Many recent standards and policy documents call for engineering to be addressed in K-12 science classrooms (Moore, Tank, Glancy, & Kersten, 2015; National Research Council, 2012; National Research Council, 2014; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Although many reasons exist to include engineering in pre-college education, a primary rationale to include engineering in science instruction is its potential to enhance students’ science learning (Apedoe, Reynolds, Ellefson, & Schunn, 2008; National Academy of Engineering, 2009; National Research Council, 2012). Typically, engineering is incorporated into science classrooms by engaging students in design activities, in which students develop technological solutions to context-specific problems (Brophy, Klein, Portsmore, & Rogers, 2008; National Academy of Engineering, 2009). Engineering design activities are often viewed as productive settings for science learning because they provide authentic contexts in which students can develop and apply scientific knowledge (Atman et al., 2007; Johri & Olds, 2011; Mehalik, Doppelt, & Schuun, 2008; Puntambekar & Kolodner, 2005; Riskowski, Todd, Wee, Dark, & Harbor, 2009; Roth, 2001). Engineering in the science classroom can therefore be viewed as a pedagogical approach, which we will refer to as Engineering Design-Based Science Teaching (EDST).
A growing body of empirical work is emerging around the use of EDST, and multiple studies have found evidence that engineering can be used to support students’ interest in and learning of science (e.g., Capobianco, DeLisi, & Radloff, 2018; Cunningham & Carlsen, 2014; Kolodner et al., 2003; Mehalik et al., 2008; Riskowski et al., 2009; Schnittka & Bell, 2011; Wendell & Rogers, 2013). Not all engineering design activities, however, will necessarily advance students’ scientific knowledge. Students can easily overlook the relevant scientific ideas during an engineering design activity and fail to make the connections intended by the teacher (Berland, Steingut, & Ko, 2014; Kanter, 2010; Puntambekar & Kolodner, 2005; Schnittka & Bell, 2011; Silk, Schunn, & Cary, 2009). Teachers must play a critical role in developing design activities that emphasize the relevant science ideas while also helping students to recognize and make those connections during instruction. That is not an easy task for teachers and requires that they be knowledgeable in science and engineering as well as in their respective pedagogies (Dare, Ellis, & Roehrig, 2014, 2018; Walkington, Nathan, Wolfgram, Alibali, & Srisurichan, 2014). Those demands are particularly substantial for elementary teachers, who typically have limited preparation in science and engineering (Banilower et al., 2018).
Engineering design-based science teaching
In this study, we focus on using engineering design as an instructional approach to promote students’ learning of science, a perspective Purzer and Quintana-Cifuentes (2019) refer to as “engineering as pedagogy.” As a pedagogical approach, we define EDST as the engagement of students in the constellation of engineering practices associated with technological design and development in order to advance students’ science learning. We take a broad view of what constitutes engineering design the classroom in that EDST need not necessarily engage students in a complete process of defining an engineering problem all the way through creating a finished product. Instead, consistent with the nature of authentic engineering practice (Pleasants & Olson, 2019), essential features of classroom engineering instruction include students’ meaningful engagement in core engineering practices (cf. Cunningham & Kelly, 2017) while addressing a problem of technological design or development.
Although the current emphasis on engineering design in science standards is relatively recent, the use of technological design as a pedagogical approach is not novel (Lewis, 2006). In a summary of studies from the late 1990s, Roth (2001) presented evidence of how middle school students’ learning of concepts such as force and energy were deepened by engaging in the design of simple machines. Fortus, Dershimer, Krajcik, Marx, and Mamlok-Naaman (2004) developed the Design-Based Science approach to “help students construct scientific understanding and real-world problem-solving skills by engaging them in the design of artifacts” (p. 1082). In addition, the Learning By Design approach developed by Kolodner et al. (2003) similarly promoted students’ science learning via engagement in engineering design. In the intervening years, additional studies have provided evidence that engineering design activities can support students’ learning of science concepts (e.g., Apedoe et al., 2008; Goldstein et al. 2018; Kanter, 2010; Mehalik et al., 2008; Penner, Lehrer, & Schauble, 1998; Schnittka & Bell, 2011; Sidawi, 2009).
