A case for coordinating K-12 and high ed reform – engineering education perspective

My comic interpretation of the resulting crisis in higher education is that there is not enough engineers among education administrators to solve problems.

The recent study conducted by Intel Corp. whose results were published December 2011 focused on the teen’s perceptions of engineering as well as motivations and barriers for pursuing or not pursuing a career in engineering (the full document on the study can be downloaded here). This study was conducted among 1,004 teens (aged 13-18) with computer access. Some of the key findings of this study were:

  • Teens have generally positive opinions of engineers and engineering.
  • Consideration of career in engineering is low due to the lack of familiarity with engineering as well as perceived difficulty.
  • Learning more about engineering field plays a major role in choosing a career and this can present a significant barrier.
  • Exposure to any kind of engineering dramatically increase the number of teens that would consider career in engineering.
  • Financial benefits, interest, gratification are key areas that can drive the consideration of engineering as a career.

Other interesting findings are:

  • Engineers are considered as smart for those that are not considering engineering.
  • Engineering as a career is difficult and even boring for those that are not considering it – more of gratifying and collaborative for those that are considering it.
  • People who choose engineering think it will be interesting and can have positive impact on society but also highly paid.
  • Teens are more familiar with doctors, police officers, lawyers, and professional athletes then with engineers.
  • Currently, around one-third of teens cannot name any potential job opportunities in engineering fields.
  • Fifty-three percent of teens in the study said they were more likely to consider an engineering career after they learned that engineers help make music, Facebook, and video games.
  • Majority of girls think that engineering is difficult first and foremost and they are harder to convince to consider engineering.
  • While all the teens found computer and software engineering to be the most fascinating area of study, the study showed that only girls were more likely to be interested in architectural engineering.
  • Research shows the majority of students who focus on science, technology, engineering and math in high school, follow the path in college.

The findings of this study, although not based on a large statistical sample, are casting an interesting light on the issues of the input to engineering education. Fear of the unknown and long list of misconceptions (e.g., engineers need to be excellent math and science) related to engineering rise two very important questions:

  • Is the current system structure “weeding out” the real non-engineers by limiting their access to engineering education?
  • Is the system properly using the potential to develop skills required for modern engineers early in the education?

From this perspective, the two main points for educating teenagers in addressing the lack of familiarity and early development of some engineering skills are:

  1. Educating what engineers do
  2. Educating how engineers do

Educating what engineers do

Information on the types of work engineers and their experiences could break the preformed misconceptions among teenagers. Considering that the target population is between 13 and 18 years old, the information could be distributed through shows/educational material on television, video games, or comics. Potentially, this education can focus on following topics:

  • Engineers transform ideas into reality.
  • Engineers have high positive impact on the society.
  • It is rewarding to be an engineer, not just merely difficult.
  • Engineering is a multifaceted field with many intriguing areas of specialization and job opportunities.
  • Engineers are inventive and cool.

Educating how engineers do

Introducing Fundamentals of (Practical) Engineering in the period between middle school and high school has the potential to introduce teenagers with some basic concepts in engineering thinking. Just as the k-12 education has science and art classes, it would be natural to have basic engineering classes, while the consolidation of concepts would be accomplished later during the undergraduate education. Early hands-on experience with engineering problems and design can have the potential to introduce the teenagers to the concepts of: synthesis, ordering information in importance, identifying, organizing, and modifying critical relations and elements, facing unstructured problems, elaboration, generating missing information, comparing alternative outcomes, validation, group work, performance monitoring, engineering ethics, etc. All these elements are frequently required by engineering students from the start of their undergraduate education, but could start to develop earlier in the children’s education. In addition to this, increase in number of engineers in the k-12 curriculum design, administration, and teaching could strengthen the educational foundations obtained in k-12 and relate it to actual requirements for engineers. This would consequently include attract a wider range of diverse thinking teenagers – especially since spatial, naturalistic, kinesthetic, and visual thinking might be more important than logical cognition for some engineering disciplines.

Conclusive thoughts

Informing students about engineering careers and introducing engineering state of mind during k-12 education has a potential to make students reflect more and make informed decisions on their careers early on. My conclusion is that this is just emphasizing the case for necessary coordination between k-12 and higher ed reform, if the desired effects are to be achieved.



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