Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Myths about the Nature of Technology and Engineering: Using the Philosophy of Technology and Engineering to Expose Misconceptions

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Myths about the Nature of Technology and Engineering: Using the Philosophy of Technology and Engineering to Expose Misconceptions

Article excerpt

Increasingly, science teachers are expected to devote instruction to technology and engineering, as encouraged by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013). Just as scientific literacy requires understanding the nature of science (NOS), technological literacy must include understanding the philosophy and nature of technology and engineering (NOTE). Focusing only on student use of technologies misses what Selber (2004) calls a critical literacy.

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Abd-El-Khalick (2013) asserts that we must get students to think about NOS, not just engage in science tasks. Similarly, we must get students to think about NOTE as they engage in engineering. This article briefly explores common myths among students regarding technology and engineering, and we discuss strategies we have used to engage students with NOTE.

Myth 1: Technology is only artifacts

When we ask students for examples of technology, they typically respond: "laptops, phones, computers, electronics," and "anything that uses power." Kruse and Buckmiller (2015) found that even master's-level students restrict their view of technology to digital artifacts. However, NOTE expands technology to human activity, extensions of human abilities, and any means to an end (Ellul 1964; McLuhan 1964). This broader view of technology encompasses processes, language, democracy, and bell systems in schools.

In an atomic theory lesson in a high school chemistry class (Kruse and Wilcox 2013), one author asked students, "How is the alpha particle itself a form of technology in Rutherford's gold foil experiment?" Students were reminded that in this famous experiment, alpha particles are shot at a thin sheet of gold foil; the deflection of some of these particles provides evidence for the atomic nucleus. The students noted that the alpha particle was the "tool" Rutherford used to probe the atom. This approach helped students recognize how the intention of the user can help define technology (Mitcham 1994).

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Myth 2: Engineering design is a single process

Science is often seen by non-scientists as a singular step-by-step process. This perception overlooks the deadends, interpretation of data, human idiosyncrasies, and other creative processes of science (Clough and Kruse 2009). Similarly, some students mistakenly view engineering design as a linear process. Like the methods of science, engineering and design processes do not follow the same steps every time. They run into roadblocks, causing engineers to creatively pursue many possible paths as they work.

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Consider the well-known mousetrap car activity, in which students design car models powered by spring-loaded mousetraps. One author used this engineering task to help students understand motion and forces in a physics course. During the build, the teacher highlighted the non-linear process: "I notice some of you created drawings first and others began fiddling with the mousetraps. Then, some of you created prototypes, but other groups started their final build right away with tweaks along the way. Considering you all took different avenues with this task, how does that illustrate that there is probably not a single 'engineering design process'?"

Myth 3: Engineering is any problem-solving or design activity

One way to differentiate engineering from other problem-solving endeavors is the use of scientific or mathematical knowledge to inform design (Kruse and Wilcox 2017). Design involves problem solving but does not always require the use of science and mathematical knowledge. Two of the authors (Kruse and Wilcox 2015) asked physical science students to design an object with the same density as water. Students used their understanding of density, making the task more like engineering than other types of design. We highlighted this difference by asking students: "If, before this unit, we would have asked you to create an object that both floated and sank in water, what would have been different? …

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