When I was nineteen, I began pursuing a degree in Physics from a private, liberal arts college. My father, a civil and environmental engineer, asked me if I was sure that I wanted a theoretical degree. My 19-year old self didn’t understand the question (likely I was trying to convince myself that I wasn’t at all like him). A few months later he asked me if I was sure that I wanted a BA in Physics, rather than a BS. That I understood, and a semester later, transferred to a large public university.
It wasn’t until the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that I really paused to consider what engineering meant. My dad is an engineer and I even know what he specializes in, but what is an engineer? I graduated from an engineering school (with a theoretical degree, of course), but what did all of those engineering students do?
When the Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS were first released, my initial thought was that the document described all the best, most effective (and fun) parts of teaching science. My second thought was that it was the best part of the NGSS. And then, ohhhh, this is what engineers do.
The NGSS elevate engineering principles to the same level of importance as scientific inquiry. When scientists seek answers to questions, engineers work out solutions to problems. When scientists might study the relationships between variables, engineers might develop models to understand cause and effect. Science and engineering are not exclusive of each other, but the approach to acquiring and synthesizing information is certainly different.
You’ve maybe heard that there are a number of problems facing the world today (climate change, clean water, food shortages, disease) – it seems awfully important for our students to understand the science and also be creative problem solvers. It is almost as if the world depends on it.
I presented at the K-12 workshop of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) last weekend in Indianapolis. I was struck by the number of educators that were at this day of workshops to further incorporate engineering practices into their classrooms and extracurricular groups. The other sessions that I attended impressed and inspired me with the variety of projects, models, and topics covered. Engineering is a creative process, and only good things will come from our students learning science and engineering and design principles.
This is an exciting time in science education. Implementing the new standards documents won’t be easy, it may even be painful at times – especially for the teachers who have to do it, let’s offer them as much support as we can – but I believe that the end result will be one in which we are rewarded with a generation of learners who are able to apply their knowledge across a broad set of domains – both theoretical and practical.
My dad had a point. It just took me almost twenty years to figure it out. I still wouldn't have given up my theoretical degree, but I recognize that I might have had a richer experience had I also explored engineering.