Sneha Tharayil PhD student University of Texas at Austin

Challenges of Designing a Pre-College Engineering Curriculum Unit

PostedThursday, March 2, 2017 at 10:47 AM

When I first joined LinkEngineering, I had just left my teaching job as a middle school science teacher at a Catholic school in Chatsworth, CA, and was getting ready to enter into UT-Austin’s STEM Education PhD program in the hopes of better understanding how to structure and develop a quality engineering education for our pre-college youth. During this time, I was reflecting on my teaching practice, particularly the few engineering design projects I had my students do. To give a sense of what these projects were like, they included things like: re-engineering a shoe for improved performance in a particular sport, designing earthquake-safe buildings, and developing concepts for a bio-inspired robot. At the time I was teaching and implementing these projects, I had very little exposure to engineering-education literature and research, and was really just trying out some intuitive ideas of what could be constituted as design projects in the hopes of making the science content I was teaching my students more engaging, relevant, and applicable (all qualities I myself had attributed to engineering). However at the same time, I also remember feeling very unsure about my own ability to guide an engineering project for my students, largely because I wasn’t an engineer, nor had I studied engineering in any capacity! I had only merely marveled at the feats of engineering in our society. I especially had very little idea, if any at all, about how to test students’ design concepts and assess their engineering designs.

Enter LinkEngineering. Or rather, I entered the LinkEngineering community. I saw the website as the long-desired engineering-educator community I was desperately in want of while I was teaching. I thus jumped at the opportunity to reflect and share on the projects I tried with my students. I particularly wrote about the athletic shoe-design project I did with my 8th-graders and reached out to the LE community to provide me feedback about it and how to develop a fair test for students’ prototypes. In other words, I wanted to know how we could test whether a shoe was a good shoe for the purposes for which it was designed. I was very excited when I received a message from Jennifer Love, a former performance engineer at Reebok and current faculty member at Northeastern University, extending an offer to collaborate with me on developing this lesson and soon we were Skyping about developing this lesson.

Today, this shoe-design lesson has evolved from being the sort-of cursory one-off design challenge it originally was as I first presented it on LinkEngineering to a multi-unit engineering design unit that integrates multiple STEM content areas, and that addresses multiple content standards from: the NGSS; ITEEA; and Texas’ Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards. What I’m most enthused and excited about with the direction of our project is that the design challenge, and the unit, has now been reimagined into a service-learning context. As opposed to originally just being a challenge to design an athletic shoe for a general, hypothetical client, the design challenge now requires students to design a shoe for a real client with specific challenges that may require a custom-made shoe. I will not expound further on the specifics of the design challenge, as I would much prefer to have the unit speak for itself if and when it is published. However, I would like to briefly discuss two points in relation to this curriculum development process: 1) The decision to structure the design challenge into a service-learning context and 2) The notion of engineering teacher identity in curriculum development.

To address the first of these, the decision to turn this unit into a service-learning unit was actually informed by some engineering education research literature I was (and still am) reading and exploring on ways to broaden access to engineering education and encourage more diverse populations into the engineering community. I was particularly struck by the literature which commented on debunking the myth that engineering is a socially-sterile/apathetic profession [in case you are curious, I am happy to direct you to some specific references which discuss this theme, feel free to contact me directly for those]. That is, I had been encountering literature, including the NAE’s own Changing the Conversation, which essentially found that the wider general public perceived engineers and the engineering as being “not of this world,” as it were, or socially unconcerned, and having little or distant impact in society. In many ways, engineers and engineering appears to be hidden and in a bubble in the public mind’s eye. Of course, these perceptions could not be further from the truth. Nevertheless, the fact that this perception exists demands more explicit demonstration that engineering is indeed a socially-immersed and socially-concerned endeavor and profession. Furthermore, other literature showed that service-oriented contexts and curriculum were often contexts in which women and underrepresented minority groups felt more engaged and encouraged into the engineering profession. All this coupled with the abundance of education literature emphasizing the importance of relevant and authentic curriculum, it seemed like the service-learning pedagogy was a compelling and fitting strategy to engage young learners in engineering design.

All that said though, developing a pre-college service-learning engineering curriculum proved to be more challenging than I first assumed it would be. For example, one of the things I struggled most with (and what I think might be the most important consideration in developing this type of unit) is how to frame a design challenge that is: developmentally appropriate; relevant and authentic; and that will encourage students to progress far enough through the engineering design process successfully so that they actually have a functioning product at the end that can be used by the community partners with whom they are working and attempting to help. The fact that in a service-learning project, there usually is a real client/community partner for whom the design project aims, may somewhat necessitate that students produce a functioning design at the end. Thus, the challenge for teachers here then is how to scaffold students toward this goal and structure feasible design challenges. I’m still exploring this aspect of pre-college service-learning engineering curriculum, so if anyone has any ideas or other thoughts about pre-college service-learning engineering curriculum, I would be more than glad to connect and discuss this topic further! In the meantime, I have delved a little deeper into looking at this curriculum-development decision further as well as other decisional spectra involved in designing pre-college service-learning engineering curriculum, and if accepted, I hope to be presenting on this topic at the upcoming national American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference this June in Columbus, OH.

More next week...

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  • Jennifer  Pauli

    Posted 6 months and 4 days ago

    That's a very interesting idea. I really like how well you have written this article. I am also good at writing essays, thanks to the information I found at There are many useful articles that cover important issues in education. If you are not familiar with the way essay writing is done, you can find out exactly what are the best essay writing solutions that can help you make your essay stand out from the audience.
  • Linda  Kekelis

    Posted 5 years and 3 months ago

    I love the idea that your shoe design challenge has a service-learning component. It takes the focus away from competing with others to working on an authentic problem and improving upon one’s own work. I know that for many girls this will help inspire and make a connection to their interests in making the world a better place. I imagine that it must be interesting and challenging at times to support kids in this work especially when you wonder if their design ideas will really work for their client. I look forward to learning more and reading about how you facilitate students working through the engineer design process.
    • Sneha  Tharayil

      Posted 5 years and 3 months ago

      Linda, thank you so much! Yes, part of the reason I'm interested in exploring more about service-learning engineering education in the pre-college setting is because I have come across literature that has identified community-service/engagement, and socially-oriented curriculum as being factors that motivate and interest women in engineering. I think this is also important because I think the wider public sees engineering as a somewhat socially-indifferent or socially-distanced profession, however this is of course not true, as engineering makes such a big impact on society! That's why I think the service-learning pedagogy makes for a compelling context to teach engineering to our youth. And yes, I definitely think negotiating the utility of student design ideas for their client will be a challenge. I haven't quite had a chance to implement a service-learning design challenge in a classroom setting yet, but it's certainly something I hope to explore in the near future.

      Thank you again for your comment!