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Center for STEM Research

Perspectives on K-12 Engineering

David Burghardt and Michael Hacker
Hofstra Center for Technological Literacy

What is engineering?  Why should students learn about engineering?  How can it help them?
To answer these questions we need to move beyond the workaday definitions that describe the professional practice of engineering, to the overall characteristics of engineering, the habits of mind and the engineer's way of viewing the world.   Notice that the word engineer can be a noun or a verb.   One can be an engineer, one can engineer a solution.  The etymological root lies in the Latin word, ingeniare, to devise or design. The definition advanced by ABET is that "engineering is the creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination."  Webster's College Dictionary provides the following definition— "the practical application of science and mathematics, as in the design and construction of machines, vehicles, structures, roads and systems."   These definitions belie the uniqueness of engineering, its body of thought, and the methodology, that it employs.   Building on the ideas of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures, engineers are optimists, they believe they can improve a design, create a solution, solve a problem; it is an outlook inherent to the profession, embedded in the engineering educational system.

To help us gain greater perspective, the information in Table 1 seeks to contrast the differences between math, science, engineering and social science/humanities.  Of course these are thumbnail sketches, but they can highlight the differences between disciplines and help in thinking about the overarching themes that define engineering, noun and verb.   Science is the study of the natural world, a discipline engaged in discovering the whys and wherefores of natural phenomena.   There is a process for this investigation, scientific inquiry, in which a hypothesis is posed and logical investigations are undertaken to confirm or deny the hypothesis.   Mathematics has its own philosophy and patterns.   It is often used by engineers and scientists to model designs or represent natural phenomena, such as Newton's second law of motion, F = m a.   There are rules of mathematical analysis, theorems, that allow us to manipulate such equations.  A publication by the National Research Council, Helping Children Learn Mathematics, discusses the big ideas and habits of mind needed to be mathematically successful.  The social sciences and humanities provide an entirely different view of the world, a world shaped by human perceptions and understandings.   For instance, a novel or a political or social event can by analyzed from many different perspectives.   There is no correct answer, but justified opinions.

Table 1: Comparison between different fields of thought.
Technology Education and Engineering
Social sciences
and humanities
Study of the human-made world Study of the natural world Study of mathematical constructs Study of human mind and perception
Engineering design Scientific inquiry Mathematical analysis Rhetoric and criticism

Iterative design process, optimum solution

Hypothesis testing and evaluation

Theorems, proofs, rational constructs

Eclectic methods, comparative values

Artifact produced

Theory confirmed

Theorem validated

Opinion rationalized

Engineering uniquely connects all these disciplines.   In creating the human-made world, engineers must use knowledge from science, mathematics and social sciences and humanities.  In contrast to scientific inquiry and mathematical analysis, engineering design does not seek a unique or correct solution, but rather seeks the best or optimum solution after a variety of factors are weighed, such as cost, materials, aesthetics, and marketability.  The design process is iterative, creative, nonlinear.   The solutions are tempered by our societal values.   Hence, the optimal solution for one person may not be the optimum solution for another.   Because we can bring our values to our design solutions, engineering design can be a very engaging pedagogical strategy.

Engineering becomes a way of understanding the human-made world, how it was created, how it functions and how it might be changed.   Engineers realize that what has been made can be improved.   Even if it were optimum at a moment in time for the specifications and constraints that were imposed, new technologies, new opinions, new perspectives allow for different solutions.  This is a very empowering feature of engineering and this is in significant contrast to scientific and mathematical understandings, where hypotheses and theorems may be refined, but in the main they remain unalterable.  

There is a strain to understand the differences between engineering, technology and technology education.   The following definitions may help in differentiating the fields.

Engineering — creating the human-made world, the artifacts and processes that never existed before.   This is in contrast to science, the study of the natural world.  Most often engineers do not literally construct the artifacts, they provide plans and directions for how the artifacts are to be constructed.   Artifacts may be as small like a hand calculator or large like a bridge.   They also design processes, the processes may be those used in chemical and pharmaceutical industries to create chemicals and drugs, to directing how components are put together on an assembly line, or indicating how checks are to be processed in banking.  

Technology — the artifacts and processes. 

Technology Education  — the study of the human-made world, its artifacts and processes. 

The Standards for Technological Literacy (2000) and Project 2061 (1993) discuss the designed world and learning outcomes for K-12 associated with the technology education perspective.  Certainly design plays an important role, as do ethics and the impact of technology on society.   In addition, technical content, such as transportation systems and manufacturing systems, are viewed as important to know.   The idea of systems thinking is supported and the connections made to natural and mathematical systems.    

