This week I’m headed to the NSTA National Conference on Science Education in LA, where I’ll be blogging and tweeting about all things engineering and STEM! As an engineering educator, I am keenly interested in helping to prepare our future workforce and citizenry through meaningful, robust, and integrated instruction that includes engineering. In my career, I have worked as an engineer at IBM, owned a science/engineering education business, directed National Science Foundation grants focused on high-quality STEM instruction, taught first-year engineering, worked intensively with schools (especially high poverty; high needs and also gifted) to use engineering as a way to change the culture, and done research and lots of practice with the Engineering is Elementary team from the Museum of Science Boston.
As a consultant, my goal for the schools I work with are simple: That students will go on to the next level as (1) confident learners who can work productively with other people (2) problem solvers who can use data and evidence to make decisions and (3) people who can fail, and then recover from it, because that’s what humans do.
Engineering brings to the STEM table a myriad of things, not the least of which is a set of habits of mind that help develop good citizens. As reported in a 2009 National Academies of Engineering publication, the habits of mind of engineers are (1) communication (2) collaboration (3) creativity (4) optimism (5) ethical considerations and (6) systems thinking. Of course, many professions across the academic spectrum certainly develop and utilize similar skills sets. But let me tell you about them from the engineering point of view:
- Communication: Clearly, the ability to communicate effectively will serve anyone well. In engineering, being able to speak, write and read about your ideas and solutions could make the difference between maybe changing the world or just having a good idea! I tell my engineering students—even the kindergarteners!—that you could have the best idea in the world but if you can’t share it effectively, it’s just that—an idea.
- Collaboration: Engineers never work in isolation, despite some old misconceptions and stereotypes. As an engineering manager/mechanical engineer, I specialize not only in the process skills of engineering projects but also in the “moving parts” realm from the mechanical engineering end. When I worked for IBM, I traveled internationally to purchase a part built to our specifications. However, my mechanical part is of no good if I didn’t also collaborate with electrical engineering, computer science and manufacturing engineering colleagues—since my part went in their system. When I talk to students, I challenge them to think of one profession where someone works completely alone. Collaborating effectively is a life skill, one that needs to be taught early and often. Engineering is natural for this.
- Creativity: It is said that engineers “create what has never been.” Indeed, while many engineers improve upon existing technologies (meaning ANYTHING designed by humans, even if it doesn’t use a plug!), engineering is primarily about innovation. Innovation relies on creativity—new ideas, new uses for old things and solving unfamiliar problems.
- Optimism: This is an interesting word to associate with the public perception of engineering provided only by “Dilbert” for generations! In my world, optimism has huge and important meaning. For an engineer, it translates into persistence. The persistence to keep trying even after many “failures”; the persistence to try something completely new and often the persistence to be the lone voice in support of taking a chance. Optimism is a cornerstone of engineering.
- Ethical Considerations: Especially with young children, ethical behavior is often left to the adults in any one child’s life. In only a few professions are ethics considered critical, and even then skepticism often abounds. In engineering, ethics are a required part of our training. For some of our disciplines, particularly those in the broader fields of civil, electrical and mechanical design, it is a requirement that one become licensed as an expert. This involves an 8-hour exam the last semester of college, four years under the direct supervision of a professional engineer, and then sitting for another comprehensive exam. All graduating engineers, regardless of discipline, are invited to take part in the Order of the Engineer professional commitment ceremony, pledging to use the skills they have developed, included training in ethics, for the benefit of society and the people they serve. At that ceremony, we are given a simple band to wear on the small finger of our writing hand, as a reminder of our professional pledge every time we sign our names. Teaching and talking about ethical behavior begins in kindergarten in my schools.
- Systems Thinking: Rather than a personal characteristic of the engineer herself, “systems thinking” is more of an overall perspective engineers are trained in. We are taught to draw boundaries around our problem, identify inputs and expected outputs and use all of this in our problem definition and solution. Teachers are also trained this way, with different terminology! At the simplest level, the classroom walls are the first boundary; the primary input the students (!), standards, etc and the primary output is achievement.
I am most excited about this opportunity to blog from NSTA because every single time I’m around people who are doing really great work and are excited enough to share it, it’s contagious! I love to learn, and I’ve never left an NSTA gathering without learning. I’m also really excited to have the opportunity to interact with those in the science community who are experts in engineering, those who are just learning, and those who have no idea but want to learn. Please look for me in sessions about engineering or follow this blog, and please use hashtags #NSTA17 and #STEMninjaneer on any reposts—thanks so much!
Author Liz Parry is a guest blogger for NSTA for the 2017 National Conference; follow Liz on Twitter @STEMninjaneer.
More About the 2017 National Conference on Science Education
Browse the program preview, or check out more sessions and other events with the LA Session Browser/Personal Scheduler. Follow all our conference tweets using #NSTA17, and if you tweet, please feel free to tag us @NSTA so we see it!
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.
Future NSTA Conferences
2017 STEM Forum & Expo
Kissimmee/Orlando, July 12–14
2017 Area Conferences