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Engineering First: How Engineering Design Thinking Affects Science Learning

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering Division Poster Session: Works in Progress

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education Division

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Mandy Biggers Penn State University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Mandy Biggers is an assistant professor of science education at Penn State University. Her research and teaching interests involve engineering education with elementary students and also preservice teachers. Her particular interests are engineering practices and engineering design thinking. Before earning her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and her Masters degree from Texas A&M University, she was a middle and high school science teacher in Texas.

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Leigh Ann Haefner Penn State University - Altoona

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Leigh Ann Haefner is an associate professor of science education at Penn State Altoona and co-director of the Childhood and Early Education program at Penn State University. She is a former junior and senior high school science teacher and her current research includes a focus on inservice teacher’s integration of the practices of science and engineering in STEM education.

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Jonathan Bell

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Jonathan Bell is a graduate research assistant at Penn State pursuing a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, focusing on science and engineering education. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Hampshire college, Jonathan spent 13 years in California designing science exhibitions, teaching middle school STEM and supporting teacher professional development related to engineering education. His research interests include engineering education, design thinking and teaching failure.

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The integration of STEM disciplines has been emphasized over the past decade. These fields hold promise for filling jobs of the future, and schools across the country have developed STEM programs to meet the growing needs and interests of students. However, no research has attempted to investigate how different integration strategies affect student learning outcomes. Decades ago, there was a movement to teach physics first in the sequence of science courses. There were studies done that determined that learning physics first affected learning outcomes in other science courses (biology, chemistry, etc.).

In a similar model, this study investigated learning outcomes when engineering is taught before or after science content in elementary science classes. Although science curriculum and engineering curriculum exist, they are typically not well integrated. The disciplines in STEM are still taught as independent silos in most cases. This project explored how five elementary classroom teachers integrated engineering in their classrooms while piloting engineering curriculum.

Our specific research questions were: 1. How do teachers integrate science content into engineering design units? 1.a. What do they struggle with? 1.b. What supports do they need to be successful? 2. Does the instructional sequence (engineering first or science first) affect ease of integration?

Five fifth-grade teachers were selected for this study. Each teacher piloted engineering curriculum alongside their science curriculum. Two teachers taught the science curriculum first followed by the engineering curriculum, two teachers taught the engineering curriculum first followed by the science curriculum. One teacher integrated the two curricula during the same time period. Four main types of data were collected during this project. First, semi-structured interviews were conducted with this sample of five teachers. The interviews centered on examples when engineering was incorporated, how science and engineering were integrated, how the teachers felt about the integration, what they tried that failed and/or succeeded, and what they planned to do in the future. Second, classroom lessons were videorecorded using an iPad provided by the research project. Teachers focused on videorecording engineering lessons and science lessons, attempting to capture student talk as much as possible.

Third, we leveraged existing Professional Learning Community [PLC] meetings to incorporate focus group interviews with participating teachers. These PLC meetings were audiorecorded and transcribed to collect the teachers’ conversations to help answer the research questions. Finally, fourth, student artifacts were collected to help determine if teaching science first or engineering first affected student learning outcomes. Artifacts included science notebooks, worksheets, assessments, and in-class activities. This data was used to investigate whether teaching science first or engineering first affects ease of integration of the disciplines.

This study will have implications for teacher education, professional development providers, curriculum developers, and eventually (and importantly) classroom practice. While this study includes a small sample size of teachers, it is a first step in understanding how they integrate science and engineering content and practices.

Biggers, M., & Haefner, L. A., & Bell, J. (2016, June), Engineering First: How Engineering Design Thinking Affects Science Learning Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26648

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