Engineering design is not trial-and-error gadgeteering.   Engineers use their knowledge of science and engineering science to understand what is happening physically, their use of mathematics to create models that may be analyzed, and their understanding of prior technological solutions so they can innovate.   Then they create design solutions.   This is in contrast to the process used by inventors who may gadgeteer, arriving at a workable solution that they can patent or manufacture.   The use of modeling, with its inherent predictive analysis, is one of the significant differences between engineering and technology education, and engineering and art.  

Engineers use modeling as a way to better understand what an actual artifact or process is experiencing.  Consider a wooden plank used as a foot bridge across a stream.   An engineer might be asked to predict whether or not the plank would break if subjected to a certain load.   The engineer creates a representational model of the plank, including its size, assumptions about physical properties such as Young's modulus and yield stress, about property variation, and about how the plank is secured on the banks of the stream.  Using the representational model, the engineer creates a free-body diagram and from the free-body diagram develops a mathematical model based on laws of mechanics.   The accuracies of the representational model and the mathematical model determine how valid the predictions are.   In the design process engineers create representational models of solutions and then mathematically characterize (model) them , e.g. free-body diagrams, to predict behavior. 

In K-12 Engineering modeling is the combination of representational models, which may be drawings or three-dimensional renditions, and mathematical models based on or incorporated with the representational models.  For instance, in fourth grade students could design a scaled version of a classroom.  They would create scale drawings which would later be transferred to three-dimensional renditions of the design.  The renditions could be made of cardboard.   So there is a balance between the physical representational model and the mathematical model.   In K-12 Engineering, particularly in the K-5 grades, the physical representational model will have certain attributes that are mathematically determined.   As the students gain greater knowledge and skill, the mathematical modeling aspect can increase in sophistication.  In 11th  and 12th grades, students could represent actual electric and electronic circuits with circuit elements-resistance, capacitance, inductance, voltage and current sources-and then use mathematical models of the circuit elements to predict behavior.   In design students would not construct the circuit first, initially they create a design they think will accomplish the desired goals, then representationally and mathematically model it.   If the goals are achieved, then the actual circuit is constructed and tested to determine if the modeling (both types) was accurate.

K-12 Engineering for All Students

In thinking about K-12 Engineering for all students, we need to consider children's developmental capability, and what the classroom environment typically is and what the expectations are in terms of educational objectives.   The K-12 spectrum is often divided into grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 and Table 1 indicates what how engineering might appear at different grade levels. 

Table 1: Engineering at different grade levels
Grades K-5 Grades 6-8 Grades 9-12
At these grades students are primarily in self-contained classrooms with their teacher.  The general focus of education is on literacy and math reasoning.   There often are specialists for science, art and physical education.  It is recommended there be an Elementary Engineering K-5 specialist as well to support the classroom teacher.  In this role, the specialist will help develop curriculum that explains the human-made world, how things work, systems thinking, societal impacts of technology.  There could be design projects that support other curricular areas, such as creating robots from cardboard boxes and paper rolls in kindergarten that support measuring, to creating models of buildings in fifth grade that must meet certain volume and surface area requirements.   It is also possible to use materials, such as Engineering is Elementary, as replacement science activities, though the thrust of NAE K-12 effort is not selling engineering, but using the pedagogical strengths that engineering brings to develop student knowledge in core academic disciplinary areas. At these grades students often move as a class cohort, changing teachers for different content areas.  The general focus remains on literacy and math, but broadens to include social studies and science.  There may be elective offerings.  It is recommended there be a secondary education Engineering Specialist who will have two roles, one analogous to that of the K-5 Engineering Specialist and the other role in providing a year-long course for all students in Engineering/Technology education.  This course could be similar to middle school ET courses that currently exist, with strong connections to grade level appropriate math and science.  Much of the content of these courses are design-based projects.  The projects begin to use some modeling for predictive analysis.  Support to academic areas can include information re societal impacts, as well as mini-design projects.   There could be some design-based science labs, replacing existing science experiment labs. At these grades students move as cohorts and as individuals, as they begin to tailor their educational programs.   There is expanding accountability in science and social science and continuing accountability in language arts and mathematics.  It is recommended there be a secondary education Engineering Specialist who will have two roles, one analogous to that of the K-5 Engineering Specialist and to provide a year-long course for all students in Principles of Engineering.   This course would focus on case studies and these would feature societal impacts and ethics.   For instance, there could be environmental impact case studies re development and ergonomic design considerations in  developing emergency shelters.   Gathering and using data in the case studies will be important, as well as modeling the solution prior to prototype design.    Support to academic areas can include information re societal impacts, as well as mini-design projects.   There could be some design-based science labs, replacing existing science experiment labs.

