Teaching Engineering: What NOT To Do

Someone once told me that the things you dislike most about other people are actually the things you dislike most in yourself.  I’m not a psychologist or anything (obvi), but I can say that from my own limited experience, I can see some truth in it. Some of my biggest “teacher pet peeves” are things that I have struggled with in the past, and one of those things? Teaching engineering.

If you’re familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards, you’re aware that the “Scientific Method” is a thing of the past and has been replaced by the concept of Science and Engineering Practices.  The key difference is that these practices don’t have to follow a linear progression — they can be incorporated at any stage of learning. While the “scientific method” was typically a one-and-done lab or project, the Science and Engineering Practices (henceforth SEPs) can – and should – be incorporated in some way into ALL of your lessons and activities. (If you aren’t sold on WHY, check out last week’s post!

What are the SEPs?

                         Teaching science and engineering practices should be a part of every class. Teaching engineering practices and science practices should be a part of every class.

Ok, so those are the SEPs, but that’s not what we are chatting about today. Today, we are looking at – basically – how NOT to teach the “engineering” part of the SEPs. By observing other teachers, administrators, curriculum creators, and so on and so forth, I’ve identified a few big “NO NO’s” when it comes to teaching engineering – and trust me, I did ALL of these things.  But just because you did them before doesn’t mean you should keep doing them, right? So stop. Stop them right now.

Three mistakes you might be making when teaching engineering - ok, actually, it's FOUR ways! This guide will tell you what NOT to do when it comes to engineering!

Way # 1 – NOT TEACHING Engineering

Ok, so this is actually like Way # 0 because it’s not actually a way at all… but a lot of teachers do this (again, myself included). I didn’t know how to teach engineering, I didn’t really like teaching engineering, and so I just didn’t. I ignored the engineering standards, I ignored the engineering SEPs, and I just skipped over all that. Oh, I had my excuses. “Engineering takes too much time.” “It’s too messy.” “It requires supplies I don’t have.” “It isn’t really a part of my curriculum.” (LIE!) But basically the gist was, “I don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to figure it out.”

Here’s the problem — your students are missing out.  YOU might not like teaching engineering. But THEY might like learning it. In fact they probably do.  And even more than that, your most difficult kids? Those are the ones who would probably LOVE an engineering activity, and they are the ones who need those positive experiences most. It has absolutely been my experience that the most “difficult kids” are the ones that excel at engineering challenges – they bring creativity, innovative thinking, determination, and enthusiasm, and their projects generally ROCK.

Way # 1 (The Real #1) – Using Engineering As A Filler

Been there, done that.  Engineering activities are always a filler, right? You need something to do before the classroom Halloween party or on that weird half day before Spring Break.  Engineering is perfect for that! Quick activity, fun and hands-on, and it keeps them busy and entertained on those days where you probably won’t get much work done anyway. Eeeeexcept that’s not showing our students what engineering is, why its valuable, and how it is completely intertwined with the study of science (and basically all other fields, too).

Engineering activities are fun, but they are more than that.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t incorporate engineering as a filler activity ever – I’m on board with you using it on those off-schedule days.  But that should not be the PRIMARY way you teach engineering. Or you’re going to find your students value it just as much as you do… (which is obviously not a lot).

Way # 2 Teaching Engineering As A Unit

I actually haven’t done this one, BUT I have fallen for the “Scientific Method Unit” early on in my career. And um, FAIL. Neither of those things should ever be a stand-alone unit.  When you do, you’re conveying to students that those things happen independent of all other things. That is simply NOT the case. I think this is why we have moved away from talking about the “scientific method” in favor of SEPs.  You’re not going to teach a whole unit on SEPs. You’re going to use them as they are intended, as PRACTICES that students PRACTICE throughout the year.

Engineering works the same way.  Engineering is not a unit in and of itself. The activities you engage your students on should not just stand alone with no context or reason.

I see this happen ALL THE TIME. I’ve gone to so many “engineering workshops” where students “build a parachute to hit a target.” Ok, great. Why?

Why? Why? WHY? WHY? WHY?!?

Why are we building parachutes? Why should I care? What’s the point?

Oh, and designing that parachute… I just use stuff? I just put things together? Is there a rhyme or reason to this activity? (Real Talk: There isn’t.)

And that’s NOT ENGINEERING! Engineers solve PROBLEMS – so if there’s not a problem, it’s just a fun craft.  And engineers use SCIENCE to solve PROBLEMS. So where’s the science?

When you present engineering as a stand-alone unit, you’re not tying it to the science that engineers use or the real-world problems that engineers are trying to solve.  You’re creating fun craft projects that maybe? will help students understand how the world works — but you haven’t set a real learning target there so who knows if you’ll hit it.

Way # 3 – Tack It On At The End

This is probably the most advanced way to fail at teaching engineering.  Teachers (again, like me!) who simply “tack it on at the end” have at least incorporated engineering, woven it into their curriculum, and connected it to actual content.  So for all that, I do say YAY! Kudos! You’re totally on the right track, and you’re probably way more advanced than most! You are engaging your students in engineering projects and giving them real-world problems to solve related to the content.  This is PROGRESS.

But how can you take it further? Well, right now, you’re squishing all of those SEPs into a culminating project without (theoretically) exposing students to the SEPs – and giving them time to practice them – throughout your unit.  You’re assessing the SEPs through the project without teaching them during the instruction. Uh oh!

Just like our science content, the SEPs must be directly taught if we are to expect students to learn them.  Obviously, they aren’t going to be the focus of EVERY activity. But we should be embedding activities into our curriculum that put the SEPs in the foreground, while allowing them a place in the background of other activities.


A Better Way: Teaching Engineering Throughout Your Unit

I just finished a unit for my middle school life science curriculum about biomes.  The core content of the unit is biomes, biotic and abiotic factors, and how organisms depend on abiotic factors for survival, growth, and reproduction.  The unit addresses the crosscutting concepts of cause and effect relationships and systems/system models.  It also incorporates the SEPs of analyzing and interpreting data and designing models.  Some of the activities in this unit focused on the content — learning about the biomes and figuring out what abiotic and biotic factors are.  These activities included some data — graphs that shows temperature and precipitation, maps of the biomes, etc.  But the focus of these activities was the content.

On the other hand, I also included activities where students analyzed data to understand the relationships between abiotic and biotic factors.  The focus here was on analyzing data, because – to be honest – I don’t care that students know that mosquitos grow faster when the temperature of their pond increases.  My goal was for students to be able to interpret the data and draw conclusions from it. Yes, I wanted them to come to that conclusion, because that showed that they appropriately demonstrated the practice… buuuuut the conclusion itself was not something I really cared that they remembered.  When it came time to assess their learning, the mosquito development and water temperature case study was just one of SEVERAL examples they could have used in their discussion of the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors.

See what I mean? I incorporated SEPs (analyzing data) into both activities, but it was clearly in the background of the first and in the foreground of the second.  In the same way, you can incorporate the engineering SEPs into your daily lessons so that students are building the skills well before they are asked to complete an entire engineering project.

So now what?

So now that we’ve figured out what NOT to do — what DO you do!? I’m going to dive deeper into this subject over the next few weeks to give you some practical tips, tricks, and resources to integrate engineering into your curriculum this year.

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