Virtual On line
June 22, 2020
June 22, 2020
June 26, 2021
Pre-College Engineering Education
National policy documents in the U.S. have called for an increase in the amount and quality of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education being offered to students, including the development of schools identified specifically as STEM schools. However, there are challenges to implementing STEM in schools, including the lack of a cohesive understanding of what STEM instruction should include and the need for teachers who may have no training in engineering to teach engineering to their students. Teachers have varied conceptions of engineering that are enacted in their classrooms in varying ways, yet little research has explored students’ conceptions of engineering. This study fills a gap in the literature to address the following research questions: 1. How do elementary students conceptualize engineering? 2. How, if at all, do elementary students’ conceptions of engineering vary based on whether they attend a STEM-focused school or a school without an explicit STEM focus?
Using a comparative case study design, this work used semi-structured interviews to examine students’ understanding of engineering. Participants were 125 students in fifth grade (10-11 years old) at four different elementary schools within the same district in the Midwestern U.S. One of the elementary schools had been a STEM-designated school for the five years prior to this study. The other three elementary schools did not have a current STEM designation but were planning to convert to STEM schools in the coming years. Approximately 20 hours of audio data were transcribed and analyzed using coding methods originating from grounded theory. Cross case analysis between students from the STEM school (n=40 students) and the three non-STEM schools (n=85 students) was conducted to identify similarities and differences between students’ conceptions across schools.
Findings suggest that elementary students have limited views of engineering. For example, students at all four schools equated engineering with building and fixing. Although they did not have fully articulated views of engineering, students believed engineering is important for improving things in the world and in preparing them for further education and careers. They viewed engineering positively, discussing opportunities for hands-on activities, choice, and creativity as appealing to them despite the potential for challenges and frustrations associated with engineering.
Despite some commonalities in students’ conceptions of engineering across the four schools, differences between the STEM-focused and non-STEM-focused schools were also apparent. For example, students attending the STEM school discussed grit and perseverance as key to success in engineering and described opportunities to engineer during the school day; in contrast, those students attending non-STEM schools saw their opportunities to engineer primarily outside of school with the support of family members.
Findings from this study suggest that elementary students require support in developing more nuanced engineering conceptions. In this district, attending a STEM school influenced students’ conceptions of engineering. Although students who attended the STEM school still demonstrated areas where their conceptions of engineering could be more fully developed, they had a broader understanding of engineering and saw it as relevant to their lives and the world in more ways.
Wieselmann, J. R., & Ring-Whalen, E. A., & Roehrig, G. (2020, June), What is Engineering? A Comparative Case Study of Elementary Students’ Conceptions of Engineering Across STEM and Non-STEM Schools Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35501
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