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Teachers' attention to student thinking during the engineering design process: A case study of three elementary classrooms

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session Design

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1135.1 - 23.1135.20

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Paper Authors


Amber Kendall Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach

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Amber Kendall is a doctoral student in Science Education and a graduate research assistant with the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. She graduated from North Carolina State University as a Park Scholar with a B.A. in Physics. Her passion for STEM education is long-standing, but she was inspired to pursue her graduate degree after three years teaching physics to high-school freshman. Beside engineering-design-based curricula, her interests include scientific representations and modeling, and women in science and engineering.

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Merredith D Portsmore Tufts University

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Elementary teachers’ use of the engineering design process in their classrooms: Three case studiesWhile various fields of engineering, engineering curricula, and educational frameworks may usedifferent representations of the engineering design process, design is undeniably central to thework of engineering, and thus essential to the education of professional engineers. Many studieshave investigated the engineering design process at the college and professional level (Atman,Cardella, Turns, & Adams, 2005; Atman, Chimka, Bursic, & Nachtmann, 1999; Cross, 2001).Recent shifts in K-12 STEM standards (National Research Council, 2011) have instigateddiscussions of exactly what engineering content and methodologies belong in elementary andsecondary classrooms (Brophy, Klein, Portsmore, & Rogers, 2008; Lewis, 2005), and if theengineering design process is to be included in these standards, researchers must assess what K-12 teachers who will be teaching engineering understand about it, and how they incorporate theprocess into their lessons (Authors, 2005, 2010, 2012; Hsu, Purzer, & Cardella, 2011; Leonard,2004).This paper presents case studies of three elementary-school teachers (grades 1, 3, and 5) whoenacted an introductory engineering lesson that asked students to define engineering andcomplete a design challenge. Teachers engaged in a brief professional development sessionbefore the lesson, and prior to that, the teachers participated in pre-interviews that explored theirunderstanding and beliefs of engineering and its role in the elementary classroom. After thelesson enactment, teachers participated in post-interviews that reflected upon their practiceduring that lesson, and their resultant thoughts about teaching engineering. The professionaldevelopment, interviews, and classroom lessons were videotaped and transcribed, and themeswere identified using open coding (Merriam, 1998) and consolidated using the constantcomparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).Several themes of interest emerged across the three cases. Teachers employed a moreepistemologically complex definition of engineering while teaching than they expressed duringthe pre-interview, where the prevailing belief was that engineering was a “kind of science.”Teachers also emphasized the importance of planning in their classrooms, although this objectivewas met with varied success throughout the three grade-levels; younger students had troubleconnecting the constraints defined by the design challenge to the drawing or building of theirproduct. Teachers expressed that they valued students engaging in revision and iteration whendesigning and felt that these steps help to differentiate the lesson for students. However, uponimplementation, they were frustrated by the amount of classroom time needed by students toiterate and revise their designs. Testing of the product occurred naturally in the classroomwithout prompting, but teachers found it helpful to have a formal process of peer evaluation.This research has implications for developing training and support for teachers who are new toteaching engineering. It also contributes to the record of early elementary students engaged inengineering design, of which there are numerous more examples at the middle- and high-schoollevel. Future research into the teachers’ understanding and beliefs about the engineering designprocess will be examined as these teachers engage in more extensive professional developmentwith a larger cohort of teachers, and further curriculum development to create their ownengineering lessons in the following school year.Atman, C. J., Cardella, M., Turns, J., & Adams, R. (2005). Comparing freshman and senior engineering design processes: An in-depth follow-up study. Design Studies, 26(4), 325- 357.Atman, C. J., Chimka, J. R., Bursic, K. M., & Nachtmann, H. L. (1999). A comparison of freshman and senior engineering design processes. Design Studies, 20(2), 131-152.Authors. (2005).Authors. (2010).Authors. (2012).Brophy, S., Klein, S., Portsmore, M., & Rogers, C. (2008). Advancing engineering education in P-12 classrooms. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(3), 369-387.Cross, N. (2001). Designerly ways of knowing: Design discipline versus design science. Design Issues, 17(3), 49-55.Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.Hsu, M.-C., Purzer, S., & Cardella, M. (2011). Elementary teachers' views about teaching design, engineering, and technology. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research, 1(2), 31-39.Leonard, M. J. (2004). Toward epistemically authentic engineering design activities in the science classroom. Paper presented at the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Vacouver, B.C.Lewis, T. (2005). Coming to terms with engineering design as content. Journal of Techology Education, 16(2), 37-54.Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass Publishers.National Research Council. (2011). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Kendall, A., & Portsmore, M. D. (2013, June), Teachers' attention to student thinking during the engineering design process: A case study of three elementary classrooms Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.

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