Evidence From 21st-Century Research
Middle school is a pivotal time in each student’s life when an inspiring experience may grow into a lifelong passion, or a spark of interest can easily be extinguished by a discouraging comment. Our recent review of 263 research studies of engineering education confirmed the importance of a positive middle school STEM learning experience (Sneider and Ravel 2021; see link in References to download article for free). Our review also identified evidence-based methods for effectively teaching engineering to students of this age. To translate these research findings into useful teaching directions, we address several key questions in this brief: Why middle school? Why engineering? What works? and Why does it matter?
Two decades ago, the consensus among education researchers was that high student interest in science at the elementary level tended to decline as students entered middle school, followed by a precipitous drop in interest during high school (Osborne, Simon, and Collins 2003). But recent studies have shown that the situation is more nuanced and hopeful. For example, Falk et al. (2016) surveyed students in a low-income urban community, starting when they were in fifth grade and following them over four years. Questions on the survey were not about “science” in general, but rather about specific activities related to science and engineering. Although about 25% of the sample did show a decline in interest, for another third of the students, science and math interest remained high and interest in technology and engineering increased.
An important finding is that developing an interest in STEM before students enter high school is a remarkably strong predictor of future success. Tai et al. (2006) found that students who expressed interest in STEM careers in eighth grade were more than 300% as likely to complete a four-year degree in science or engineering than those who did not. Sadler et al. (2012) asked 6,860 college students about their career interests at various points in their lives and found that the single most important factor in aspiring to a STEM career was interest at the start of high school. These findings underscore the lasting impact of engaging middle school students in STEM.
Many studies showed that when engineering is introduced as a part of science, engagement is significantly increased. That’s not surprising. Engineering is hands-on. It is creative. It involves teams working together to solve a problem. It’s the kind of activity that most students enjoy—not just those who tend to perform well on tests.
For example, Barnett (2005) studied a low-income, inner-city school with chronically low attendance. The study compared one class of 25 students who designed remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVS) with 32 students who studied the same physics concepts (floating, thrust, and density) in traditional classes. Attendance increased to more than 80% for students designing remotely operated vehicles, compared with less than 60% in the traditional class. Another outcome was that the teacher’s role shifted from discipline keeper to coach and facilitator. The research shows that engineering design challenges can significantly improve students’ level of engagement and interest in STEM.
An encouraging outcome from our review was that a range of instructional methods can be effective. A key finding was that integrating engineering works best when woven throughout a science unit. For example, Crotty et al. (2017) worked with 48 teachers in Grades 4–9 who developed their own units in which engineering was integrated with science or mathematics. The study involved a total of 2,520 students from three school districts. The researchers concluded that “when engineering is introduced at the beginning of the unit to provide context for the learning . . . student achievement gains with engineering assessment items are greater than when engineering is incorporated only at the end of the unit” (Crotty et al. 2017, p. 1).
In a classic paper on designing engineering challenges, Sadler, Coyle, and Swartz (2000) described work in developing and testing middle school STEM units with 457 students. This work identified important guidelines for an effective engineering design challenge experience. The first was to start with an “improvable” design, such as an electromagnet that worked poorly, with the challenge to improve its performance. For students to develop positive attitudes, they needed to have unambiguous ways to measure success and sufficient time to use the feedback from testing to optimize their designs.
A powerful tool for effective engagement is to develop engineering activities that are clearly relevant to improving students’ daily lives and their community. The first example that follows is centered around improving personal health, and the second describes the use of engineering to develop solutions to school and community problems.
High, Thomas, and Redmond (2010) studied middle school students who participated in a unit in which students designed a prosthetic arm. Students who participated in the unit (Get a Grip!) outperformed controls in math confidence, science confidence, effort toward math and science, awareness of engineering, and interest in engineering as a potential career. The researchers were also interested in the students’ perceptions about who can do math and science. In a survey in which students were asked about their level of agreement to statements such as “Girls are just as good as boys at math” and “Girls are smart enough to do science,” the researchers found that “The girls’ belief in their own skills and potential was significantly more positive than the boys’ belief in the girls. This seems to point to the fact that Get a Grip! improved the girls’ confidence while the boys held to more stereotypical beliefs” (High, Thomas, and Redmond 2010, p. 5).
