Shelley Latham Outreach Coordinator

Learn to Teach Engineering: PD options for PK-12 Educators

PostedThursday, May 10, 2018 at 4:12 PM

Learn to Teach Engineering: PD options for PK-12 Educators

Did you know when the National Science Foundation was searching for an acronym for the essential disciplines that should be taught in American schools to prepare the students of the 1990s for the challenges (and careers) of tomorrow, they originally came up with SMET? Science, Math, Engineering and Technology.  Makes sense that they would put Science and Math first since those were already core subjects. But, SMET?  Hardly an inspiring moniker for the concepts and skills that the NSF felt were needed to save mankind.  In 2001, Judith Ramaley, then Assistant Director of Education and Human Resources at the NSF, switched the letters to STEM and the rest is, er, history.

But, although STEM has made its way into K-12 classes, the E has sometimes served as a convenient vowel to keep things pronounceable. Engineering has been commonly seen as the advanced application of math and science to solve problems, rather than a design process that utilizes research, creativity, social consciousness, multicultural understanding and collaboration. The suggestion that one needs advanced skills to participate gives the wrong impression that engineering is only for students who have been labeled “good at math.” Unfortunately, this approach has left many creative and collaborative problem-solvers behind.

One thing I want to make very clear when I talk with teachers is that I was never a "straight A" student. I have a degree from MIT and a PhD from Cal Tech and I was never a "straight A" student who got everything right.  -- Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, Associate Professor in the School of Engineering and the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas

Turns out, starting engineering in high school is too late to reach many kids who would make excellent engineers, especially girls and students of color. The current thinking is that we can and should start exposing students to engineering in pre-kindergarten and we should talk about it in ways that demonstrate its creative and collaborative aspects. Christine Cunningham of the Museum of Science Boston says, “Children are born natural engineers and we tend to educate it out of them.” She founded Engineering is Elementary 15 years ago to develop curriculum and teacher training strategies for engineering education at the PK-8 level. Go to the EiE webiste and watch videos of 2nd graders discussing how good it feels to be a materials engineer and you will see how exciting elementary engineering can be.

The past decade has seen the development of A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas as well as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and other state standards based on the Framework which seek to create a new, integrated, student-focused, inquiry based curriculum that builds on STEM concepts and skills starting before kindergarten. Teaching engineering to our youngest learners is a significant part of the new approach.

“The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent a commitment to integrate engineering design into the structure of science education by raising engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry when teaching science disciplines at all levels, from kindergarten to grade 12.” -- from NGSS website

For the first time, elementary and middle school educators are being required to include engineering in their classrooms. On the one hand this is exciting – engineering puts meaning into project based learning and provides a teachable process for problem solving and designing solutions.  In addition, teachers report high levels of engagement with students participating in engineering challenges. On the other hand, most general education teachers know very little about engineering, don’t know where to start, and lack confidence in their ability to teach it.


Districts Get Involved

Some state and local school districts have faced this challenge by investing in curriculum materials and teacher training programs. There are a number of organizations providing customized professional development and curriculum materials for the PK-12 market. Engineering is Elementary, Project Lead the Way, Discovery Education, Engineers on Deck from Start Engineering and Engineering by Design are excellent sources for schools and districts that have the budget for a strategic implementation of engineering education.

But what about educators who don’t have that option available to them?  How does one begin to build the skills and confidence to teach engineering?

Free Webinars

Fortunately, if you have a computer and an internet connection you can get started on learning what engineering is and how you can begin to integrate it into a PK-12 classroom. Many organizations that develop content or do research also provide free resources for interested educators. The National Science Teachers Association has an online Learning Center that is free for non-members in addition to extensive opportunities for association members. Search for engineering to narrow your choices.  STEM Teaching tools is a non-profit collaboration that strives to create free open-source lesson plans and professional development tools. Public Television has free educator resources at the PBS Learning Media Center. Search for engineering and filter with professional development for engineering education basics. For those interested in the Next Generation Science Standards, the NGSS site has a video hub.  And, LinkEngineering has a Video Conversation Series featuring experienced engineering educators.

STEM Smart Cof


Should you have time to get away, or you are fortunate to have a STEM conference in your neighborhood, conferences and forums are great ways to immerse yourself in the latest educational thinking and tools for a few days. Some upcoming events:

Science Museums

Beyond providing a fun and stimulating destination for a field trip or a family outing, Science and Technology Centers provide workshops and on-going professional development for teachers providing them the opportunity to get their hands on materials and learn about engineering design by being a student and engaging in STEM challenges.

Summer programs

USCG STEMSummer is a great time to connect to deeper STEM learning. There are research opportunities for pre-collegiate teachers through NSF funded Research Experiences for Teachers programs. These programs are created and run through universities. Check the NSF funding map to get an idea if there is a funded project in your state, or contact the nearest college engineering department to see what opportunities they have for PK-12 teachers.

The US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD has a STEM Center for Education and Outreach with a few summer programs for middle and high school teachers.

Lemelson-MIT hosts some Invention Education Workshops in Appleton, WI; Pomona, CA; and Cambridge, MA “If you are a middle or high school STEM teacher, after school professional, or other educator who wants to enrich your students' educational experience through invention, join us for this workshop.”

University graduate programs

For educators looking to get credit for additional training in engineering education, there are a number of schools offering graduate certificates and degrees. Tufts is one of the universities that has pioneered research in K-12 engineering education and they offer a Masters and a Certificate program with online options through their Teach Engineering Education Program (TEEP). AnnMarie Thomas, who joined LinkEngineering for a video conversation on Playful Learning heads up the University of St. Thomas’ Center for Engineering Education which was developed to help meet the need for trained educators to teach the engineering standards in the NGSS. They offer an online certificate program for distance learning.  Boise State University offers IDoTeach, a secondary STEM teacher preparation program with training in K-12 classrooms. These are just some examples of what is available. Check in with your local school of education or university to see what is offered in your neighborhood.

Whether you want to just dip your toes into engineering education, or you want to become a competitive swimmer, there are plenty of options to consider. To help you make sense of it all, the ASEE (American Society of Engineering Educators) has even put together a rubric for Engineering Content and Practices that should be included in quality professional development programs to help you evaluate before you commit a lot of time and resources.   PK-12 STEM education has come a long way from SMET.  Connect to resources here on LinkEngineering and tell us about your professional development experiences in the comments.



Photo Credits:

College of DuPage STEM Professional Development Workshop Teaches the Art of Escape Games 2017 28 via Flickr, Creative Commons License

NASA STEM Educators Conference, 2016 via Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

NSF STEM Smart Conference 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons License

US Coast Guard Academy  CTEA Teachers Workshop 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons License






Add a Comment
Add a Comment

Sort By
  • Frederick  Gragg

    Posted 3 months and 6 days ago

    I think that is crucial for graduating from any university. Every student should know how to write and I think you should be able to do it, too. I would recommend you to take some extra classes or enroll in additional course.
  • Keeley  Hauck

    Posted 7 months and 3 days ago

    Engineering is typically thought of as a process of applying science and math to solve problems, rather than one that incorporates research, creativity, and collaborative approaches. Students who have been labeled as good at calculation are misled into believing that they must possess advanced skills to participate in engineering. Well, students like me also visit website to get cheap research papers writer online so that they could complete their work on time.