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Board 246: Designing a Curriculum to Broaden Middle School Students’ Ideas and Interest in Engineering

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2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Baltimore , Maryland

Publication Date

June 25, 2023

Start Date

June 25, 2023

End Date

June 28, 2023

Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Tagged Topics

Diversity and NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Shawn Y. Stevens WGBH Educational Foundation

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Dr. Stevens is the Director of STEM Curriculum and Instruction at GBH and serves as PI for Solving Community Problems with Engineering. Her research interests include instructional materials and assessment development for science and engineering to support student and teacher learning.

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Joshua Littenberg-Tobias GBH

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Joshua Littenberg-Tobias is the Director of Education Research and Evaluation at GBH where he oversees research activities for all of GBH’s education work, including K-12 STEM and Social Studies via PBS LearningMedia, early childhood, and community-based educational media initiatives. His work focuses on designing and researching how educational technology can create more meaningful and equitable learning experiences. He has published his work extensively in major educational journals and conference proceedings.

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Ranida McKneally GBH

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Ranida is a STEM curriculum developer keenly interested in nurturing curiosity and growing science literacy. Her bachelor’s degree in cell biology from Cornell University and master’s degree in biology from Harvard University Extension School have taken her from the microscopic realm to the vibrant tropical rainforest where she spent time researching gibbons. She is continually inspired by nature and has dedicated her career to engaging students in STEM. Her current areas of focus include building climate resilience and promoting environmental stewardship through science and engineering education. She has published two children’s books to help foster early interest in science.

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Ethan Cayko

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As the 21st century progresses, engineers will play critical roles in addressing complex societal problems such as climate change and nutrient pollution. Research has shown that more diverse teams lead to more creative and effective solutions (Smith-Doerr et al., 2017). However, while some progress has been made in increasing the number of women and people of color, 83% of employed engineers are male and 68% of engineers are white (NSF and NCSES, 2019). Traditional K–12 approaches to engineering often emphasize construction using a trial-and-error approach (ASEE, 2020). Although this approach may appeal to some students, it may alienate other students who then view engineering simply as “building things.” Designing engineering experiences that broaden students’ ideas about engineering, may help diversify the students entering the engineering pipeline.

To this end, we developed an engineering curriculum that engages seventh-grade students in a three-week capstone project focusing on nutrient pollution in their local watershed. The curriculum engages students with the problem through local news articles about nutrient pollution and images of algae covered lakes, which then drives the investigation into the detrimental processes caused by excess nutrients entering bodies of water from sources such as fertilizer and wastewater. Students research the sources of nutrient pollution and potential solutions, and use simulations to investigate key variables and optimize the types of strategies for effectively decreasing and managing nutrient pollution to help develop their plans. Throughout the development process, we worked with a middle school STEM teacher to ensure the unit builds upon the science curriculum and the activities would be engaging and meaningful to students. The problem and location were chosen to illustrate that engineers can solve problems relevant to rural communities. Since people in rural locations tend to remain very connected to their communities throughout their lives, it is important to illustrate that engineering could be a relevant and viable career near home.

The curriculum was piloted with two teachers and 147 seventh grade students in a rural public school. Surveys and student drawings of engineers before and after implementation of the curriculum were used to characterize changes in students’ interest and beliefs about engineering. After completing the curriculum, students’ ideas about engineers’ activities and the types of problems they solve were broadened. Students were 53% more likely to believe that engineers can protect the environment and 23% more likely to believe that they can identify problems in the community to solve (p < 0.001). When asked to draw an engineer, students were 1.3 times more likely to include nature/environment/agriculture (p < 0.01) and 3 times more likely to show engineers helping people in the community (p < 0.05). Additionally, while boys’ interest in science and engineering did not significantly change, girls’ interest in engineering and confidence in becoming an engineer significantly increased (Cohen’s D = 0.28, p < 0.05).

This project is funded by NSF through the Division of Engineering Education and Centers, Research in the Formation of Engineers program.

References American Society for Engineering Education. (2020). Framework for P-12 Engineering Learning. Washington, DC. DOI: 10.18260/1-100-1153

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2019). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA.

Smith-Doerr, L., Alegria, S., & Sacco, T. (2017). How Diversity Matters in the US Science and Engineering Workforce: A Critical Review Considering Integration in Teams, Fields, and Organizational Contexts, Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 3, 139-153.

Stevens, S. Y., & Littenberg-Tobias, J., & McKneally, R., & Cayko, E. (2023, June), Board 246: Designing a Curriculum to Broaden Middle School Students’ Ideas and Interest in Engineering Paper presented at 2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Baltimore , Maryland. 10.18260/1-2--42689

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