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Participating in Authentic Engineering Projects Improves Teachers’ Ability to Teach the Design Process to Middle School Students

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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

NSF Grantees Poster Session I

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Kristen Billiar Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Kris Billiar is Department Head and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He earned a B.S. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, an M.S.E and Ph.D. in Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research interests are soft tissue mechanics and mechanobiology – the study of how mechanical forces regulate the development and healing of connective tissues and the pathogenesis of disease.

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Jeanne Hubelbank PhD Independent Program Evaluator

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Jeanne Hubelbank is a program evaluation and assessment consultant in education. She earned a B.A. in French/elementary education at Cedar Crest College, M.Ed. in educational research at Boston University, and Ph.D. in educational research, measurement, and evaluation at Boston College. She is a member of the American Evaluation Association and the American Educational Research Association. Her current research interests are in evaluation use and capacity.

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Jared Quinn Overlook Middle School

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Jared is a middle school Engineering and Robotics teacher at Overlook Middle School in Ashburnham Massachusetts. He has been teaching classes in the STEM disciplines for 16 years in both urban and rural school systems. Jared has participated in the Research Experience for Teachers programs funded by the National Science Foundation for five summers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute between 2009 and 2014 and one summer at Boston University in 2011. Jared holds six professional teacher licenses; Technology / Engineering 5-12, General Science 5-8, Biology 9-12, Middle School Generalist 5-9, Elementary 1-6, and Physical Education 5-12.

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Thomas Andrew Oliva Worcester Public Schools

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I have been teaching in the Worcester, MA public school system for 30 years. I teach Technology & Engineering at Forest Grove Middle School. I have participated six times in the National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Teachers in Biomedical Engineering held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. From that I have twice co-presented research projects at the annual Northeast Biomedical Engineering Conference.

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Marsha W Rolle Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Terri A. Camesano Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Professor Camesano is Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of Chemical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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K-12 teachers are increasingly asked to include engineering design in their classes, yet compared to science and mathematics, there are relatively few teacher professional development programs focused on engineering (Katehi, Pearson and Feder 2009). Professional development opportunities that are content specific (Schaefer-Zarkske 2004), inquiry-based, and learning-centered (Anderson and Herr 2011) are most successful. Similarly, middle school students are most engaged by educational activities centered on active inquiry and on developing critical thinking skills (Ambrose, et al. 2010, Bransford, Brown and Cocking 2000, Duschel 2007, Penuel, et al. 2007). Here we describe an immersive integrated research and teaching program for middle school teachers based on the engineering design process that we developed to inspire inquiry and active learning, and implemented from 2008-2015.

In our program, funded by two successive NSF Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) grants, teachers participated in authentic independent design projects in research labs mentored by faculty, and developed design-based inquiry curriculum units for their classes. Following the summer RET experience, teachers taught the curricula to their students and assessed learning outcomes using validated instruments during the academic year. An external evaluation consultant (author JH) assessed teacher ratings of 1) competence in teaching the engineering design process, 2) knowledge of biomedical engineering and 3) knowledge of the engineering design process through pre and post-test responses.

In the most recent grant period, 20 teachers taught their curriculum units to over 2,500 middle-school students. Students’ percentages of correct scores show gains in their knowledge of the engineering design process from 55% ± 26% at the beginning of instruction to 75% ± 21% at the end (t-test, p<0.01, n = 2069 responses). Teachers reported an increase in their competency to teach the engineering design process. Whereas they rated themselves poor to good at the beginning of the program, all teachers rated themselves as having good or excellent competence at the end (p <.01, Wilcoxon signed ranks Z = 3.0). Teachers’ knowledge of biomedical engineering and the engineering design process increased from 59% ± 17% to 79% ± 12% (t-test, p <.01).

Our data demonstrate that our RET program aided in increasing teachers’ knowledge of engineering concepts and in their confidence to teach the engineering design process to their students. The program also facilitated the development and teaching of inquiry-based lessons which were effective in helping over 2,500 students learn engineering concepts. Many of these lessons were submitted to for broader impact. Developing STEM lessons that address students’ needs and provide developmentally and pedagogically appropriate content within classroom constraints is a continuous challenge for K-12 teachers. Programs that combine authentic engineering research and curriculum development, such as the one described herein, are critical for aiding K-12 teachers in educating and motivating the next generation of technologically literate students.

Billiar, K., & Hubelbank, J., & Quinn, J., & Oliva, T. A., & Rolle, M. W., & Camesano, T. A. (2016, June), Participating in Authentic Engineering Projects Improves Teachers’ Ability to Teach the Design Process to Middle School Students Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25856

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