Like any pedagogical approach, EDST has various strengths and challenges. Design activities can create opportunities for students to reason with science concepts, but not all engineering design experiences necessarily promote science learning. Most crucially, an engineering design activity must be strongly connected to the science concepts students are meant to learn. That is, the design task should necessitate the application of scientific ideas such that students must either use their existing knowledge or develop new knowledge. Engineering activities will not advance students’ learning of science if they “do not create a need for students to explore and apply the underlying… science concepts” (Berland et al., 2014, p. 718). Even when an apparent need exists for students to utilize certain science ideas, students might fail to recognize those ideas as relevant or useful (Chao et al., 2017). To promote students’ science learning through EDST, teachers therefore have a critical role to play beyond simply providing students with an engaging design activity. They must help students recognize how science concepts can be used to make informed design decisions, analyze the performance of different designs, and reflect on design choices (Goldstein et al. 2018; King & English, 2016; Levy, 2013; Purzer, Goldstein, Adams, Xie, & Nourian, 2015; Roth, 2001; Tytler, Prain, & Hobbs, 2019).
Developing and implementing engineering design lessons in the ways described above is challenging for teachers (Dare et al., 2014, 2018; Walkington et al., 2014), and they often express concerns about their abilities to accomplish the task (Radloff & Capobianco, 2019). EDST not only requires that teachers deeply understand both science and engineering (Frykholm & Glasson, 2005) but also possess the pedagogical skills necessary to draw students’ attention to how the science ideas are relevant to a particular engineering context (Chao et al., 2017). These demands are likely to be particularly challenging for elementary teachers. As content generalists, elementary teachers typically have limited preparation in science and engineering and have generally lower confidence teaching those subjects (Banilower et al., 2018). Professional development (PD) efforts have therefore been deployed to provide elementary teachers with adequate support for EDST (e.g., Capobianco & Rupp, 2014; Crotty et al., 2017).
Characterizing teachers’ use of EDST in PD contexts
In research examining how teachers utilize EDST after receiving PD, much of the focus has thus far been placed on how teachers engage their students in certain engineering design practices or the extent to which certain components of the engineering design process are present during design activities (e.g., Capobianco et al., 2018; Capobianco & Rupp, 2014; Wheeler, Navy, Maeng, & Whitworth, 2019). Generally, studies of PD have documented success in terms of helping teachers incorporate engineering design and certain engineering practices into their science instruction (Capobianco et al., 2018; Dare et al., 2018; Guzey, Tank, Wang, Roehrig, & Moore, 2014; Maeng, Whitworth, Gonczi, Navy, & Wheeler, 2017). Even though it is rarely the main research focus, the degree to which the engineering design activities developed by PD participants are connected to science concepts has also been described in several studies. As described below, however, the levels of success in that area have been mixed.
Capobianco and Rupp (2014) investigated integrated science-engineering units developed by grades 5–6 teachers who participated in a PD aimed at EDST. They analyzed the unit plans on a wide range of dimensions, characterizing the extent to which the planned instruction reflected the approaches presented by the PD. Only one dimension attended specifically to the question of how engineering was used to advance the science goals of the unit: “Integration of the design task” (p. 264). They found that teachers had difficulty with that dimension: “Missing from their plans was attention to key science concepts and their placement, use, and application within a design task” (p. 265).
Also in a PD context, Guzey et al. (2014) examined unit plans and artifacts created by grades 3–6 teachers as they incorporated engineering design into their science instruction. Many of the teachers in their study implemented design activities from published materials such as Engineering is Elementary (Museum of Science Boston, 2007), but many also developed their own engineering design lessons or substantially modified previously published lessons. The analysis focused primarily on the nature of the engineering design challenges implemented by the teachers, but the researchers also noted that many design activities (particularly those adhering to a minimal “build and test” model) “did not allow students to apply appropriate and/or adequate science knowledge” (p. 145). They also found that most of the engineering design lessons targeted physical science rather than life science content and speculated that engineering design might be more readily connected to physical science concepts.
