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Shifts in the Cultural Production of "Smartness" Through Engineering in Elementary Classrooms

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

K-12 and Pre-College Engineering Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1080.1 - 24.1080.7



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Paper Authors


Tess Anne Hegedus The University of North Carolina, Greensboro

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Tess Hegedus and Aundrea Carter are doctoral candidates working with Dr. Heidi Carlone, Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Our research team is
focused on examining the potential of engineering to level the playing field for diverse elementary students, to disrupt historically narrow definitions of “smartness", and provide opportunities for elementary school students to develop their creative potential.

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Heidi B. Carlone The University of North Carolina, Greensboro

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Heidi Carlone is an associate professor of science education at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Carlone’s research uses theoretical lenses from anthropology of education, sociocultural theories, and cultural studies to understand the local/global productions of science/engineering and scientists/engineers in K-8 in-school and out-of-school settings and implications of those meanings for those historically shut out of science and engineering. Her current work examines the potential of engineering curricula in elementary schools to disrupt classroom power hierarchies and broaden definitions of "smart" students.

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Aundrea D. Carter University of North Carolina, Greensboro

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Shifts in the cultural production of “smartness” through engineering in elementary classrooms (works in progress)Background/FrameworkJudgments about students’ “smartness” are often narrowly constructed in schools. ‘Doing school’(compliance) is often conflated with ‘being smart’ (Varelas, Kane, & Wylie, 2011). Narrowperformances of getting the right answer or displaying knowledge are often privileged overcritical thinking, creativity, and problem solving (Carlone, Scott, & Lowder, in press). Students’perceptions of how they are positioned in relation to school’s definitions of smartness impactefficacy and achievement (Hatt, 2012).Narrow and problematic perceptions of smartness have critical consequences for K-12engineering. Many students and teachers have limited understanding of engineers’ work,focusing on the subject of engineer’s work such as cars/machinery, physical structures, orcomputers (Cunningham, Lachapelle, & Hertel, 2012). Additionally, persistent images of theengineer as “super smart” shape students’ views of engineering as something “not for me”(Archer, et al., 2012), especially for students from under-represented groups. The “nerd” and“academic-achiever” identities persist even among student engineers at the university level(Tonso, 2006).Focus of ResearchThis study examines the potential of the implementation of an engineering unit to disrupthistorically narrow definitions of “smartness”. We ask: what is the cultural production of“smartness” during an engineering unit (15-25 hours of instruction) in four elementaryclassrooms? We define cultural production as meaning produced by groups in everyday practicethat reproduce and/or counter historically enduring cultural narratives (Carlone, 2004).MethodsFour teachers (2 fourth-grade; 2 fifth-grade) engaged in a week-long professional developmentabout the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum (Museum of Science, Boston). All teachin Title 1 schools (>50% of students receive free or reduced lunch) with large percentages ofnon-White students. Each teacher implemented one EiE unit during Fall 2013 (Designing SolarOvens or Solid as a Rock; see We are conducting semi-structured teacherinterviews (n=2 per teacher), student interviews (n= approximately 75), lesson debriefinginterviews with teachers, and observations, which provide us with information about how themeanings of what/who counts as “smart” gets produced in practice in each classroom. We willuse Spradley’s (1980) semantic structure analysis to analyze data.Preliminary ResultsBefore implementation, teachers had broad definitions of smartness, although they anticipatedthat institutionally-defined smart (gifted) students would fare best because they are “reallyfocused”, “good critical thinkers”, “analytical”, “on top of things”, and “just go with it”. Theypredicted that students who would struggle were those who were “inattentive”, have “difficultymaking connections”, and were “slow processors”. Their ideas leave open the possibility forstudents’ engagement to surprise them. We conduct post-implementation interviews byDecember 2013.At the end of the unit in one class, students described broad views of smartness. Smart engineers,they said, “took their time and went over stuff” and chose the right materials for the design(“they put smart stuff into their ovens”). Many listed the “smart engineering students” asdifferent from the “normally smart students”, indicating a shifted view of the culturally producedmeaning of “smart” during the engineering unit.ReferencesArcher, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Wilis, B., & Wong, B. (2012). Science aspirations, capital, and family habitus: How families shape children’s engagement and identification with science. American Educational Research Journal, 49, 881-908.Carlone, H. B. (2004). The cultural production of science in reform­‐based physics: Girls' access, participation, and resistance. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(4), 392-414.Carlone, H.B., Scott, C.M., & Lowder, C. (in press). Becoming (less) scientific: A longitudinal study of students’ identity work from elementary to middle school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.Cunningham, C. M., Lachapelle, C. P., & Hertel, J. (2012). Research and evaluation results for the Engineering is Elementary project: An executive summary of the first eight years. Boston, MA: Museum of Science.Hatt, B. (2012). Smartness as a cultural practice in schools. American Educational Research Journal, 49(3), 438-460.Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.Tonso, K.L. (2006). Student engineers and engineer identity: Campus engineer identities as figured world. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 1, 237–307.Varelas, M., Kane, J.M., & Wylie, C.D. (2011). Young African American children’s representations of self, science, and school: Making sense of difference. Science Education, 95(5), 824-851.

Hegedus, T. A., & Carlone, H. B., & Carter, A. D. (2014, June), Shifts in the Cultural Production of "Smartness" Through Engineering in Elementary Classrooms Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23013

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