Postman’s (1996) question, “What kind of public does [public education] create?” (p. 18) can be one that finds a balance between the creation of skilled workers and the creation of responsible, technologically literate citizens.



This article was originally written prior to the release of Standards for Technological and Engineering Literacy (International Technology and Engineering Educators Association [ITEEA], 2020). Thus, all of the references to “Standards” were toward the previous technological literacy standards (International Technology Education Association [ITEA/ITEEA], 2000/2002/2007). The purpose of this article was, and still is, to challenge technology and engineering educators to recognize that helping to develop beliefs and practices of good citizenship in a democratic society within all students is a vital part of what is taught in our classrooms, regardless of whether it is a part of the formal or informal curriculum. Within Standards for Technological and Engineering Literacy the word “citizenship” is defined as “Being a member of a community; applying one’s communication, critical thinking, and collaboration skills toward more effective participation within both local and global communities (p. 150).” The placement of this definition provides acknowledgement of the importance of citizenship within the study of technology and engineering in the most recent iteration of standards. Thus, the challenge to the profession to keep asking and answering Postman’s question continues.



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Scott A. Warner, Ed.D., IDSA, is a professor and the Graduate Program Coordinator in the Department of Applied Engineering, Safety & Technology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

Korbin L. Shearer is an Applied Engineering & Technology teacher at York Suburban High School in York, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

Garreth Heidt is an English teacher, lead designer of the Nova Lab, and First Robotics Team faculty mentor at Perkiomen Valley High School in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

Korbin Shoemaker is a Teacher Specialist for Career and Technology Education in the Frederick County Public Schools in Frederick, Maryland. He can be reached at


This is a refereed article.