Society’s Grand Challenges for Engineering as a Context for Middle School STEM Instruction

Amy Wendt
Meeting Materials

The inclusion of engineering into the Next Generation Science Standards leaves both science education and engineering educators with cause for both excitement and alarm. Science education watchers, for example, fear loss of science instruction time and obfuscation of the nature of science, while teachers may assume that “build a bridge Fridays” will provide sufficient science instruction for an entire week. Engineering counterparts fear that a focus on student competition to build structures will pass as engineering while presenting students with a narrow view of engineering careers and omitting key engineering principles. Alternatively, integration of engineering with math and science instruction may be viewed as an educational opportunity—a means to engage students through compelling real-world societal challenges, and to leverage the natural linkages between science and engineering to facilitate learning both subjects.

Society’s Grand Challenges for Engineering as a Context for Middle School STEM Instruction is a research project initiated at University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 2010 with support from the NSF ITEST program, with the objective of exploring the integration of socially motivated engineering into math and science classrooms. An interdisciplinary team of engineers and science educators have developed a set of model modules based on the National Academy of Engineering's (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering Initiative, to serve as a model for the integration of engineering into science and math curricula in a way that accurately portrays both the distinct features of the disciplines and their interdependence.

Our emphasis on altruistic engineering projects is motivated by the NAE’s Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, which has identified messaging as an important factor in the low representation of women in undergraduate engineering programs. An extensive survey of high school students systematically concludes that messaging about engineering that emphasizes “math and science” and the notion of a “challenge” is not aligned with key motivators for girls. Rather, they find that messages that focus on features of the engineering profession not widely emphasized, such as “making a difference in the world” and “creativity,” hold much stronger appeal. The survey also found that both male and female students rank engineering as the least desirable among professions listed, behind teacher, doctor, lawyer and business, and that only 29% of girls (compared with 51% of boys) say engineering would be a good or very good profession for someone like them.

Middle school students were selected as the target population because middle school is a critical juncture during which many students begin to seriously consider career options. Attitudes about self and the world of work that are held during this period form the foundational belief system from which students draw to set career goals for themselves and to choose high school courses and activities. This is also a period during which comprehensive approaches to career awareness and exploration can be particularly impactful and have been shown to increase students’ awareness of and self-efficacy for a broad range of career options including STEM careers.

Six curriculum units based on four Grand Challenge themes have been developed and are currently being piloted at six Wisconsin public middle schools:

  • Health Care: Biomedical Imaging
  • Water Resources: Drinking Water Quality
  • Improving Aging Infrastructure:
    • Bridge Restoration
    • Seismic Retrofitting
  • Solar Energy:
    • Solar Cooking
    • Photovoltaics for Lighting

Each unit includes detailed guides for both teachers and students, and employs realistic fictional scenarios to engage a broad spectrum of students through role play as engineers as they tackle specific design problems inspired by real societal needs. Standards-based middle school science, math, and engineering content are embedded within the modules, consistent with recommendations in the Next Generation Science Standards.

The research component of this project has been led by team members with expertise in education, including a particular focus on self-efficacy for STEM. Data collection is underway using validated instruments to assess student outcomes, with an emphasis on gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Research questions address whether participating students (compared with a control group) (1) report higher levels of STEM career interests, (2) report higher math and science self-efficacy and outcomes expectations, and (3) engage in more exploration of STEM careers.

Potential Applications
The Grand Challenges curriculum units have been designed for integration into core math and science classrooms at the middle school level. The Grand Challenges modules offer a strategy for meeting the new engineering standards, and serve as a model for integration of engineering into math and science curricula.

For More Information
Contact Amy Wendt,