Fostering and Maintaining Students' Interest in Engineering

Bernadette Sibuma brings more than a decade of experience in educational research and evaluation to the STEM Learning and Research Center.  With special expertise in cognition, instructional technologies, and human-computer interaction, Bernadette's research interests include how we can enhance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning, how people best learn with technology, and how different interface designs affect cognitive processes and learning outcomes.

During AERA 2015 in Chicago, I had the opportunity to serve as the discussant for an ITEST Engineering Education symposium on Saturday morning, April 18, 2015, between 10:35a-12:05pm at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, Superior A meeting room.  The symposium was titled, "Fostering and Maintaining Students' STEM Interest Throughout the Educational Pipeline".  As the discussant, I provided some background on a model developed previously by STELAR's predecessor, the NSF ITEST Learning Resource Center, to help the audience frame their thinking about the presentations. I also provided feedback to the presenters to help them move forward in their work. Based on the request of interested audience members, I recap my comments below.

In 2012, the NSF ITEST Learning Resource Center at EDC and the ITEST community came together to explore the degree to which evidence-based replicable models were emerging from the ITEST experience. Working from a framework developed for this purpose, a handful of projects representing the ITEST engineering community of practice convened in 2011 to draft the ITEST engineering model (ITEST Learning Resource Center, 2012). This model was refined and subsequently vetted by the greater ITEST community in 2012. The theory of action in many of these projects was that cumulative interactions with essential elements promote interest, engagement, and pursuit of engineering as a career.  During the symposium, we revisited the model with new evidence from four current ITEST projects. 

The Middle School Science Readiness program was presented by Nancy Moreno and Alana Newell (Baylor College of Medicine).  It focused on elementary students (5th graders), which is great since this is a population where more such projects are needed. I thought elaborating about the training they provided elementary school teachers would be helpful to other projects pursuing work with younger students.  They found found significant gains in engineering content knowledge and the effectiveness of using afterschool time to reinforce concepts.

 The STEM project was presented by Shelley Goldman and Tanner Vea (Stanford University).  It utilized both qualitative and quantitative evidence in their research and showed gains in student knowledge about different types of energy and about the design thinking cycle.  Reframing design thinking as a way for students to empathize with others is compelling and shows promise as a way to engage youth that may shy away from what they perceive to be purely mechanical endeavors. 

The Exploring STEM Careers Initiative was presented by Nancy Taylor (San Diego State University Research Foundation).  They found that changing the way teachers talk about engineering in the classroom may be key to enlightening students about the profession and encourages further discussion with youth about what the pathway entails.  As they move forward, I was particularly interested in hearing more about their mentoring model and how this activity contributes to student outcomes.

Finally, although early in its implementation, the Memphis STEM Virtual Academy was presented by Alfred Hall (University of Memphis). The program was found to deliver a unique engineering experience for students that promotes project based learning and team teaching more so than other similar programs.  I was curious to know how the project will be measuring changes in motivation in the future and the research design for the motivational studies.

From my understanding, these four projects had in common two things: 1) their use of informal, out-of-school time to deliver hands-on activities and teacher support, and 2) an underpinning in Social Cognitive Theory as their guiding theory of action.  That is, these projects were based on the idea that youth develop self-efficacy in engineering skillsets by modeling the behaviors of engineers, such as creating solutions to design challenges. In addition, providing a supportive environment for skill practice and mastery can lead to not only better understanding but also may help develop a greater value placed on engineering as a career.

Together, these presentations showed consistent project gains in knowledge of engineering topics, real-world problem solving skills, teamwork and growing awareness of what is considered engineering or design thinking.  They offered innovative, highly engaging activities, and involved youth in project or problem-based learning that included building artifacts.  As such the presentations provided supporting evidence to the ITEST engineering model. 

To the presenters, I posed a different kind of design challenge:  How might you design your research to examine other student outcomes, in particular in regards to the development of personal interest in and motivation to pursue engineering careers?  Also, what other theories might better reflect your project work and guiding principles? Finally, how will you convey your project's impact to a broader audience?

To the audience, I asked what other questions they believed will be important for engineering projects to address in the future?

To further refine the ITEST engineering model of workforce development, determining which elements of ITEST engineering programs have the greatest impact on student outcomes and how persistence in engineering is developed will enable us to more consistently design high-quality programs that help minimize leaks in the pipeline.   I am thankful for the opportunity I had to contribute to the conversation.