Tools for Teaching and Learning Engineering Practices: Pathways Towards Productive Identity Developing in Engineering (I-Engineering)

Project Overview

I-Engineering is a four-year, $1.3 million project funded by the National Science foundation (NSF). This project builds on previous NSF-funded research that focused on the diverse ways in which young people engage in scientific and engineering practices in their communities, and the roles that teachers play in fostering similar opportunities in the classroom. I-Engineering expands on these explorations but also identifies two new goals. Researchers hope that I-Engineering can not only support students in learning engineering design, but also support them in recognizing that they belong in engineering.


Big Ideas

Transforming Early Engineering Education

I-Engineering is a response to a persistent large-scale problem faced in engineering education. The problem is not simply that students struggle when learning engineering design. The greater issue is that not enough students recognize that they could do well in engineering. In other words, there is not just a learning problem, but also an identity problem.

Researchers on this project are working to transform engineering education in the middle grades. Their goal is to design a framework and tools that allow students to engage in engineering practices while also urging them to pursue engineering as a career. If the project is successful, the resources produced could transform STEM education at the national level as well as broaden participation in engineering.

Developing an Engineering Identity

To address the identity problem with engineering, the research and development for this project is grounded in social practice and sociocultural theories of identity and learning. Studies show that interest in science/engineering in the middle grades is sustained by opportunities to be an expert—chances to be recognized by others as having expertise in science. When young people positioned themselves as community science experts— someone with knowledge of both science and community needs— they showed stronger learning gains and positive identification with science.

The I-Engineering project focuses on three observable and teachable dimensions of identity development in engineering:

  1. One’s developing knowledge and practice within a community of practice (e.g. engineering practices)
  2. Recognition by others
  3. Positioning/agency.

I-Engineering will provide scaffolding for students to help them make sense of the interplay between the technical and social dimensions of engineering design. Students will be encouraged to a) reflect on what they know and need to know to design solutions ( the knowledge/practice dimension), b) leverage an array of resources/perspectives towards moving designs forward ( the positioning/agency dimension), and c) present their expertise to others in ways people with different perspectives will understand ( the recognition dimension). In doing so, students will learn practical skills in addition to building self-confidence in their abilities to be engineers.

Over the course of the project, I-Engineering will reach over 500 students and their teachers in schools that serve predominantly underrepresented populations. Partner schools are located in mid-sized cities with different geographic and cultural contexts. Similarly, partner organizations were selected because they serve diverse groups in terms of socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Researchers will work closely with teachers and informal educators from Boys and Girls Clubs to design curriculum. By developing a curriculum and tools in collaboration with these diverse groups, I-Engineering will provide a nationwide solution for early engineering education.

Localizing Engineering

As part of their efforts to solve the identity problem with early STEM education, researchers aim to “localize” the engineering design process. To localize something is to keep it in a certain area. In this case, researchers will teach engineering as something that directly affects a certain community. Kids tend to learn and enjoy science more when they feel like it will contribute to their community. This project will help them to:

  1. identify problems within their community that technology can solve
  2. identify what they need to know about the technology to solve the problem
  3. identify a range of perspectives in both the engineering and local communities
  4. evaluate the impact of varying perspectives on the design process

Sustainable Communities

The National Resource Council (NRC) suggests that engineering for sustainable communities is a viable approach to solving the engineering pipeline issues faced by underrepresented minorities. This domain positively connects engineering to communities by dealing with problems and designing solutions for the real world. Such problems often have clear ties to social issues, which can deepen students’ understanding of the impact they can have as an engineer.

I-Engineering activities will focus on two engineering design challenges: 1) safe and green commutes, and 2) portable energy. These two issues were identified by kids through surveys as being important to them and their communities. The issues also exemplify engineering for sustainable communities, as energy is a fundamental concern.


The I-Engineering Curriculum

Design Challenges

Researchers are developing two engineering design challenges that focus on energy within the domain of sustainable communities: 1) Safe and green commutes and 2) Portable devices. These two problems offer a wide array of possible design projects and will form the base of the framework researchers are developing. Each challenge is intended to last two to three weeks, which is about 12-15 instructional hours. Students will move from the initial problem to optimized solutions through cycles of design.

