Engineering & Technology for All?

Kim Kastens
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published Jul 15, 2010
In my most recent post, I asked whether modern education was providing adequate on-ramps into science-related careers for young people whose talents lie in making things, building things, and fixing things. In this context, it is interesting to take a look at the recently released "Framework for Science Education" from the Board on Science Education of National Academies. This new framework organizes disciplinary content into four domains. Three are familiar from the 1996 standards : Physical Sciences, Earth & Space Sciences, and Life Sciences. But the fourth domain is new: "Engineering & Technology."

I think that the addition of Engineering & Technology to the standards is a bold and interesting move. At a time when technology has such potential for both positive and negative impacts on humanity and on the planet, purposeful scrutiny of engineering and technology by all students throughout their school years is a valuable addition to the educational agenda. Also the prospect of solving problems (the essence of engineering) appeals to a different subset of the student population than the prospect of answering unanswered questions (the essence of science), so this addition has the possibility of greatly increasing the fraction of the student body who find science to be interesting and worth considering as a career path. Technology impacts every person's life in modern society, and so widespread familiarity with both the power and potential drawbacks of technology is important to increase the chances of wise decision-making, at both the individual and collective level.

That said, I felt that the engineering and technology sections of the framework were less mature than the other sections. This isn't so surprising, given the years-long head start that the other sections have. I felt that the prototype learning progressions in Engineering and Technology were interesting, but too abstract and theoretical, more suitable for someone on a career track where they would be writing reports about technology and its impact on society rather than actually creating and using technology. For example: "Manual controls are those where the user sets and maintains the position of the controller while automatic controls can be set or programmed and then continue to do the job without human intervention, or even can be designed to over-ride human action." The standards-development process is still young, and there is plenty of opportunity to flesh out a more concrete, hands-on, building/making/fixing aspect of the engineering/technology domain.

The framework doesn't specify how the engineering and technology domain would interact with the three science domains. One possibility that occurs to me would be to identify some categories of human problems or challenges and explore how technology/engineering contributes to solving them: for example, providing energy, providing food, providing fresh water, providing shelter, organizing and accessing information, etc. All organisms face these same challenges, which provides a link to life sciences. The limits of what is possible in addressing these challenges are set by constraints from physical sciences (e.g. conservation of energy) and earth sciences (e.g. finite fresh water on the planet.)

The Framework is available online and there is a thoughtful survey inviting your comments. The public comment period runs through August 2.




Engineering & Technology for All? --Discussion  

Kim,

What did you think of the Core Ideas in Earth Science? It seemed like they pretty badly needed expanding, although I loved the four strands in both Science and Engineering and how they apply to each other.

John

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Hi John,

I thought the Core Ideas in Earth Science were good choices, as far as they went. The document was put forth as a "Framework," with the intention that it would be fleshed out in future rounds of effort, so I think there is reason for optimism.

I was interested to note that human/environment interactions are more prominent in the new Framework than they were in the old NSES standards. This is part of a trend: the Earth Science Literacy Initiative (http://www.earthscienceliteracy.org/) has 3 out 9 Big Ideas centered around human/earth interactions, and the standards revision process in some states is moving in that direction as well. I blogged about the shifting focus of New Jersey's science ed standards here: http://serc.carleton.edu/earthandmind/posts/newjerseystanda.html

I see this national trend as a good development, given the many problems concerning energy, water, climate, biodiversity, etc. that will loom large in the lives of today's children. But there is a fine line to balance between pushing an advocacy agenda on a captive audience of school kids and equipping them with the tools and knowledge and context and motivation to contribute to the survival of human civilization on a finite planet. I don't think that we, as a profession, have figured out yet how best to walk this line.

Kim

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