Dare et al. (2014) studied how highschool physics teachers utilized engineering design in their classrooms after participating in a PD around EDST. While the teachers stressed the value of engineering as an application of science ideas, the researchers found that the engineering activities rarely made any explicit reference or use of science concepts. During interviews, the teachers often admitted that the science content was emphasized less than other objectives such as problem-solving. In a later study of grades 4–8 teachers, Dare et al. (2018) found that teachers often perceived tension when incorporating engineering into science instruction in that they felt a need to either focus on science or engineering, due in part to time pressures. The teachers in their study also expressed concerns about the extent to which students were making the desired connections to science content during engineering design activities.
Maeng et al. (2017) studied how grades 4–6 teachers implemented engineering design in their science instruction after participating in a PD that included EDST. Similar to Guzey et al. (2014), they found that most teachers utilized EDST when addressing physical science content and, to a lesser extent, earth/space science content; few teachers used EDST in life science units. Engineering design was typically situated as a way for students to apply science concepts at the end of a unit, and teachers often espoused science content learning goals when discussing the engineering instruction. However, the researchers did not systematically investigate the extent to which the science content goals were met by the engineering activities, although they provided some example design activities that appeared to be connected to science content.
In sum, studies of teachers’ use of EDST points to the challenging nature of developing design activities that promote students’ science learning. Most teachers utilize engineering design activities after science instruction as a way for students to apply their science ideas (Capobianco & Rupp, 2014; Dare et al., 2014, 2018; Guzey et al., 2014; Maeng et al., 2017). However, many engineering activities do not achieve that intended purpose because the science concepts are either not essential for the design problems or because the teachers do not help students recognize the relevance of the science ideas. Diefes-Dux (2014) has suggested that elementary teachers need multiple years of experience implementing EDST before they can effectively connect design activities to science content. In early years of implementation, Diefes-Dux found that elementary teachers often implemented engineering design lessons as standalone activities that were disconnected from science; over time, however, those teachers were more successful in tying engineering design activities to their targeted science concepts. An additional finding that has emerged from the research relates to the science content being addressed via EDST. Studies suggest that EDST is more readily utilized when teaching physical science or earth/space science concepts rather than life science concepts (Guzey et al., 2014; Maeng et al., 2017; Roehrig, Dare, Ring-Whalen, & Wieselmann, 2021; Roehrig, Moore, Wang, & Park, 2012).
Yet, while the studies summarized above address how teachers connected engineering design activities to science concepts, none made those connections the focus of study. If EDST is conceptualized as a pedagogical approach for advancing students’ science learning, this is an area in need of more detailed investigation. In particular need of investigation is the role that curriculum resources play as teachers plan for EDST, and whether those resources facilitate conceptual connections between science and engineering. Prior studies illustrate the breadth of ways in which teachers develop instructional units that utilize EDST. In some cases, teachers were provided published curriculum materials (e.g., Kelly & Cunningham, 2019) or with materials developed by researchers (e.g., Fortus et al., 2004; Puntambekar & Kolodner, 2005). In other cases, teachers and researchers collaboratively developed instructional units during PD (e.g., Crotty et al., 2017; Lehman, Kim, & Harris, 2014). In relatively few cases, teachers were mostly independent in creating novel instructional units after participating in PD (e.g., Dare et al., 2014; Maeng et al., 2017). In only a handful of those cases (e.g., Capobianco & Rupp, 2014; Maeng et al., 2017) were teachers’ lesson plans examined for the extent of the science and engineering connections present. Given the important and varied role that curriculum resources play in elementary teachers’ science instruction (Banilower et al., 2018), this is an area in need of further investigation.
