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The Impact of Engineering-Based Science Instruction on Science Content Understanding

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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 Education Research in K-12

Tagged Divisions

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering and Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1468.1 - 22.1468.9



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Paper Authors

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Kristen B. Wendell Tufts University


Merredith D. Portsmore Tufts University

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Merredith Portsmore is a Research Assistant Professor in Education at Tufts University as well as the Director of Outreach Programs for Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. Merredith has the unique honor of being a “Quadruple Jumbo” having received all her four of her degrees from Tufts (B.A. English, B.S. Mechanical Engineering, M.A. Education, Ph.D. in Engineering Education). Her research interests focus on how children engage in constructing solutions to engineering design problems. Her outreach work focuses on creating resources for K-12 educators to support engineering education in the classroom. She is also the founder of STOMP (, and

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Christopher George Wright University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Chris Rogers Tufts University

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Chris got all three of his degrees at Stanford University, where he worked with John Eaton on his thesis looking at particle motion in a boundary layer flow. From Stanford, he went to Tufts as a faculty member, where he has been for the last million years, with a few exceptions. His first sabbatical was spent at Harvard and a local kindergarten looking at methods of teaching engineering. He spent half a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship looking at 3D reconstruction of flame fronts to estimate heat fluxes. In 2002 - 2003, he was at Princeton as the Kenan Professor of Distinguished Teaching where he played with underwater robots, wind tunnels, and LEGO bricks. In 2006 - 2007, he spent the year at ETH in Zurich playing with very very small robots and measuring the lift force on a fruit fly. He received the 2003 NSF Director’s Distinguished Teaching Scholar Award for excellence in both teaching and research. Chris is involved in several different research areas: particle-laden flows (a continuation of his thesis), telerobotics and controls, slurry flows in chemical-mechanical planarization, the engineering of musical instruments, measuring flame shapes of couch fires, measuring fruit-fly locomotion, and in elementary school engineering education. His work has been funded by numerous government organizations and corporations, including the NSF, NASA, Intel, Boeing, Cabot, Steinway, Selmer, National Instruments, Raytheon, Fulbright, and the LEGO Corporation. His work in particle-laden flows led to the opportunity to fly aboard the NASA Zero-G experimental aircraft. He has flown over 700 parabolas without getting sick.

Chris also has a strong commitment to teaching, and at Tufts has started a number of new directions, including learning robotics with LEGO bricks and learning manufacturing by building musical instruments. He was awarded the Carnegie Professor of the Year in Massachusetts in 1998 and is currently the Director of the Center for Engineering Education Outreach ( His teaching work extends to the elementary school, where he talks with over 1,000 teachers around the world every year on ways of bringing engineering into the younger grades. He has worked with LEGO to develop ROBOLAB, a robotic approach to learning science and math. ROBOLAB has already gone into over 50,000 schools worldwide and has been translated into 15 languages. He has been invited to speak on engineering education in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the U.K., and in the U.S. He works in various classrooms once a week, although he has been banned from recess for making too much noise.

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Linda Jarvin Tufts University

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Linda Jarvin is a research professor in Tufts University's department of education, and director of its Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. She received her Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Paris V (France) and her postdoctoral training at Yale University.

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Amber Kendall Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, Tufts University

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The impact of engineering-based science instruction on science content understanding This paper presents our ongoing study of the impact of using engineering-based scienceinstruction on elementary students’ science content understanding and attitudes. In 2008/2009,fourteen third- and fourth-grade teachers from six urban public schools in the northeasternUnited States implemented at least one of our four engineering design-based science units. Eachof the four curriculum units poses an overarching engineering design challenge as a motivator forscience investigations, uses interlocking construction (LEGOTM) elements for prototyping,requires approximately 12 hours of instructional time, and addresses a particular science domain(animal adaptations, simple machines, material properties, or sound). The learning objectives foreach unit are aligned with local and national standards of science learning. Participatingintervention teachers attended a 30-hour workshop on the content and pedagogy of these units. Data collection for this study involved pre and post paper-and-pencil science content testsas well as attitudinal surveys. In addition to the thirteen intervention classrooms, these pre-posttests and surveys were also administered in twelve comparison classrooms (from six public andtwo private schools) of the same grade levels and in the same geographical area. Comparisonclassrooms conducted science instruction on the same topics (animal adaptations, simplemachines, material properties, or sound) but did not involve LEGO engineering design activities. Analysis of the 2008/2009 school year science content test scores using repeated-measures ANOVA, with curriculum treatment (engineering-based vs. comparison) as thebetween-subjects factor, and pre- and post-test score as the within-subjects factor found asignificant interaction between treatment group and time of test, F(1, 640) = 23.276, p < .001;the increase in science content score from pre-to post-test was much greater for the engineering-based students than for the comparison students. This means that although the engineering-basedstudents began the units with less science content knowledge than the comparison students, atunit completion they had equivalent science content knowledge, as measured by paper-and-pencil tests. Furthermore, analysis of the attitudinal surveys revealed that the engineering-basedstudents had positive attitudes toward science and engineering (nengineering = 232; ncompare = 228).Students in the engineering-based science classrooms and comparison classrooms showed nosignificant differences in their agreement with the statement “I am good at science” (p=0.80) orwith the statement “I can use what I learn in science class in my life” (p=0.32). However, theengineering-based students did show significantly stronger agreement with the statement “I feelcreative during science class” than did the comparison students (p<0.05). The findings are supportive of the usefulness of engineering-based science instruction asan effective and engaging method of science education. This paper will share additionalconclusion and implications from 2008/2009 data analysis as well as results from the analysis ofthe 2009/2010 data that is being conducted during Fall/Winter 2010.

Wendell, K. B., & Portsmore, M. D., & Wright, C. G., & Rogers, C., & Jarvin, L., & Kendall, A. (2011, June), The Impact of Engineering-Based Science Instruction on Science Content Understanding Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18768

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