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STEaM: Engineering Design Process in the Context of K12 Education

April 10, 2012 1 comment

STEaM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, is not simply a list of subjects that are to be taught, but more of an educational approach to teaching and learning. Although there are several models of implementing a STEaM program, we have developed a model based around the Engineering Design Process (EDP). Although the EDP is typically used in the professional field, we have formatted the process in the context of K12 education.

The Engineering Design Process is a five step cycle where teachers create an inquiry-based learning environment that stimulates students to learn through questioning and doing. The five steps are the following: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create and Improve. Within each of those steps, and transitions, there are teaching and learning strategies that help facilitate the process. Below describes the cycle in the context of K12 STEaM education.

Although the first step in the cycle is to ask the right questions before beginning any process, teachers often begin with step 3, the Plan. In K12 education, it is not uncommon to teach with the “plan” as the focus, and inadvertently bypass two important steps of what are we trying to do/learn, and giving students opportunities to imagine the topic/problem in question. When one skip steps 1 and 2, what often occurs is that teachers give away what we call the “formula” or “step-by-step” plans of solving problems. While understanding the steps are important skills, it is only one part of the process of learning. Students who are simply given the formula in the book are fixated on how to systematically solve an equation and not taught how to truly problem solve. Instead of developing critical thinking skills, the unfortunate outcome is that students are taught to memorize steps and practice rote techniques.

Dan Meyer (http://perplexity.mrmeyer.com/) is a teacher who models how to engage students in math before jumping to the formula in the textbook. He offers several examples in how to introduce math concepts by allowing the students to ask the right questions, allow opportunities to imagine and formulate the problem (without giving it to the students), and leveraging multimedia tools to enhance the experience.

The first step in a solid STEaM program is to build a curriculum established on asking the right questions. Fundamentally, we are trying to provide insight on common questions found in STEaM studies, such as “why am I learning math?” And if you are in middle school math or above, why am I studying Algebra? It is important to build curriculum that puts Algebra or other mathematical concepts in context of real-world applications. In helping guide those questions, a well-thought out socratic seminar will put the context around Step 3 (Plan) and give opportunities for divergent thoughts around the same topic.

It is in Step 2 (Imagine), that teachers give students opportunities to ask questions that will guide them to formulate the problem that needs to be solved. In this context, students are discovering the learning, and not given the answer. Strategically, a teacher will guide the questions and divergent thoughts into converging ideas, ultimately leading to Step 3, the Plan. The work and effort to get to Step 3 gives students the foundations and context of the formula, rather than searching for the formula in the textbook.

Step 3 Differentiated: Using Blended Approaches
To provide more personalized instructional approaches to learning, a blended learning model can help facilitate Step 3 in a more efficient manner.

The first 3 steps of the Engineering Design Process remain in the theoretical framework of learning. In order to provide experiential opportunities, a well-rounded STEaM program will need to integrate the application layers of the model, which are Steps 4 (Create), and Steps 5 (Improve). Once students have established theoretical proficiency of content, teachers can elevate the learning experience by introducing project-based activities around the content. It is in Step 4 that students experience STEaM in its fullest by providing opportunities to transform the theory into practical hands-on experiences. In this level, students are building, designing, creating, and experimenting with the content in ways textbooks could never provide. It is important to develop a strong project-based curriculum that strategically brings together the theoretical frameworks into practical design applications.

The last step of the Engineering Design Process is giving students opportunities to improve upon their creation. In a test taking culture, we often create an environment of a pass-fail mentality. Step five is the opposite of that mentality, where failure is looked upon as an opportunity to improve the design. The ideal EDP fosters a culture of trial-and-error and that improvement is a sign of self-direction and evaluation. When students are in the improvement level, rubrics and portfolio-based assessments help guide the evaluation process. If designed correctly, students would be documenting the process right from the beginning in a portfolio that can be referenced, improved, and edited along the way.

The culmination of the Engineering Design Process can lead to three desired outcomes for any given topic. The first outcome is referencing back to the original question that the project asked and determining if it was appropriately addressed. The second outcome is determining that the original question was just the beginning, and that one has to ask a higher level of questions to get to the desired outcome; therefore going through the EDP again. The last outcome is what engineers call innovation, the creation of something new that addresses a problem. In K12 education, an important last step of the EDP process is providing students a platform called Mountain Top to share all their hard work, no matter the outcome. The Mountain Top can present itself in many forms, such as digital portfolios, competitions, debates, showcases, science fairs, videos, and more.

