Sneha Tharayil PhD student University of Texas at Austin

Developing an Engineering Educator Identity

PostedThursday, March 9, 2017 at 10:37 AM

Last week, in part one of this blog post, I wrote about one of the challenges of designing a pre-college engineering unit, particularly a service-learning one. Today, I’d like to focus on another challenge that emerged and still exists as I continue developing this shoe-design unit. However, this challenge is somewhat more personal in nature: developing an engineering educator identity and a sense of self-efficacy in planning/teaching engineering curriculum.

I intentionally recounted in last week’s blog post the frame-of-mind and bit of life history that eventually led me to where I am in this project to both provide context and, more importantly, to illustrate my developing engineering educator identity. This notion of engineering educator identity is a particularly unique and important issue in current discussions of pre-college engineering education. That is, it is important that teachers develop a sense that they are “engineering educators.” Indeed, the NAE’s 2014 report, STEM Integration in K-12 Education agrees, citing research that shows that teacher self-efficacy is one of the biggest determinants of teacher effectiveness. Having little engineering background at all myself, I was often (and still sometimes am) dubious about my ability and my confidence to both teach and design engineering curriculum. However, I am not alone in this feeling, as the NAE (2014) reports that only between 4 -7% percent of K-12 teachers feel prepared to teach engineering. This lack of teacher confidence as an engineering educator may be one of the biggest obstacles in implementing engineering curriculum at the K-12 level because a teachers’ lack of confidence can increase their reluctance to attempting to teach engineering curriculum (NAE, 2014).

While all this may not be terribly surprising, coming to and accepting an engineering educator identity is often more complex than just saying “I am an engineering educator” out loud (though, I’m sure that’s a start). This process raises questions as to who should be teaching engineering and how should we equip and prepare teachers to confidently teach engineering?  Developing a professional learning community with other individuals with a variety of experiences and expertise are of insurmountable value, and having resources and forums like LinkEngineering are a big step toward that.

In my own journey, especially in this curriculum development project, three experiences have helped me further acquire a stronger engineering educator identity: 1) having an engineer mentor and resource in Jennifer Love to work with and run ideas by, 2) taking time to understand the goals of K-12 engineering education, and 3) immersing myself in engineering education literature and research to ground myself in pedagogical theory and best practices. On the first of these, it should go without saying that having mentors who are engineers or former engineers allows me to develop my content knowledge, even if peripherally. Being able to discuss engineering concepts freely as a novice and learn from these conversations has certainly improved my confidence, if for no other reason than to help me figure out what questions to ask. On the second point, understanding the goals of K-12 engineering education has been helpful because it helps put the scope of this endeavor in perspective but also reminds me of the importance of engineering education. It instills a sense of urgency to improve STEM education, particularly because there is much to be gained for our students from an engineering education, whether or not they pursue engineering as a career. I find the many reports by the NAE to be particularly instructive in familiarizing myself with this literature. On the point of literature, while pre-college engineering education research is still relatively new, it is nevertheless growing very quickly the field continues to burgeon with theories on best practice and expounding on issues like this as well as others. Research at its core is another form of professional community which allows us to tease out the struggles which confront us and help us improve practice. However, I am aware that sometimes accessing research journals can be a bit of a task because many of them are not open to the public, but one of my favorites and one of the leading journals in pre-college engineering education is the Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (JPEER), which is openly accessible.

All that said, while I am no longer in the classroom, this issue of engineering educator identity and self-efficacy is nevertheless still a pertinent one to me as I continue my pursuit for a PhD in STEM education, largely because I still contend with this issue as I focus my own research endeavors in engineering education. I still struggle with doubts about my own lack of formal engineering training, though at the same time, I also wonder whether that is truly a requirement or more of a self-imposed, perceived one. Furthermore, through my doctoral studies, I hope to contribute to the development of engineering education. Toward this aim, I am also deeply interested in to how to help other teachers who have been in a similar place as me overcome the struggle of underdeveloped engineering educator identities and sense of self-efficacy, so this is still something I am always hoping to discuss with others. On that note, I am curious to know what others in the LinkEngineering community think about this issue: 1) Have others struggled with developing an engineering educator identity (if you feel comfortable sharing)? 2) How might we better support K-12 teachers in developing this identity?


National Academy of Engineering, National Research Council, & Committee on Integrated STEM Education. (2014). STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research. (M. Honey, G. Pearson, & H. Schweingruber, Eds.). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Retrieved from

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  • Johannes  Strobel

    Posted 4 years and 9 months ago

    thank you for sharing your story and the questions which stay with you even when no longer in the classroom - these persistent questions make sometimes the best ones. In my own development as an engineer educator, I found it equally daunting to think about all the things to integrate, consider and "know" for being able to feel myself comfortable calling myself an engineering educator and at the time knowing that engineering educator is something new , not as well defined. I loved that my work can actually define what that means and how I embody engineering and mentor students is a practice example.


    PS: And thank you for the shout-out to J-PEER. It has been one of my most rewarding experiences founding J-PEER.
    • Sneha  Tharayil

      Posted 4 years and 8 months ago

      Dr. Strobel,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your own insights into developing an engineering educator identity! I think you bring up an excellent point about integrating all the different aspects of teaching that this title suggests. While the thought of that is overwhelming in itself, learning how not to be overwhelmed by all of it is an important step in that direction too.

      As I was reading your comment though, it struck me how this notion "engineering educator" is bidirectional. I wondered how this identity-formation process may be for the flip side...that is, for engineers who are venturing into the education world? There is so much that constitute both these two worlds/sciences/arts, that the merging of these two disciplines poses some interesting implications to defining the term "engineering educator" in itself.

      Also, thank you for founding J-PEER! It's such a wonderful journal with so many enlightening papers! It's one of my go-to resources as I continue my doctoral studies.
  • Linda  Kekelis

    Posted 4 years and 9 months ago

    Sneha, I appreciate your willingness to share your feelings around this important topic. Exposing your doubts takes courage and will resonate with others. I think that your feeling like an outsider (and perhaps imposter) is how many educators will feel when they begin to introduce engineering to their students in class or an after-school program. I encourage you to use your position to advantage and make the case to non-experts to bring engineering to K-12. And, a great place to begin is by sharing feelings of doubt and resources like mentors who can help in facilitating engineering lessons. Think of your journey towards self-efficacy like the engineering design process where you plan, brainstorm, try things out, and redesign. It’s great to have you as a thought partner in the LinkEngineering community.
    • Sneha  Tharayil

      Posted 4 years and 8 months ago

      Ms. Kekelis,

      Thank you for your kind words! I appreciate and agree with your advice about sharing our doubts and resources with other teachers exploring engineering educators. I definitely try to do that as often as I can in whatever informal, spontaneous opportunities that arise. I also like your idea of thinking of developing self-efficacy as an engineering design process! It's amazing how much the EDP heuristic can translate into so many other aspects of life beyond just engineering (I think Dr. Strobel discusses some of that in his LE blog post this week too). Just goes to show the further value of an engineering education :).