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Engineering Bait-and-Switch: K-12 Recruitment Strategies Meet University Curricula and Culture

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Research on Diversification & Inclusion

Tagged Divisions

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering, Liberal Education/Engineering & Society, Women in Engineering, New Engineering Educators, and Student

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.616.1 - 26.616.16



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Paper Authors


Michael Lachney Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Orcid 16x16

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Michael Lachney is a PhD candidate in the Science and Technology Studies department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He studies the design and implementation of educational technologies for STEM teaching and learning.

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Dean Nieusma Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Orcid 16x16

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Dean Nieusma is Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies and Director of the Programs in Design and Innovation at Rensselaer.

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Engineering Bait-and-Switch: K-12 Recruitment Strategies Meet University Curricula and CultureWhile traditional science and math subjects are highly standardized in state K-12curricula and the testing regimes associated with No Child Left Behind and Race to theTop, K-12 engineering education is less integrated into the standards of the US educationsystem. Businesspersons, government supported university researchers, teachers,policymakers, and others take advantage of this flexibility by coupling engineeringeducation with design activities: robotics competitions, maker fairs, and project-basedcurriculum such as Engineering is Elementary. This is a radical innovation to traditionalK-12 STEM education practices. Instead of teaching to the test, engineering educationteaches for hands-on design. The motivation behind these practices is recruitment: attractmore students to engineering with hands-on design activities at the K-12 level so thatthey then pursue it in higher education.Unlike in K-12, engineering in higher education has remained largely unchanged fordecades. The “fundamentals first” structure of the majority of university engineeringprograms assumes a long sequence of analytical skill sets must be mastered beforestudents engage in design, material manipulation, and “real world” problem solving.These analytic skill sets are established less through creative contextual trial-and-errorand more through rote, decontextualized problem solving, first in math and basicsciences, then in engineering sciences. In the engineering design capstone, students arefinally required to creatively synthesize solutions to real-world-like problems.Limitations to the fundamentals-first paradigm increasingly have been recognized withinuniversity engineering education. Numerous engineering programs now tweak itsstructure by offering first or second-year design courses—and many schools offerextracurricular design-oriented programming—yet the overall format of most engineeringprograms remains predominantly unchanged.Hence, the dominant image of K-12 engineering education is far different than theexperiences of most engineering undergraduates. The transition from K-12 engineering touniversity engineering can be harsh for many first-year students. We characterize thistransition as “bait and switch.” Bait-and-switch is often associated with fraud or trickeryin retail and lawmaking. Something is proposed one way that appears attractive (bait), butis less attractive upon reveal (switch). Hands-on design activities in K-12 education arean attractive and creative image of engineering (bait) that is radically different from thefundamentals-first, rote problem solving of engineering education in most colleges anduniversities (switch).This paper will characterize the policy and theoretical struggles that make bait-and-switch a dominant recruitment phenomenon in the US engineering educational landscape.In this context, engineering education at all levels is tightly coupled with discourses onnational and economic security. Anxieties over the future workforce filter intoinstitutional goals, which can begin as early as primary school, to increase recruitmentrates for higher education engineering programs. This frames engineering education as asite of struggle over the prioritization of recruitment as opposed to retention. Successwith recruitment at the K-12 level works to magnify retention problems at the universitylevel as incoming undergraduate students confront the “switch.” To begin, bait-and-switch is characterized by examples from K-12 and higher education. Next, bait-and-switch is posed as a site of struggle over the prioritization of retention or recruitment.Finally, this struggle of bait-and-switch is re-characterized through examples ofengineering programs that integrate liberal arts and design based learning.

Lachney, M., & Nieusma, D. (2015, June), Engineering Bait-and-Switch: K-12 Recruitment Strategies Meet University Curricula and Culture Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23954

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