Olathe High School students participating in Module 1 from the Building Informed Design Project.
Olathe Northwest High School chemistry students participating in Module 1 from the Building Informed Designers Project.

What physical and practical components and considerations would be necessary to build a bridge for wildlife isolated by human infrastructure such as roads and power lines? Why might an MRI machine work for adults but not produce clear images for younger patients?

High school students at Olathe Northwest High School in Kansas have been handed such problems to solve, as have Olathe educators who are also learning the ropes when it comes to teaching basic engineering design principles. The results of this collaborative study, developed by Ohio Northern University, Ohio State University and Olathe school district, will focus on learning and teaching methods that will encourage more teachers to incorporate engineering concepts into their lesson plans and entice more students from diverse backgrounds to pursue engineering careers.

“The engineering mindset can be applied to anything you do,” points out ONU associate professor of mechanical engineering J. Blake Hylton, Ph.D., who is one of the study’s co-investigators. “It’s important to know how, why, and what you need to do” to solve any problem, he says. Engineering concepts need not be the exclusive purview of white males who excel at math, he says, yet most engineers in the U.S. continue to be white men, a fact that’s supported with statistics that show degrees conferred. For instance, in 2018, 29.8% of engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, 11.4% to Hispanic graduates, and 4.2% to Black graduates, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

Now in its final year, the $450,000 National Science Foundation study, titled “Promoting Engineering Problem Framing Skill Development in High School Science and Engineering Courses,” was intended to last only three years; it was extended one year because of the pandemic. Along with Hylton, co-investigators include ONU’s Todd France, associate professor of engineering education; OSU senior lecturer in engineering education Patrick Herak, Ph.D.; and Bruce Wellman, a high school chemistry and engineering educator at Olathe Northwest High School. OSU graduate students are assisting.

Wellman’s extensive educational experience and leadership at the national level have proven to be an additional asset to the team. For instance, he served on the NSF STEM Education Advisory Panel, which is overseen jointly by the foundation in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The crux of the study, Wellman and Hylton say, is two-fold: identify effective ways to provide teachers, including those with no engineering experience, with the support and resources to incorporate engineering design concepts into their curricula, and encourage students to use engineering design principles to solve problems in ways that focus on the subjects themselves. After all, a solution that doesn’t take into account who it’s intended to serve may end up not serving that subject very well.

Wellman is hoping the study’s results can be housed in an open-access format that will allow any educator in the world to benefit from them.

Hylton and Wellman are also hoping that others recognize and even replicate their collaborative approach, which Hylton characterizes as rare for its incorporation of high school educator design input. Most studies that have the involvement and heft of R1 universities typically don’t draw upon K-12 input regarding research question development, choosing instead to take a top-down approach, but Wellman was involved in that process at its inception. Wellman’s teaching knowledge and own pedagogical research made this study’s research questions and curriculum adaptations more powerful and relevant. Along with deciphering how students can best learn engineering design principles, Wellman’s input has helped explore how teachers can be institutionally supported in their endeavors to add or enhance engineering concepts in their classrooms.

“I really wanted to be involved in bridging the gap between research and practice” in terms of formal higher education inquiry and K-12 teaching experiences, Wellman says.

Does an MRI machine’s malfunction with younger patients have to do with its design or with the patients themselves? When creating a robotic arm, who are the “stakeholders” that will be affected by its use? How could liquid fuel be safely stored at a busy space port? These are some of the learning modules Olathe students have experienced, which speaks to the study’s “framing” aim of learning. How a problem is presented can heavily influence learning outcomes, Wellman points out. Through the study, Olathe students and teachers have been exploring how myriad considerations and contingencies are problem-solving necessities, and how those skills can best be taught.

“We are developing design activities using similar things that we teach in our first-year engineering program (at ONU), only scaled to a more introductory level,” Hylton says.

With a dozen Olathe teachers and about 500 students in its engineering and science classes officially participating in the study, the results, bolstered by such high participation numbers, could be a cross-functional game changer for teachers leery of exploring with their students topics that are outside of their narrow areas of expertise and for students who are siloed in their studies.

Wellman said that Olathe educators and students have already seen positive outcomes thanks to this project. Even those in the district’s Engineering Academy are starting to think more holistically when it comes to problem-solving. Initially, he said, he was frustrated by the lack of problem framing within the classrooms. “You’re jumping into these design projects and they’re not even thinking about what the real problem is,” he says. Now, “They’re getting outside of their own experience” and asking more questions at the outset to better understand the problem in more depth, he notes.

“For me, I was able to have a couple of ‘ah ha’ moments,” Wellman says. “One of the teachers came to me and said, ‘You know what? I hadn’t really thought about it but this engineering design framing, that’s actually what good teaching is like because you have to understand your stakeholders. You have to design a learning pathway that incorporates their needs, that incorporates the complexity of what they’re learning.’”

The pandemic even caused study participants to fine-tune their teaching and learning in more efficient ways. Wellman said the lessons had previously been “very much paper/pencil based.” Now, “there’s a common denominator for technology” thanks to remote learning.

“I believe that we’re definitely changing our students” in positive ways, Wellman says. Participating teachers are seeing a difference too in how they’re delivering their lessons.

“We wanted to explore how teachers feel about their own efficacy in teaching,” says Wellman. “Again, it comes down to professional development.”

“Hopefully we can identify ways to get more students from more backgrounds interested in engineering,” says Hylton. “The field struggles with closed identity in a lot of ways.”