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Volume 12 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2010

Guest Editorial: Child Developmental Perspectives in Engineering Education

Demetra Evangelou

Why STEM Now?

Engineering and Civilization

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In the modern world, man-made things pervade our daily lives with such frequency and importance that our very capacity to notice them becomes impaired, if not numbed. We simply become habituated to their presence. For the most part, the machines and gadgets that surround us become like props in the theater of life—prominent only when the lights of perception and attention are turned toward them. 

Likewise, engineering, the scientific discipline preparing us to produce man-made things, is virtually unnoticed in our educational process; it is present at the college level but largely absent from schooling prior to that time. Furthermore, it seems to be falling out of favor as a choice among college students. I will argue here that this fact may have important implications for the future of our technological civilization.

For most of human history, preparing for engineering was done through apprenticing in a process that was privileged and secretive. After all, engineering was really military engineering—technical knowledge to serve the needs of nations at war. Ironically, it took a great military genius, Napoleon, to recognize the importance of a new kind of engineering, not military but civilian—for designing and building infrastructure, roads, and schools and hospitals and civil administration buildings. He called it “civil engineering.” Since Napoleon’s time, new branches of engineering emerged, including mechanical, electrical, material, chemical, and nuclear engineering.

Napoleon was also instrumental in determining how civil engineers were to be educated. His approach was elitist but simple. Unlike the British, who thought that engineers were to be prepared through apprenticeships (practical training), the French selected their best middle school students through rigorous exams and subjected them to even more rigorous training in mathematics, physics, mechanics, the basic disciplines of science. Eighteenth-century America, and most of the industrial world since, adopted the French perspective that rigorous scientific training makes fine engineers. 

Does such an approach result in good engineers? We would all agree that over 200 years of evidence validates the thesis that educating students in rigorous scientific disciplines (at the college level) produces fine engineers. But what about motivation? How do we motivate and prime them for a rigorous education in engineering? Pre-college education has a big role to play in motivation and preparation. 

Could it be that the alternative view, the British apprenticing approach, may be the way to invigorate interest among young people in engineering?

Can we and should we teach pre-design, fabrication, structural, and functional concepts at the preschool, middle, or high school levels?

Contemporary Engineering Education

My colleagues and I at Purdue are exploring these concepts in the young discipline of engineering education, and early evidence points to interesting possibilities. For example, maybe trying a form of apprenticing early on, as early as preschool, when incipient relations with objects are formed, can shed light on how to develop customized early engineering approaches—informing curriculum and practice with specifics related to gender, age, and individual characteristics.  

What makes children like machines (given that their motoric abilities that permit them to manipulate material aspects of the environment develop before their linguistic competence is established)? What makes machines central to the development of the species? What comes first—to make or to name? (The child at a very young age may be capable of stacking blocks or poking objects with a stick—making/acting—well before she or he is able to name the block or the stick.) Such questions are within the purview of engineering education. 

The quality of engineering students, the role of underrepresented groups, the diminishing numbers of students who pursue engineering, all appear to have roots in early educational experiences.

By the time young minds come to universities, they have fairly well-established likes and dislikes related to engineering. Some of this can be attributed to a pop culture frenetically obsessed with fantasy and entertainment. Some other attitudes toward engineering can be attributed to family influences. And yet a lot of it seems to boil down to what happened in early schooling, during which colorful developmental windows may (or may not) open for a young mind to peek through into the human-made world.

It is surprising how little is understood about early learning experiences. And even more surprising is how disconnected they appear to be from children’s entire formal education experience.

Efforts currently under way to increase awareness that reform in engineering education should be directed at the entire educational experience are meeting various levels of success. Ongoing discussions within public, professional, and academic settings, conferences, journals, etc., support the idea that a comprehensive approach to reform is needed across the span of formal education.

In our discussions on engineering education and school-based engineering, my colleagues and I seek to identify relevant theoretical and empirical considerations that guide school-based practices at each school level. Bridging the gap between what we know about how students learn and grow and how we teach is of great practical importance.

Those who seek a balance in engineering education between apprenticing and rigorous scientific training—a balance that can foster both motivation and competence—may find it helpful to understand previously successful systemwide reforms in education (e.g., the call to transform classrooms from isolated normative environments to inclusive ones capable of accommodating a variety of students’ learning needs). The success of such reforms may inform our efforts to identify pathways toward more widespread acceptance of a holistic perspective in engineering education.

While understanding the context and mechanism for successful implementation of engineering education along the continuum from PreK through university is important, special attention is warranted during the early years based on the following considerations:

Early experiences are formative experiences, and precursors to engineering thinking are rooted in these experiences. The plethora of empirical data ascertains that early childhood education, from preschool to about third grade, constitutes a distinct period of life during which development and education are highly interactive. Early exposure to the wrong experiences can result in damaged dispositions toward some of the qualities and characteristics that are perceived as desirable from an engineering perspective. We must therefore construct and carry out carefully designed studies that inform us about the long-term effects of engineering-related early experiences on subsequent school behaviors and academic achievement.

Interactions between environment and organism, student and schooling, are complex, and they are likely to include early engineering thinking. If early interactions between child and environment are likely to be formative experiences for the child, and if those experiences are likely to include engineering thinking, and if education can affect development, then the design and integration of comprehensive early engineering curricula should be explored. Early childhood education has in the past benefited from large comprehensive studies designed to assess the effects of particular approaches to early childhood education on the development and learning of children from groups considered “at risk.” These intervention studies such as the Head Start studies of the 1960s, despite their methodological limitations, have pointed to significant effects resulting from the various interventions. Similar studies in the future might examine the effects of interventions involving engineering curricula.

While the question of the nature of early engineering curricula is an empirical one, our understanding of some of the principles involved is sufficiently developed to permit the following recommendations. These suggestions are derived from a learner-centered constructivist perspective, assuming that learning in school results from the learner’s self-initiated, adult-supported inquiry in a carefully planned and appropriately designed environment with structural and process characteristics that promote such inquiry.

The following recommendations are based on key learning principles:

Integration of engineering education in the PreK-12 educational system will require extensive documentation of current practices and identification of points of potential intervention.

Early childhood education as the beginning segment of the educational continuum presents its own complex sets of challenges. Understanding how and where early engineering learning originates could help us produce better-trained engineers and reproduce the engineering know-how across generations.

Looking Ahead

The current issue of Early Childhood Research & Practice attempts to pose questions and point to some of the possible answers regarding engineering education and STEM education in general. In the work presented here, we hope to find opportunities for curriculum rejuvenation, for empirical research expansion, and for enlivening the early childhood classroom. In doing so, we may be joining an engineering and education revolution not seen since the times of Napoleon—a revolution that may open a whole new world of lifelong learning about exploration and design.