Teachers’ Changing Beliefs about Engineering Learning and Instruction

March 15, 2011

Mitchell Nathan

Mitchell Nathan

More K-12 educators are participating in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professional development activities. As professional development programs in pre-college engineering proliferate, the creators of these programs need to understand how teachers’ beliefs and expectations about engineering instruction and learning change as they are exposed to more instruction. When this knowledge is carefully documented, policies and programs for teacher education and professional development can be created and improved, based on a sound empirical foundation.

UW-Madison education professors Mitchell Nathan and Allen Phelps examined teachers’ beliefs and expectations about engineering instruction and student learning as it occurs at the high school level. They documented how these views changed as teachers were trained to use a high school engineering curriculum, Project Lead The Way (PLTW). The PLTW curriculum integrates engineering, math, science, and technology into middle- and high school students’ program of study. PLTW is well regarded and is one of the most widely used precollege engineering curricula in the US.

Allen Phelps

Allen Phelps

Nathan and Phelps measured STEM teachers’ baseline views and documented the differences among them, before the teachers formally diverged into two distinct groups. The groups consisted of those teachers who participated in a PLTW summer institute training program, and who went on to actually teach a PLTW course (called the Summer Institute group), and those who did not elect to train and teach a course (called the Control group).

The pretest revealed that teachers generally believed that to become an engineer a student must show high academic achievement in math, science, and technology courses. Teachers also believed that having a parent as an engineer increases a students’ likelihood of becoming one, as does being male and either white or Asian. However, the pretest also revealed that  control teachers and institute teachers started out with some differences in their beliefs and expectations about engineering. Most differences were not statistically significant, but three were:

  1. Control teachers were less likely than future institute teachers to identify sources of support for engineering in their schools.
  2. Control teachers agreed more strongly than future institute teachers that, to be successful as an engineer, a student needs to demonstrate high scholastic achievement in math, science and technology. Teachers of these courses consider excellence in academic performance as a kind of gatekeeper for engineering. This finding replicates previous results showing differences among high school teachers with a greater emphasis on college preparation (like the control teachers here) or a focus on career readiness (like the institute teachers here).
  3. Even before teaching PLTW courses, institute teachers were more likely than control teachers to claim that science and math content taught in their classes was integrated with engineering content.

After the training and after the institute group taught their course, Nathan and Phelps re-administered the beliefs survey. As reported on the baseline survey1, control teachers were more likely than institute teachers to believe that high academic achievement in science, math, and technology courses was necessary to become an engineer, and this group difference showed no change over time.  Teachers in both groups initially reported that they did not strongly address students’ interest and cultural backgrounds when designing classroom instruction. At re-test, regardless of PLTW training, teachers reported attending to student background and interest less than they reported at time 1, essentially adopting a less constructivist attitude toward student learning.

Institute teachers were initially more positive about the institutional support they experienced for engineering at their schools than control teachers, and this difference grew significantly over time. The control teachers remained essentially constant in their views.

Institute teachers also believed more strongly than control teachers that the math and science concepts taught in their courses were explicitly connected to engineering. The re-testing of beliefs showed that for this sample of teachers the gap grew. The growth was due to stronger agreement among institute teachers and stronger disagreement among control teachers over time.

The primary change attributable specifically to PLTW training and teaching was an increased belief among institute teachers that they provided instruction to their students that effectively integrates science and math concepts with engineering activities. Nathan and Phelps say this change is important for three reasons:

  • First, there is a growing recognition of the need to teach STEM content in an integrated manner, and several federal and state policy initiatives advocate this integration across grade levels. If the professional development programs sponsored by PLTW foster greater integration, this is valuable.
  • Second, a number of recent research studies have examined engineering curricula and classroom instruction to determine the extent to which academic and technical subjects are integrated, and the resulting effect this has on student achievement in science and math.
  • Finally, engineering education reform recognizes the importance of teachers as agents for informing and implementing educational reform and the key role that professional development can play toward these goals.

The Challenge of Integrating Concepts

Prospective PLTW teachers were more likely than control teachers to identify sources of support for engineering in their schools, to report that science and math concepts were integrated with engineering instruction; and to support greater access to engineering. Over time, teachers from both groups were significantly less inclined to use students’ interests and backgrounds to shape classroom instruction.

Along with a growing urgency for promoting STEM education has come a drive to rethink and integrate the contributing areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In this light it is critical to acknowledge both the difficulties and promising approaches for integrating concepts from science and math with engineering instruction in a manner that influences student thinking.

This work was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and conducted as part of the AWAKEN project, a collaborative research project with the UW College of Engineering and the UW School of Education.

1Because of a reduced response rate for the second survey administration, comparisons between groups and from June 2008 to January 2009 are presented for only those teachers who provided complete data at both points in time.

More papers on this and related research: http://website.education.wisc.edu/~mnathan/