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Engineering in K–12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects
focus of grants by federal agencies, presidential commissions, initiatives by professional organizations, and studies by think tanks. Improving technology education (the “T” in STEM), however, has received significantly less attention.
By contrast, almost no attention has been paid—at least on the national level—to the issue of engineering education (the “E” in STEM) in grades K–12. The goal of this report is to begin to fill that gap by providing an overview of the current state of K–12 engineering education in the United States and a discussion of what we must do in the coming years to make engineering a more effective component of the STEM equation.
CURRENT K–12 STEM EDUCATION
The STEM acronym is a relatively recent innovation (Cavanagh and Trotter, 2008). Until 2001, the common shorthand was SMET, science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was the first to begin referring to this collection of subjects as STEM, reflecting a change in philosophy. Up to that point, NSF’s K–12 programs had targeted mostly high-achieving students who were the most likely to pursue careers in science, mathematics, and engineering. In the past decade, however, the agency has focused more resources on broad-based programs to appeal to the entire student population.
The STEM acronym has since become ubiquitous, which might lead one to conclude that the four subjects (Box 1-1) represent a well connected system of learning. However, in reality, in most elementary and secondary schools, STEM subjects are taught with little or no connection among them. Students learn mathematics in one classroom, science in another, and technology and engineering—if they learn them at all—in yet other classrooms.
Science and Mathematics
Science and mathematics are the two STEM components with the longest histories in K–12 education. Both subjects have standards, curricula, and assessments, large numbers of textbooks and other teaching materials, and established courses of teacher education and professional development. Every student in every school in the country is expected to have a minimum level of proficiency in science and mathematics by the end of high school.
More important in the context of this report, student proficiency in both science and mathematics is widely recognized as important to individual