The “E” in STEM: Explicitly Teaching Engineering

By Elizabeth A. Parry

STEM has emerged as the educational priority of the 21st century, in that it aims to link deeper student learning with real-world connections and critical thinking. Literally, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Across the educational system, however, there are a wide variety of interpretations and multiple meanings when it comes to STEM in PreK-12 schools. Regardless of the approach, the “E” in STEM is often an afterthought with mathematics and science typically receiving more instructional attention. We are therefore missing an enormous opportunity to address a critical need for engineering knowledge beginning at the earliest stages of formal education.

Providing such knowledge requires that we critically examine current educational practice. For example, what is the end goal of preK-12 education? What skills do we want our graduates of elementary, middle and high schools to have to be productive citizens, to guide the future of our country through policy and practice? I would argue that our graduates should be able to enter post-secondary education or the workforce as confident problem solvers who can:

  • work productively in collaborative teams;  
  • make decisions based on objective measures and data;
  • fail and then recover from it by using a systematic approach.

Failure in the context of preK-12 education is a provocative topic to address directly. Engineers use problem-solving design processes that include analysis of results and opportunities to improve on those results based on the constraints and criteria specified. Currently, the concept of failure has real and negative connotation in the preK-12 world. Teaching engineering permits the acknowledgement that failure, in and of itself, can be instructive. The reality is humans will fail in their lives, and preparing students to be adults that realize this is normal and that you can recover from it is part of creating a productive citizen.

Explicit instruction of engineering for all, from preschool through graduation, will provide the structure to both develop these life skills and introduce the opportunities of engineering and engineering technology careers to students and their parents. To accomplish this, we must focus on increasing the engineering literacy of our citizens in general. 

Despite the increased focus on STEM, and although engineering has been around since long before the development and dissemination of mathematical expression and scientific discovery, public understanding of the critical role of engineers in a civilized society remains very low.

It can be seen as either an elite profession best suited only for the top performing students in math and science or as one that simply builds things. Many people have no knowledge of what engineers do. These factors, particularly with regard to the influence of parents, have a negative impact on the number of students who become engineers and on the diversity of these students.  Engineers create technologies to solve problems, answer needs and address wants, big and small.  A broader perspective as found on a diverse team of engineers brings a better solution to a problem. When engineering is presented as a distinct discipline that can utilize knowledge from science or mathematics, but that also depends on skills in creativity, communication and collaboration, it appeals to a more diverse group of students. They can see that engineering at its core is independent of reliance on any single content area and that engineers solve problems for people in a society.

Modern engineering practice is dependent on the development of an engineering mindset and skills necessary to transcend disciplinary limitations in solving problems. This mindset includes the nature, content and practice of engineering, developing knowledge in:  (a) engineering design, including habits of mind; (b) engineering careers; and (c) engineering and society. These are described in “Standards for Preparation and Professional development for Teachers of Engineering,” available on the ASEE website. (Farmer, Klein-Gardner and Nadelson, 2013)

Literacy in engineering design encompasses developing an understanding of engineering as innovative, collaborative, iterative and systematic in both thinking and process. Developing engineering habits of mind are key.  The term “habit of mind” was originally used by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Science for All Americans and referred to “values, attitudes, and skills” relating to how one learns, acts, and thinks. The National Research Council/National Academy of Engineering Committee on K-12 Engineering adopted the term “engineering habits of mind” in its 2009 report (Katehi, Pearson and Feder; 2009) and identified these as:

  • systems thinking;
  • creativity;
  • optimism;
  • collaboration;
  • communication; and
  • attention to ethical considerations.

To develop a broad knowledge of engineering, students also must understand the critical role engineering plays in society: that it has a long history, is relevant to today’s problems and opportunities, and is influenced by cultures and societies. Key to this understanding is that engineers generate technological solutions that are intended to add value to society, but that may sometimes have negative consequences. Finally, it is imperative that students develop knowledge about engineering careers, particularly the areas of specialization as well as the different routes to engineering career pathways.

From the earliest civilizations, engineering has held us in awe. The Roman aqueducts, Greek temples and the Egyptian pyramids present us with enduring examples of the elegant art and science of problem solving that is the soul of engineering. Through the centuries, advancements in knowledge represented by the engineer using scientific laws, mathematical equations, creative artistry and descriptive text have allowed us to both explain engineering principles as well as provide a platform for extending and expanding technological advances. 

The current focus on STEM education provides an opportunity to change the conversation about engineering. By explicitly teaching about engineering as a profession that relies on training and demonstrated abilities in not only math and science, but reading, writing, social studies from history to society, the arts, life skills such as productive collaboration, communication, persistence, creativity and ethics as well as local to global views, more students—and a more diverse group of students—will have the opportunity to pursue it as a career. While this is an important global need, it is also a national imperative that impacts everything from national security to economic and workforce development. The need for home-grown, diverse problem solvers has never been more critical to address some of the big challenges we face today.


National Research Council. Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2009.

Farmer, Cheryl; Klein-Gardner, Stacy; and Nadelson, Louis.  Standards for Professional Development for K-12 Teachers of Engineering. Washington, DC:  The American Society for Engineering Education, 2014.

Elizabeth A. Parry has been an engineer and consultant in K-12 Engineering and a Coordinator and Instructor at the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University for nearly 20 years.