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CAPSULE: How to Use Engineering-Based Learning (EBL) in High School


Jessica Chin

Meeting Materials

With systematic structure, organized tools, proper resources, and hands-on real-world experiences, engineering-based learning (EBL) can be an effective teaching and learning model for high school STEM courses. EBL combines well-known tools from science and engineering to create a pedagogical process to enhance student-centered learning across multiple STEM disciplines. Unlike project-based learning (PBL), EBL is a systematic method for students and teachers to find an appropriate solution to a given open-ended real-world problem. EBL bridges the gap between STEM abstract concepts and real-life applications. Thus, EBL has the potential to motivate students to pursue college STEM degrees and join the STEM workforce.

The CAPSULE curriculum and EBL methodology is aligned with the following standards documents: National Educational Technology Standards (issued by ISTE), the Standards for Technological Literacy (issued by ITEA), the Next Generations Science Standards, and the Massachusetts State Framework, to allow for seamless scale-up at the national level.

There are a variety of ways to implement EBL in the classroom: with small, multiple capstone projects or one culminating experience; by unit, semester, or year. Each teacher can create a unique implementation plan to meet the conceptual needs of their students and fit into their curriculum plan.

A unit-based implementation lasts from one to three weeks. Teachers will develop a capstone experience particular to the STEM unit they are teaching. For some teachers, this type of implementation is easier because it has a narrower focus than a semester- or year-long capstone experience. This type of implementation allows students to experience small-scale, directed-learning environments. In addition to the hands-on component, students understand and reinforce specific theoretical principles while experiencing the capstone challenge.

The longer projects provide students with a real-world experience where they have to perform and finish the project in stages over time versus a day- or week-long project. Both the semester- and year-long capstone experiences provide students with an opportunity to design their own solutions to provided problems. In some cases, teachers allow students to choose their own problems to solve. Many teachers have tied in their current units to a part of a capstone experience.

Teacher Professional Development
CAPSULE includes a two-week/80-hour professional development program for high school teachers, with a three-graduate-credit option. The program focuses on the engineering-based learning methodology and its implementation in the classroom with the goal of attracting more high school students into STEM college careers. Week one of CAPSULE focuses on learning the concepts and tools involved in engineering-based learning, and culminates with participants developing and presenting a mini-capstone poster and presentation. Participants are presented with an open-ended problem such as “design a new office bookcase.” They are given a set of constraints and requirements, and divided into groups to solve this problem. The first week is meant for teachers to live the EBL experience in its entirety. Week two focuses on helping teachers apply the new tools, theories, and techniques they learned in the first week to their classroom teaching. Teachers are able to discuss with colleagues and the CAPSULE team how to best integrate EBL into their classroom.

The project has trained 82 high school STEM teachers (grades 9–12) from 45 school districts, and 62 distinct high schools. More than 4,500 students have participated in the program over the three years.

Potential Applications
A geometry teacher who works in an urban, lower income school with a high Asian and African American population successfully integrated multiple EBL lesson plans in her classroom. She helped her freshman students to connect math concepts such as probability, permutations, and pre-calculus through EBL projects such as the “Fist of Doom.” “Fist of Doom” is a design challenge wherein students have to research, design, and develop a structure that will protect a Pringle™ potato chip from damage caused by a textbook being dropped five feet above the chip. She also asked her junior pre-calculus students to redesign their current home into an “ideal” home based on certain constraints such as the number of rooms, types of rooms, and current house carbon footprint. This teacher reported that her students discovered how the math they were learning in the classroom was applicable to their life and potential careers.

Another teacher provided students with free, downloadable software, called stop-animation motion (SAM) videos, for their geometry capstone project. SAM videos allow students to design and create flipbook-like movies. By utilizing this software, students are able to take a challenging problem or theory and creatively construct a story and application to assist in learning and remembering that concept. One particular student struggled with understanding the applicability of the Pythagorean theorem. When he finished his video, he understood its importance in the design of not only his fictional bridge but also the bridge that he crosses every day to school.

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