Barton and Tan published several studies of engineering instruction with high-poverty urban students by helping them define and solve problems they encounter in their schools and community. In one study (Barton and Tan 2018), 41 teams of middle school students were challenged to engineer solutions to problems that they have encountered. Among the technologies the students developed were a heated sweatshirt, more accessible library resources, and an antibully app.
These experiences contributed to a sense of agency by providing students with new tools and recognition of their funds of knowledge for negotiating and overcoming injustice.
If you are interested in integrating engineering into your curriculum, the evidence is clear that an effective approach is to plan a new unit by weaving a design activity related to the science concepts into a unit you already teach. For better engagement, select an activity theme that meets a need or solves a problem relevant to students’ daily lives. For example, beginning a unit on energy by having students design, build, and test a solar oven or solar water heater would open the door to concepts such as energy transfer (from one place to another), transformation (from one form to another), and conservation; introduce engineering ideas, such as how to compare different designs by building and testing prototypes; and practice math skills as they collect, analyze, and interpret data. Many life science topics can be introduced through activities related to medicine or environmental engineering, while Earth science topics lend themselves to solving problems such as preventing erosion, or mitigating damage due to natural disasters. In planning the activity tactical flow, two key points are to start with a simpler but “improvable” design as an easy “on-ramp,” then leave plenty of time for multiple iterations so that student teams can experience the struggle and satisfaction of persisting through to a working solution.
Integrating engineering design into the science curriculum not only motivates science learning with engaging activities that students see as relevant to their lives, but it also helps prepare them with agency to tackle difficult problems. Engineering design experiences give students not only knowledge and skills, but also the practice of empathy, creativity, teamwork, and persistence needed to tackle the challenges they face entering a rapidly changing world.
Mihir K. Ravel and Cary Sneider (email@example.com) are Visiting Scholars at Portland State University in Portland Oregon, where Ravel is associated with the Maseeh College of Engineering and Sneider is associated with the Educational Leadership and Policy Department at the College of Education.
Barnett, M. 2005. Engaging inner city students in learning through designing remote operated vehicles. Journal of Science Education and Technology 14 (1): 87–100.
Barton, A.C., and E. Tan. 2018. A longitudinal study of equity-oriented STEM-rich making among youth from historically marginalized communities. American Education Research Journal 55 (4): 761–800.
Crotty, E.A., S.S. Guzey, G.H. Roehrig, A.W. Glancy, E.A. Ring-Whalen, and T.J. Moore. 2017. Approaches to integrating engineering in STEM units and student achievement gains. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER) 7 (2): Article 1.
Falk, J.H., L.D. Dierking, N. Staus, J. Wyld, D. Bailey, and W. Penuel. 2016. Taking an ecosystem approach to STEM learning: The Synergies Project as a case study. Connected Science Learning 1(1). https://bit.ly/3JQXZDH
High, K., J. Thomas, and A. Redmond. 2010. Expanding middle school science and math learning: Measuring the effect of multiple engineering projects. Paper presented at the P-12 Engineering and Design Education Research Summit, Seaside, Oregon.
Osborne, J., S. Simon, and S. Collins. 2003. Attitudes towards science: A review of the literature and its implications. International Journal of Science Education 25 (9): 1049–1079.
Sadler, P.M., H.P. Coyle, and M. Swartz. 2000. Engineering competitions in the middle school classroom: Key elements in developing effective design challenges. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 9 (3): 299–327.
Sadler, P.M., G. Sonnert, Z. Hazari, and R. Tai. 2012. Stability and volatility of STEM career interest in high school: A gender study. Science Education 96 (3): 411–427.
Sneider, C.I. and M.K. Ravel. 2021. Insights from two decades of P-12 engineering education research. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 11 (2): Article 5. https://doi.org/10.7771/2157-9288.1277
Tai, R.H., C.Q. Liu, A.V. Maltese, and X. Fan. 2006. Planning early for careers in science. Science 312 (5777): 1143–1144.