Blog for April 2022: Integrating Engineering Across the STEM Curriculum

Posted by: Marion Usselman on March 24, 2022

To anyone who has witnessed the enthusiasm of students participating in a well-designed engineering classroom activity, it is obvious there is something special at work.  Students are excited, they jump up and down, they stay on task, they want to be in school.  They are engaged.  And as every teacher and researcher knows, engagement is a necessary precursor to learning.  But is it sufficient?  What value does engineering bring to the classroom, beyond engagement?  When activities are implemented in extracurricular environments—after-school programs, summer camps, science museum classes—getting students excited about learning is often the primary goal.  But for classroom teachers, particularly those who are responsible for helping students master core secondary STEM content, academic standards and content-specific learning goals take priority. Why do educational reform efforts call for integrating engineering across the curriculum? How can engineering be integrated into the STEM curriculum, and what value does it bring to the classroom? These are questions being asked within multiple exciting NSF-supported projects and will be discussed by the panelists.


As presented in a well-argued position paper by Purzer and Quintana-Cifuentes (2019), engineering in K-12 schools comes in multiple flavors and is implemented for many different reasons.  For many teachers and curriculum developers, it is a pedagogical approach anchored in the learning sciences that primarily serves to enhance students’ learning of core science and mathematics disciplinary content.  Engineering, in this case, provides engaging design challenges that prompt students to learn the science and math to be able to solve the design challenge. Learning by Design (Kolodner et. al. 2003) and Design-Based Science (Fortus et al., 2004) are examples of this approach, and specifically target secondary core science classrooms.


Programs that focus on introducing engineering as a discipline that, though interdisciplinary with a focus on mathematics and science, has its own practices and core ideas, are using the epistemological approach.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), published in 2013, defines the Engineering Design Process as having practices of its own, separate from science and math.  The NGSS engineering standards consist of: (1) defining problems through identifying criteria and constraints, (2) developing solutions to those problems, and (3) optimizing those solutions to best fit the criteria and constraints.  These learning goals, though valuable, can be problematic to implement within what is universally acknowledged to be an already tightly filled science curriculum.  Can teachers create space for this additional content, and for the iterations required for optimizing a product?


The third approach to integrating engineering into the curriculum is defined by Purzer and Quintana-Cifuentes as the methodological approach and focuses on the design process as an engineering practice. This approach emphasizes students becoming creative problem solvers by designing a solution to a complex engineering problem, with a focus on problem-scoping, information gathering and making decisions about trade-offs. The current educational focus on design thinking incorporates these goals, but extends far beyond the field of engineering, sometimes blurring the boundaries.  Though a crucial part of engineering, not all design is engineering, and not all engineering is design.


Curriculum developers and educational researchers, often with NSF support, have created engaging instructional materials and educational interventions for school-based use that utilize all these integrative approaches to engineering. It is crucial that these researchers are clear about their focus and learning goals, and realistic about the constraints of the classroom.  The test always comes when teachers in real-life situations attempt to implement the materials in their classrooms.  Can the types of learning envisioned by the developers be accomplished within the existing system of schools, with disciplinary content taught in silos?  Or should more emphasis be put on promoting separate integrated STEM or engineering courses?  Rigorous research and evaluation results from these NSF projects are helping to answer these questions and to define the benefits, impact, and challenges to integrating engineering into school-based instruction.



Fortus, D.,  Dershimer, R. C., Krajcik, J.,  Marx R. W., and Mamlok-Naaman, R.  Design-based science and student learning, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(10), 2004, pp. 1081–1110


Kolodner, J. L., Camp, P. J., Crismond, D., Fasse, B., Gray, J., Holbrook, J., Puntambekar, S., Ryan, M. (2003). Problem-Based Learning Meets Case-Based Reasoning in the Middle-School Science Classroom: Putting Learning by Design(tm) Into Practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(4), 495 - 547.


Purzer, S., and Quintana-Cifuentes, J.P. (2019) Integrating engineering in K-12 science education: spelling out the pedagogical, epistemological, and methodological arguments.  Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research 1:13


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