K-12 Engineering Education Standards: Opportunities and Barriers

By Bybee, Rodger W. | Technology and Engineering Teacher, February 2011 | Go to article overview
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K-12 Engineering Education Standards: Opportunities and Barriers

Bybee, Rodger W., Technology and Engineering Teacher


Does the nation need K-12 engineering education standards? The answer to this question is paradoxically both simple and complex, and requires an examination of a rationale for such standards as well as the opportunities and barriers to developing and implementing the standards.

The Idea of Standards

A contemporary agreement among 46 states to join forces and create common academic standards in math and English language arts makes it clear that the idea of standards has an overwhelming appeal to policymakers. National standards also have an unimaginable complexity for educators responsible for "implementing" the standards (DeBoer, 2006; Bybee and Ferrini-Mundy, 1997; National Research Council, 2002). The idea of standards has developed from an original meaning as "a rallying point for an army" to an "exemplar of measure or weight" to statement of "correctness or perfection" and finally to a "level of excellence." It should be clear that the primary functions of an educational standard center on rallying support, increasing coherence, and measuring attainment. All require political persuasion, psychometric precision, and practical applications. In the end, setting standards, such as those being considered for K-12 engineering education, requires allegiance by a broad constituency, addressing programmatic concerns beyond the policy (e.g., school programs and teaching practices) and implementing an assessment system that is manageable and understandable by educators and the public alike.

Standards for education are statements about purposes--priorities and goals (Hiebert, 1999). In engineering education they would be value judgments about what our students should know and be able to do. Education standards should be developed through a complex process informed by societal expectations, past practices, research information, and visions of professionals in associated fields; e.g., engineering and education.

Before progressing too far, several terms must be clarified. In general, discussions of common academic standards and current considerations of engineering education standards refer to CONTENT STANDARDS--a description of learning outcomes described as knowledge and abilities for a subject area. For example, students should learn concepts such as systems, optimization, and feedback; they should develop the abilities of engineering design and habits of mind. Content standards would be differentiated from other standards such as: performance standards, professional development standards, and teaching standards (see Table 1).

The Idea of Education Standards Is Not New

More than a century ago, The Committee of Ten made recommendations concerning college admissions requirements. The recommendations included the use of laboratories in science teaching. The Committee of Ten report influenced numerous programs and practices in the nation's schools (Sizer, 1964; DeBoer, 1991). One particular example makes a point about national standards. The Committee of Ten report served as the impetus for the Harvard Descriptive List, a description of experiments in physics to be used for admission to the college. Students applying to Harvard would be required to complete 40 different experiments as well as a written test about the experiments and principles of physics. The point here is that the Harvard Descriptive List fulfilled the definition of education standards, by definition a combination of content and teaching standards.

Since the late 1800s, numerous policies, generally in the form of committee reports, have described what is now referred to as education standards. The standards referred to science--technology and engineering were almost never mentioned. In recent decades, however, technology was often (and incorrectly) referred to as applied science.

In the late 1980s, in the latter years of the "Sputnik era," a new stage of education emerged.

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K-12 Engineering Education Standards: Opportunities and Barriers


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