Purpose of study
The present study seeks to provide insight into the issues described above. In the context of a PD project that introduced elementary teachers to EDST, we examine how participants planned engineering activities that were part of broader science units, with a focus on the extent to which those engineering activities were conceptually connected to science concepts. We aim to not only characterize the extent of those connections but also examine several factors that emerged as potentially relevant from our review of the literature above. We investigate the extent to which the science content domain is related to the conceptual connections made between engineering activities and science content. In particular, we investigate whether physical science content is indeed more conducive to EDST as suggested by prior studies (Guzey et al., 2014; Maeng et al., 2017; Roehrig et al., 2012). We also investigate whether the use of published engineering curricula leads to stronger connections to science content. Finally, because some individuals participated in our PD more than once, we had the opportunity to investigate whether repeated participation leads to stronger conceptual ties between engineering and science, as suggested by Diefes-Dux (2014).
Conceptual framework: teachers as curriculum makers
Unlike prior studies that have either provided teachers with curriculum (e.g., Fortus et al., 2004; Kanter, 2010; Riskowski et al., 2009) or co-developed curriculum with teachers development during a PD experience (e.g., Capobianco et al., 2018; Crotty et al., 2017; Guzey, Moore, & Harwell, 2016), we sought to understand how participants in our PD utilized the resources available to them to plan EDST. We view teachers not simply as implementers or conduits of curriculum, but as makers of the curriculum specific to their classrooms, even as they utilize various pre-existing curriculum resources at their disposal (Clandinin & Connelly, 1992). Teachers might choose to implement instructional activities from published curriculum materials more or less as-is, extensively modify those activities, or develop their own lessons when they find published materials wanting. Whatever the case may be, we view teachers as decision-making agents who are ultimately responsible for determining both the planned and enacted curriculum in their classrooms (Barab & Luehmann, 2003; Davis, 2006; Remillard, 2005). Of course, when teachers modify existing resources, the changes they make may or may not be consistent with the goals of the curriculum designers (Davis, 2006; Schneider & Krajcik, 2002). When the published materials are not of high quality, such changes are desirable and necessary; alternatively, teachers might eliminate valuable aspects of high-quality materials during their modifications. The ability to skillfully modify published curriculum resources is therefore an essential skill for teachers (Davis, 2006; Schwarz et al., 2008).
For the case of EDST at the elementary level, various curriculum resources exist, most notably Engineering is Elementary (Museum of Science Boston, 2007) but also a wealth of resources that can be searched on the web (e.g., from sites such as teachengineering.org). Since the introduction of the NGSS in the USA, many science curricula now also include engineering design activities intended to serve as EDST resources (e.g., Full Option Science System: Next Generation, Lawrence Hall of Science, 2015). Not all of those resources, however, have been recognized as necessarily being of high quality (Maeng et al., 2017; National Academy of Engineering, 2009), highlighting the important role of the teacher in skillfully adapting and modifying curriculum materials.
Study context and research questions
The present study examines how teachers planned EDST within the context of a PD project that was designed to introduce EDST to teachers. Given our perspective on teachers as curriculum makers, our intent within the PD was not to impose any specific curriculum or set of instructional activities in a top-down manner. Rather, we viewed the PD as an interactive process of supporting teachers in their efforts to adapt EDST to their own contexts (Craig, 2012). That process included presenting exemplars of EDST and making certain curriculum resources available, but also outlining goals that might be pursued by EDST and providing support for participants to pursue their learning objectives. For the purposes of this study, we focus on teachers’ planned rather than enacted curriculum. Although what is enacted does not necessarily flow unproblematically from what teachers plan (Remillard, 2005), teachers’ plans are nevertheless important and provide valuable information regarding how they think about instruction as well as what students ultimately experience. Our work was guided by the following research questions:
How did participants in the PD project incorporate engineering into their planned science instruction?
To what extent were the engineering lessons in those unit plans conceptually linked to the science content in the unit?
To what extent, if any, were the following factors related to the extent of the conceptual connections between the engineering lessons in the unit plans and the science content: science content area (physical science, earth/space science, life science), use of published engineering curricula, and repeat participation in the PD?