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Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects
major learning activities that involve designing, making, and testing model structures or vehicles (e.g., towers, bridges, cars, rockets, airplanes, boats). Other curricula feature lessons and learning activities that capitalize on the knowledge and experience of both male and female students. For instance, in the “Design and Discovery” curriculum, engineering concepts and skills are applied to designing paper clips, improving the caps on tubes of toothpaste, and analyzing bicycle systems. “City Technology” introduces engineering principles in conjunction with testing the design and strength of shopping bags, designing packages, making maps, establishing classroom procedures, analyzing pump dispensers, and building shelves. In the interest of inclusiveness, the “Infinity Project” deliberately focuses on technologies likely to be found in a high school student’s backpack (e.g., digital music players, digital camera, cell phone, etc.). Activities in “Designing for Tomorrow” involve the reverse engineering of simple kitchen devices and training cups for small children.
We were interested not just in the implicit or explicit messages conveyed through these curricula, but also in the diversity, or lack of diversity, in the student populations that used these materials. The committee was particularly interested in how many girls and underrepresented minorities had an opportunity to participate. Unfortunately, only one of the curriculum projects we reviewed in depth collects demographic data on student participation.
A program evaluation of PLTW for the 2006–2007 school year showed that the number of African American and Hispanic students in schools that used this curriculum was proportional to the populations in the states in which the schools were located (Walcerz, 2007). However, African American students were slightly underrepresented in PLTW classrooms compared with their numbers in most PLTW schools. Girls were dramatically underrepresented throughout the program; they comprised just 17 percent of all PLTW students that school year.
The number for girls cited above is similar to the percentage of entry-level female college engineering students (NSF, 2005) but is well below the proportion of females in the overall U.S. population, which is slightly more than 50 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). PTLW is taking steps to increase the program’s appeal to women and underrepresented minorities, such as participating in an NSF-funded Engineering Equity Extension Service project5 and partnering with the National Action Council for Minorities in