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What is Engineering? A Comparative Case Study of Elementary Students’ Conceptions of Engineering Across STEM and Non-STEM Schools

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Pre-college Engineering Education Division Technical Session 3

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Jeanna R. Wieselmann Southern Methodist University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Jeanna R. Wieselmann is a Research Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. Her research focuses on gender equity in STEM and maintaining elementary girls' interest in STEM through both in-school and out-of-school experiences. Dr. Wieselmann's research has explored student participation patterns in small group STEM activities. She is interested in STEM schools, integrated STEM curriculum development, and teacher professional development to support gender-equitable teaching practices.

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Elizabeth A. Ring-Whalen St. Catherine University

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Elizabeth A. Ring-Whalen is an Assistant Professor of Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. She holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction - STEM Education from the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on STEM education and what this looks like in PreK-12 classrooms and explores teachers’ beliefs of integrated STEM as well as how these beliefs influence teachers’ practices and student achievement in the classroom. Alongside this research, she has worked to explore the attitudes and beliefs teachers hold about cultural diversity and teaching culturally diverse students. Past and current projects include designing and teaching undergraduate and graduate-level coursework intended to help teachers develop effective science teaching practices and culturally relevant pedagogy for their classrooms, mentoring pre-service science teachers, working with in-service science teachers to develop and implement integrated STEM curricula, leading STEM integration professional development for in-service science teachers, working with administration and teachers to develop STEM programming in their schools, and developing a K-12 STEM observation protocol that can be used in a variety of educational contexts through an online platform.

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Gillian Roehrig University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Roehrig is a professor of STEM Education at the University of Minnesota. Her research explores issues of professional development for K-12 science teachers, with a focus on beginning teachers and implementation of integrated STEM learning environments. She has received over $30 million in federal and state grants and published over 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. She is a former board member of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching and past president of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

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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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