Big Ideas Around the Engineering Design Process
Step 1: Ask to Step 2: Imagine

  • Asking the right questions
  • Socratic seminars
  • Divergent thinking
  • Challenge-based learning
  • Putting topics and content in context

Step 2: Imagine to Step 3: Plan

  • Discovery learning
  • Convergent thinking
  • Formulate of the problem
  • Design multiple paths to the answer

Step 3: Plan to Step 4: Create

  • Theory into Application
  • Blended approaches to learning
  • 21st century skills practice
  • Project-based learning

Step 4: Create to Step 5: Improve

  • Evaluation and analysis
  • Self-reflection
  • Trial-and-error learning
  • Portfolio-based assessment

Step 5: Improve and Beyond

  • Reaching the mountain top (sharing successes)
  • Innovation
  • Reaching a higher level of Step 1: Ask (asking a better question)
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Engineering Design Tools for K12

January 17, 2010 6 comments

I just wrapped up my semester for 8th grade engineering, and I would have to say it has been my most successful project-based learning class thus far. Thanks to huge donations from Qualcomm and Motorola, I was able to integrate hands-on science projects using electricity, K’NEX modeling, and bridge building kits. The students were engaged in cooperative design projects that included many technology tools on the web. I wanted to share the different tools we used in all my engineering and technology classes.

Phun – The Phun physics program lets students design objects in 2D and lets gravity act upon the objects when an action button is clicked. The students designed a simple machines track on the program and it was quite the challenge for many of my students. They worked relentlessly redesigning and improving their drawings. My eighth graders learned quickly that sometimes drawings cannot account for the many issues of real gravity applications. Without a doubt, my students learned Newton’s Laws of Motion authentically. Who needs books?

PhET Interactive Simulations – The University of Colorado at Boulder developed interactive electricity simulators that enabled my students to design their own circuits. We primarily used the circuit construction kit which allows you to design any circuits using resistors, batteries, and capacitors. It even has built in ammeters and voltmeters to verify Ohm’s Law. This simple and practical simulator is perfect way to demonstrate electricity before actually building real circuits.

Scratch – This open source object-oriented program language is a perfect introduction to teach mathematical applications of video game design. My students used this software to learn how to program using visual scripts. The community allows you to download scripts from other projects which allowed my students to tinker with code. It was a great example of learning from each other. We also used the following website for “how to” examples: http://learnscratch.org/

Google Sketchup – AutoCad 3D design capabilities for free using Google Sketchup. Mystudents used it for their research design project for engineering. They were required to draw the original invention and redesign it using Sketchup. My favorite had to be the drawing of the future train station depot.

FloorPlanner – The students learned how to use an architects ruler for my engineering class. The students learned how to scale using the ruler. For example, a 3/4 inch scale can equal 100 feet using the ruler. Their first project was to use the ruler to design a house floor plan with specific dimensions. The students used design floor planning website Floorplanner to professionally design their own house. Try it out, it is the real deal.

Creately – This online diagramming and design tool is a powerful engineering tool. It takes the power of Microsoft Visio and made it free and collaborative. My high school interns are currently using it to design a network diagram for the new PC Lab they are building. It has all the icons for network design such as routers, servers, and wires. It takes me back to my old days of network design when I worked for Extreme Networks. There are other collaborative tools similar to Creately such as Dabbleboard, Thinkature, and Twiddla.

Other websites that provided interactive simulations that were used to teach engineering concepts:

EdIT (Education Information Technology) Part 2

January 8, 2010 6 comments

First I want to state that I have no degree in educational technology. However, I have a bachelors in electrical engineering, and have spent seven years working in the information technology industry. Moreover, I have been in teaching (Masters in Education) for five years and have been director of educational technology for three. My experiences in both education and technology has brought me to the conclusion that we need a new hybrid degree for the next generation EdTech specialist.

As schools become more integrated with tablets, interactive whiteboards, and smartphones, building a school infrastructure that supports this environment will be key to success. Furthermore, as schools become more dependent on web applications and cloud computing, network demands will be pushing for more security, collaboration and accessibility.

The new EdTech specialist will not only need to have their basic understanding of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK), but will also need to have a fundamental understanding of information technologies. And within information technology studies, their needs to be a fundamental understanding of the engineering design process. According to wikipedia, the engineering design process is:

“the process of servicing a system, component or process to meet desired deeds. It is a decision-making process (often iterative), in which the basic sciences,mathematics, and engineering sciences are applied to convert resources optimally to meet a stated objective. Among the fundamental elements of the design process are the establishment of objectives and criteria, synthesis, analysis, construction, testing, and evaluation.”

By studying the engineering design process, our next generation EdTech specialist will have fundamental understanding of system design. If the end goal is transform schools by having a fully integrated educational technology solution, how can an EdTech specialist not be included in the design process of technology infrastructures. I often find that IT departments do not include EdTech in decisions regarding infrastructure because of the perceived lack of technical expertise. But if the end goal is to service teachers and students, it is absolutely critical that the EdTech specialist be part of the design process.

The common argument I frequently here is that EdTech specialists are not technical enough, while IT specialists have no clue what teachers need. My hopes is to eliminate this issue by creating a new hybrid degree in EdTech/IT. I call it EdIT (Education Information Technology). This program would enhance the already strong EdTech community by giving EdTech specialists an opportunity to study engineering and IT fundamentals. It will prove beneficial if this new specialist will have understanding of security, programming, and network design systems. Armed with this knowledge, who wouldn’t want this new EdIT specialist to lead our future school technology infrastructures.

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