Contrasting K-12 Engineering with K-12 Science

According to Taking Science to School (NRC, 2007), the following themes are necessary for students to be proficient in science.   They should

  1. know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world;
  2. generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations;
  3. understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and
  4. participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.

How is science currently taught?   What are the attributes at the different grade levels?  In general, there is more focus on living things than there is on inanimate matter.   Children begin to learn about themselves and their interactions with the natural world around them.   As this progresses to middle school, the physical world becomes more important, but less so than the living world.   Science is primarily qualitative at the elementary and middle-school levels.   In high school, specialty content areas in biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science are often included in student requirements.   There is an increase in quantitative reasoning in chemistry and physics; earth science and biology often are relatively more qualitative.   All require laboratory experiments and reports, which can include data analysis and explanations, particularly so at the high school level.

The information in Table 2 is based on the New York State Core Science Standards which match national science standards.

Table 2: Science at different grade levels
Grades K-4 Grades 5-8 Grades 9-12
Science is often taught by the classroom teacher, perhaps 2 periods per week.  In general, elementary school teachers have had little science (or math) at the college level.  Some more affluent schools have science specialists who meet with the class; there may be science specialists to assist classroom teachers.   There may be science kits (e.g. Foss) provided and teachers follow the provided guide.   The goal is the understand major themes in the natural world such as earth and celestial surroundings, weather and climate, properties of matter, energy forms, living and non-living things, genetics, evolution, reproduction. Science is taught by a science specialist, ideally certified in a content area of secondary science, though grade 6 still is elementary in terms of certification.   Students may meet daily for science, since it is required each year, for the whole year.  The topics are similar to those at the elementary level, except the detail is greater.   Major topics include human systems, cells, genetics, reproduction, evolution, earth and celestial surroundings, erosion, rocks and minerals, earthquakes, properties of matter, chemical and physical changes, energy forms. Science is taught by a science specialist.   Students take a science course for the whole year.   Courses typically are chemistry, physics, earth science (environmental science), and biology.  Students meet for lecture and laboratory classes.

In analyzing the Tables 1 and 2 (K-12 Engineering and K-12 Science), you will notice there is very little overlap in terms of key ideas.    Science is concerned with understanding the natural world, Engineering is concerned with understanding the human-made world.   This is not to say that connections cannot be made, the content of Engineering is Elementary does just that in terms of replacing some science curriculum with engineering curriculum.

Importantly, another aspect of K-12 Engineering that needs to be explored is using engineering design as a pedagogical approach.  This has had success in different content areas; success being defined as improved student learning and interest in the core content (Koch and Burghardt, 2002) (Akins and Burghardt, 2006).  However, there have been no rigorous studies to date. 

Contrasting K-12 Engineering with College Level Engineering

Much of the engineering curriculum is primarily devoted to analysis (modeling) and secondarily to systems and design.  The other strands are of lesser curricular importance.   The ABET accreditation guidelines, which drive curriculum, enforce this view.   Similarly, the Professional Engineering Fundamentals examination focuses primarily on engineering analysis, so majors that find the PE license important need to assure students an education congruent with it.    


Returning to the initial questions, engineering (the verb) provides all students with problem- solving strategies for understanding the human-made world and for applying concepts in mathematics, science and social science and humanities.   Engineering (the noun) can refine these skills for students interested in further exploring the human-made world.  The prime goal for K-12 engineering relates to furthering the intellectual capability of all students to understand
the technologically complex world we live in and through a system (engineering) that meaningfully connects mathematics, science and social sciences and humanities.


AAAS (1993).  Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy.   Oxford University Press, New York.

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs: Effective for Evaluations During the 2001-2002 Accreditation Cycle. ABET. Baltimore, MD. 2001.

Akins, Leah and Burghardt, David.  (2006). Improving K-12 Mathematics Understanding with Engineering Design Projects, 2006 Frontiers in Education Conference, San Diego.

Kilpatrick, J. and Swalford, J. Editors (2002).  HelpingChildren Learn Mathematics. National Research Council.

Koch, Janice and Burghardt, David. (2002). Design Technology in the Elementary School-A Study of Teacher Action ResearchJournal of Technology Education, 13, 2.

Snow, C.P. (1993). The Two Cultures.  Cambridge University Press.

Standards for Technological Literacy (2000).  International Technology Education Association.  Reston, VA.

Taking Science to School. (2007).  National Research Council.  Washington, D.C.