Is Engineering Literacy for all students?

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

We interact with the human-made world every day. Nevertheless, most adults have very little understanding about how that world works or was created. Children in our schools spend years learning about the natural world but spend a glaringly insufficient amount of time studying the human-made world. President Emeritus of the Boston Museum of Science, Ioannis Miaoulis, famously highlighted the blatant omission, by saying, "Students in middle school can spend weeks learning how a volcano works, and no time understanding how a car works. How often will they find themselves in

a volcano?"


Dr. Miaoulis advocated for technological literacy as basic literacy Technological literacy is an important goal for all students. However, the term "technological literacy" is often confused or misrepresented as "computer literacy" in school systems. With the rise of computer science education in P-12 schools, the distortion will likely continue to grow. Engineering literacy is closely related to technological literacy. Whereas technological literacy represents understanding of the destination of human ingenuity (e.g. construction, manufacturing, medical, transportation) and the human interactions with those technologies (see Technically Speaking), engineering literacy is concerned with the journey that inventors, innovators, makers, designers, and literate citizens participate in while improving and interacting with the systems, products, and services of our world. These interactions require that an engineering literate person become familiar with associated scientific, mathematical, and technical knowledge. While this may seem like we are splitting hairs in an attempted to describe the differences between engineering literacy and technological literacy, the small deviations are fundamental in developing programs for students (see Engineering: A National Imperative).


The upcoming Framework for P-12 Engineering Learning defines engineering literacy to help guide P-12 program development. Below is an excerpt from the Framework for P-12 Engineering Learning:


"Engineering literacy is the confluence of content knowledge, habits, and practical skills merged with the ability to read, write, listen, speak, think, and perform in a way that is meaningful within the context of engineering. Comparable to the idea of three-dimensional learning presented in the Next Generation Science Standards and the K-12 Computer Science Framework, engineering literacy is achieved through the Engineering Habits of Mind (e.g. Optimism, Persistence, Creativity) that students should develop over time through repetition and conditioning, Engineering Practices (Engineering Design, Materials Processing, Quantitative Analysis, Professional Conventions) in which students should become competent, and Engineering Knowledge (Engineering Sciences, Engineering Mathematics, Technical Applications) that students should be able to recognize and access to inform their engineering practice."


The goal of Engineering Literacy for All is to ensure that every student, regardless of their race, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, or career interests, has the opportunity to develop these three dimensions to become informed citizens who are capable of adapting to and thriving in the workplace and society of the future. Therefore, by the end of secondary school all students should be provided the learning experiences necessary to (1) orient their ways of thinking by developing Engineering Habits of Mind and (2) be able to competently enact the Engineering Practices. The Engineering Knowledge dimension is defined as the scientific, mathematical, and technical core concepts that students should appreciate and be able to draw upon, when appropriate, to better perform the practices of engineering. One would not expect a student to fully understand each of the Engineering Knowledge core concepts in depth by the end of secondary school. But, to be engineering literate individuals, they will be able to deploy their Engineering Habits of Mind as the thinking strategies to acquire and apply the appropriate Engineering Knowledge, along with their competence in Engineering Practice, to confront and solve the problems in which they encounter.


To echo the words of Dr. Miaoulis, engineering literacy is basic literacy. An engineering literate citizenship would have immediate impact on our society. Young adults would be better prepared to participate in our democratic government, make decisions about careers, and improve their everyday livelihood with an engineering mindset.


-Tanner

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