Consensus for First-of-its-Kind Pre-College Engineering Course

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Participants from the E4USA Engineering Curriculum Workshop. Photo: John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

In a sustained effort to further Engineering for US All (E4USA), a pilot program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led by the University of Maryland (UMD), approximately 140 representatives from more than 100 high schools, colleges, and universities convened at the E4USA Engineering Curriculum Workshop in College Park, Maryland, December 10–12. The workshop provided an opportunity for preschool through 12th grade (P–12) engineering education stakeholders to partner with the E4USA team to develop the first national standardized high school course in engineering.

With a nearly $4 million investment from NSF, the course has the potential to democratize the learning and practice of engineering by engaging a diverse and inclusive set of high school students and their teachers to consider and practice engineering principles and design. In the future, the course would provide the equivalent of placement credit for an introductory college course and, beyond course credit, the credentialing of a broad range of STEM-trained teachers.

“It’s exciting,” said Mary Poats, program manager in the Engineering Education and Centers Division within the Engineering Directorate at NSF. “To date, 109 deans have signed on to support this effort to establish a standardized curriculum that can be used across the country to expose students of all backgrounds early on to engineering.”

E4USA project partners Arizona State University, Morgan State University, and Virginia Tech are charged with evaluating the curriculum, student learning, and teacher training. Vanderbilt University is the E4USA external evaluator. Additional collaborators include NASA Goddard, Project Lead the Way, and the College Board. The pilot program will launch in high schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Arizona later this year, with a goal of having 70 high schools across the U.S. participating in the program by 2020.

Workshop overview

Darryll Pines, dean of UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering and E4USA lead, stressed the importance of partnering institutions, workshops, and working groups to refine the pre-college engineering curriculum developed by the American Society for Engineering Education and the College Board. “To develop the capacity for P–12 engineering education, we need colleges of education and engineering to partner with and develop high school engineering educators to train the next generation of engineering majors and to expose every high school student to engineering principles,” he said.

Curriculum framework materials guided workshop discussions. Breakout sessions were organized by three “big ideas:” Engineering and Society; Engineering Processes; and Essential Engineering Content, Skills, and Tools. A post-workshop session led by Clark School Assistant Research Professor Bruk Berhane, senior personnel on the E4USA project, allowed high school teachers to share their ideas with the E4USA team.

Participants came to the workshop with a common understanding as presented by Kenneth Reid, associate professor in engineering education at Virginia Tech and E4USA collaborator. Written by Reid, along with David Reeping and Elizabeth Spingola, the article, “A Taxonomy for Introduction to Engineering Courses,” published in 2018 in the International Journal of Engineering Education, provides a classification of topics frequently included in first-year engineering courses at universities. The classification allows users to communicate their courses using a common tool. “In the academic setting, we’re often siloed,” Reid said. “Meeting in person is crucial, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see consensuses emerge here. This could tell us the curriculum framework is close to ready to go,” he said, while stressing the importance of learning from workshop data.

Partner participation

Filling a need for a national standardized educational program, the pilot course will incorporate distance learning technologies and specialized teacher training to bring hands-on, design-based engineering experiences to students, right where they learn.

Adam Carberry, associate professor in the Polytechnic School within Arizona State University’s Fulton Schools of Engineering, asked workshop participants to consider the role that online learning can play in course design, delivery, and training. Distance learning technologies can greatly impact access. “We’re developing a potential methodology to provide what we’re doing here to a larger audience: having teachers prepared and comfortable and confident to teach engineering,” he said.

Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Morgan State University and E4USA collaborator Kemi Ladeji-Osias is involved in developing the E4USA syllabus and curriculum, as well as customizing teacher training. “My work with E4USA is the culmination of the work I’ve done for Morgan at the pre-college level since 2015, partnering with Baltimore-area teachers to enhance their skills in teaching engineering-related topics,” she said.

Stacy Klein-Gardner, adjoint associate professor of the practice of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University, leads the evaluation component of the E4USA project. With a background that includes directing the Center for STEM Education for Girls, Klein-Gardner asked how the E4USA project might help educators best understand the field of engineering and its benefits for all. Her answer: “Expose P–12 students to engineering, authentically, so we can recruit more and more diverse students to the profession.”


Teachers will be grouped as a network to create a broad learning community to inform E4USA’s progress. An online platform will enable teachers to collaborate, learn from one another, and receive support by sharing teaching materials and challenges. A national data repository to track student work and achievements, along with the training and certification of E4USA teachers, will be housed at UMD.

By completion of the pilot course, hundreds of engineering educators will be involved in shaping the curriculum; the continued support and feedback from teachers is critical to the pilot’s success.

“Without a single exception, everyone at the workshop was engaged and willing to work toward this vision,” said Kevin Calabro, director of the Clark School’s Keystone Program and member of the E4USA curriculum development team. While Calabro stresses that the findings presented here are preliminary, workshop outcomes suggest:

  1. A sequence of courses, versus a single course, may be preferred by the majority of workshop participants. If follow-up data supports this assertion, “the first course in the sequence would be designed as an advanced high school course in engineering for all students that could lead to credit being granted in general education; a final course could be designed to allow students to push further and pursue credit within engineering degree programs,” said Calabro.
  2. A simplified list of approximately 15–20 essential learning outcomes, reduced from the 45 presented in the curriculum framework, may be preferred. “If there is consensus on this simplified list,” said Calabro, “it will be much easier for us to design lessons and assessments to achieve the goals of this course.”
  3. Two or more teachers assigned to staff the course, instead of a single teacher, may be the preferred way forward. This would allow teachers to distribute the knowledge needed to teach the course while building support networks. “Additionally, this would allow us to better link some of the more technical aspects of engineering with some of the softer skills,” said Calabro.

At the workshop’s conclusion, E4USA lead Darryll Pines called for participants to consider joining one of the working groups, which will help to finalize plans for the course. They are: Curriculum, in one of the three “big idea” areas; Assessment; Professional Development; and Research and Data Collection. Once consensus is achieved on learning goals, objectives, and outcomes, the ultimate objective is to finalize the course curriculum by early February. A series of E4USA workshops will be held in the spring.

Don Millard, deputy division director of the Engineering Education and Centers Division within the Engineering Directorate at NSF, stressed to workshop participants the importance of their continued participation in making an engineering education possible for young people from all walks of life. “An engineering background is good for a career of any kind. Engineering provides the foundation for success. Help us along this path.”

Visit the E4USA website for more information and to find digital materials from the Engineering Curriculum Workshop.

Published January 16, 2019