Project Profile

Digital technology integration and engineering contexts to support elementary students' systems thinking


This project will advance efforts of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program to better understand and promote practices that increase students' motivations and capacities to pursue careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Research has indicated limited digital technology use and engineering instruction among elementary teachers. This project addresses two of the seven ITEST guiding questions: student experiences with emerging technologies and instructional and curricular innovations. The Making Engineering Real (ME-REAL) project will develop and implement professional development (PD) to support teachers who work with high populations of underrepresented students in STEM to develop richer, more authentic STEM education through: (a) technology-rich instruction, (b) authentic engineering opportunities, and (c) the development of systems thinking skills. The project will provide guidelines for technology integration within elementary engineering contexts that can inform expectations beyond Virginia. These guidelines will also inform interventions involving secondary teachers to support the development and integration of more comprehensive and increasingly complex technology use within STEM instruction. The project impacts the competencies essential for students to be successful in STEM-related degree programs and careers and is focused on better preparing elementary and secondary science teachers, providing them with valuable instructional tools. Because of this project, students will have more opportunities to engineer within authentic contexts, use relevant technologies in ways that reflect the work of scientists, and think about systems critically.

Prior research indicates teacher beliefs must be elicited and addressed to support changes in instructional practices. However, the question remains as to the extent interventions that incorporate attention to beliefs leads to instructional change. Comparison of ME-REAL teachers' innovation adoption rates to adoption rates cited in other studies in which the intervention included modeling, practice, planning, and coaching, but not attention to beliefs will allow the determination of the extent attending to beliefs promotes instructional change and innovation adoption, especially in the domain of computer simulations. The goal of ME-REAL is to increase and improve 1) elementary teachers' instruction and students' engagement and understanding in the STEM domains of engineering, digital technology, and systems thinking and 2) elementary student science learning among traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM (e.g. rural, Black, Hispanic, low socioeconomic status). Through a delayed-treatment quasi-experimental design, the ME-REAL project will advance the understanding of (1) pedagogies (e.g. digital technology integration) and engineering contexts that effectively support elementary students' systems thinking, (2) PD that facilitates teachers' systems thinking, engineering understandings, and digital technology use, and (3) the extent to which attending to teachers' beliefs during PD promotes instructional change and innovation adoption. Results from this ME-REAL project have implications for designing curricular tools and scaffolds to develop students' critical thinking about systems in all STEM domains.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.


Social Media


Principal Investigator(s)
Co-Principal Investigator(s)
Primary Contact


Award Number
Project Duration
2019 - 2023
Project Work State
Target Gradespan(s)
Elementary school (K-5)
Project Setting(s)
Formal Education
Geographic Location(s)
Project Status
Computer and informational technology science
Target Participants
Youth / students
Girls (or women)
American Indian/Alaska Native participants
Black/African American participants
Hispanic/Latino participants
Students eligible for free lunch or reduced-price lunch