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STEM Integration in a Pre-College Course in Digital Electronics: Analysis of the Enacted Curriculum

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Engineering as the STEM Glue

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1322.1 - 22.1322.23



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Paper Authors


Amy C. Prevost University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Ms. Prevost is a doctoral student in Education Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research is focused on the STEM career pipeline, especially related to engineering, engineering education and the molecular biosciences. In addition to her work in education research, she is also the Director of scientific courses at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute in Madison, WI, where she coordinates curricula in the area of molecular biology.

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Mitchell J. Nathan University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Mitchell J. Nathan, BSEE, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Psychology, with affiliate appointments in Curriculum & Instruction and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and a faculty fellow at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) and the Center on Education and Work. Dr. Nathan studies the cognitive, embodied, and social processes involved in STEM reasoning, learning and teaching, especially in mathematics and engineering classrooms and in laboratory settings, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Dr. Nathan has secured over $20M in external research funds and has over 80 peer-reviewed publications in education and Learning Sciences research, as well as over 100 scholarly presentations to U.S. and international audiences. He is Principal Investigator or co-Principal Investigator of 5 active grants from NSF and the U.S. Dept. of Education, including the AWAKEN Project (funded by NSF-EEP), which examines learning, instruction, teacher beliefs and engineering practices in order to foster a more diverse and more able pool of engineering students and practitioners, and the Tangibility for the Teaching, Learning, and Communicating of Mathematics Project (NSF-REESE), which explores the role of materiality and action in representing mathematical concepts in engineering and geometry. Dr. Nathan is on the editorial board for several journals, including The Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-Peer).

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Amy Kathleen Atwood University of Wisconsin - Madison


L. Allen Phelps University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Dr. Phelps is a professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and director of the Center on Education and Work at UW-Madison. His recent research has examined the efficacy and impact of high school engineering education programs and initiatives on student achievement, college and career readiness, and changes in teachers' professional beliefs.

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STEM Integration in a Pre-College Course in Digital Electronics: Analysis of the Enacted CurriculumAbstractThere is general agreement amongst educators, policy makers and professionals that teachingand learning in STEM areas at the K-12 level must be improved. More specifically, concernsabout the preparedness of high school students to improve the innovation capacity of the UnitedStates are leveled following data showing US students performing below students in otherindustrialized nations on international math and science tests. To address both the preparednessfor and the appeal of engineering, technical education programs have emerged that providehands-on, project-based curricula that focus on the integration of mathematics and scienceknowledge with engineering activities. Cognitive science research emphasizes that integration ofnew ideas with students’ prior knowledge must be made explicit in order to promote successfultransfer to novel problem-solving and design contexts. Thus, integration of mathematics andengineering is important both for mainline (general education) as well as pipeline (careerpreparation) goals for engineering education.This study uses actual classroom observations to try to understand how students in the highschool classroom learn and integrate mathematics and engineering skills and concepts based onthe teacher’s actions in a portion of the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Digital Electronics ™curriculum. Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a four-year, pre-engineering curriculum adopted byover 10% of all US high schools in all 50 states, is an important exemplar of how these programsstrive to implement this integration in public schools. All PLTW courses are project based,allowing for unique opportunities to view how teachers and students interact to bring thecurriculum alive.This paper reports on findings from our quantitative/qualitative analysis of video data from sevenPLTW lessons from the foundations course Digital Electronics ™ as implemented in an urbanhigh school. The analyses were motivated by three research questions: 1. How is class time distributed between teacher-centered instruction, teacher-directed tutoring of teams or individuals, student-directed collaboration, and non-instructional (e.g., administrative) tasks? 2. What portion of class time is spent on concepts that are central to STEM education, or to technical skills? 3. How frequently do we observe explicit integration (as opposed to the implicit embedding) of mathematics and science ideas in engineering activities and lessons?Our coding framework delineates three different dimensions: A. Instruction time codes subdivide each class period based on how the instructor interacts with students. B. Concepts mark engagement with “big ideas” from STEM, such as modularity in engineering, projection in mathematics, and Kirchoff’s laws in physics. We separately note whether the math and science concepts are explicitly integrated during instruction. C. Skills address process-oriented tasks that may not require conceptual understanding but are important for doing practical engineering work.We found that this curriculum introduces a lot of mathematics to students that goes above andbeyond state and national high school standards. Much of this mathematics is conceptual, ratherthan skills based. Students learn about numbers (binary operations), Boolean algebra andKarnaugh maps – primarily through lectures (which constitute 44% of the instruction time).Some skills, such as reasoning, are tied in to the lessons. Most of the engineering skills andconcepts focus on building digital circuits and solving logic problems related to circuit design.Instruction time is spent primarily on project work (69%, some of which overlaps with lecturesand other instructional activities), both amongst student/student partners and with the guidanceof the instructor.One key contribution is the method we have developed for identifying the occurrences andmissed opportunities for explicit integration of math concepts with engineering activities. Thisallows us to document opportunities where students’ conceptual knowledge is grounded inapplications and how conceptual knowledge in science and math can be generalized fromengineering activities. In comparison to the idealized (printed) curriculum, empirical research onthe enacted curriculum identifies where the challenges in K-12 engineering education lie andhow curriculum design and instruction may be improved to foster deeper learning of engineeringand mathematics.

Prevost, A. C., & Nathan, M. J., & Atwood, A. K., & Phelps, L. A. (2011, June), STEM Integration in a Pre-College Course in Digital Electronics: Analysis of the Enacted Curriculum Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18769

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