Tool Set 1

The first tool being designed is a teacher support. It will help them to teach practices of defining problems in ways that incorporate the interactions between the technical and social dimensions. It is called the “Community Engineering and Ethnography Tool Set for Defining Problems” (CEE). CEE will include teaching thinking/reflection guides for planning lessons and for engaging students in activities to support their ability to define problems.

CEE tools position youth as engineering ethnographers. An ethnographer is someone who studies human culture. Researchers want kids to feel that they are capable of representing themselves and others and that they can use this insider knowledge to frame engineering problems. In other words, students will be able to appreciate engineering concerns as issues larger than personal interests. Researchers hope this will begin to address the identity problem and increase participation.  

To become ethnographers, however, teachers and their students will need tools that will support them in a) careful observation of people and phenomenon and the relationships among them, b) interview and conversational techniques that engage others in dialogue, and c) capturing images of people and phenomenon of interest. The CEE tool set will provide these supports. It will include a guide for GIS community mapping of resources, problem areas, locations of expertise, and points of interest (Google maps app). The map will be populated by CEE data and will allow students to organize, visualize, and analyze the types of data they have gathered and the interactions among them.

Tool Set 2

Researchers are also designing and testing the “Integrating Perspectives in Design Specification and Optimization Tool Set” (I-PID). The I-PID tool set will guide teachers to support students in reflexively analyzing these data towards possibilities for optimizing solutions, and to explore and try out the most desirable possibilities. Specifically, it will help teachers plan instruction that guides students in figuring out how to meet multiple, conflicting requirements, while being subject to constraints.


The I-Engineering team has a detailed plan to disseminate their curriculum and results at the end of the project. They plan to conduct workshops at the school level as well as at state/national level conferences. In addition, they want to host two national webinars. Researchers will also produce video exemplars of I-Engineering in practice, testimony from teachers, and examples of student work. Publications will be prepared for research journals and practitioner journals. Finally, the developed, tested, and refined framework and tools will be available for download on a project website. The project is expected to be completed by fall 2019.


I-Engineering Partners

I-Engineering will be carried out by researchers at both Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro. They will collaborate with community organizations and public schools serving predominantly underrepresented populations in Lansing and Jackson, MI and in Greensboro, NC. The project leaders from MSU include Dr. Angela Calabrese Barton, Dr. Scott Calabrese Barton, and Dr. Bob Geier from CREATE for STEM Institute. The project leader from UNC is Dr. Edna Tan. The team will be assisted by graduate students, local middle school science teachers, and informal educators from the partnering Boys and Girls Clubs. I-Engineering’s External Advisory Board is made up of Dr. William Penuel, Dr. Mark Windschitl, Dr. Vijay Ramani, and Dr. Na’ilah Nasir.


I-Engineering Milestones

With 18 months of internal funding from MSU, I-Engineering prototyped Tool Set 1 (CEE) with teachers and a cohort of youth in Lansing. The design challenge focused on “safe and green commutes” and lead to students producing a solar-powered light-up scooter. With new funding from NSF’s Discovery Research PreK-12 program (DRK-12), I-Engineering will conduct research and development from July 2015 – June 2019.


I-Engineering will involve four cycles of development work across two development phases.

Phase 1 of the project involves development and enactment of the I-Engineering framework and tools with ongoing feedback and revision. During the first cycle, the team completed the initial development of the tools and implemented them among 30 youth in grades 6/7. Sessions took place at the participating Boys and Girls Clubs (BGCs) of Lansing and Greensboro.

The project is now in its second cycle. Researchers are continuing development and implementation in the BGCs. Two design challenges are being addressed in a shorter period of time than in the first cycle. Also, classroom teachers are doing more co-teaching so researchers can see how the curriculum will translate to a classroom setting.

Phase 2 of the project involves refinement, implementation, and study of the I-Engineering framework and tools in classrooms. The third cycle will implement the tools in classrooms, where 6-8 teachers across the sites will teach at least one of the design challenges. Researchers will collect data throughout the school year.

The fourth, and last, cycle will implement I-Engineering among 400+ students across the sites. Returning teachers, in addition to 4-6 new teachers, will be asked to teach two design challenges. Again, data will be collected throughout the year.

The summer and fall of 2019 will be for refining what researchers have learned about how to support identity development in engineering. The framework and tools and the associated design challenges will undergo final revisions as well. All of these resources will be disseminated via the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) workshops and internet resource site and I-Engineering’s research website by the end of fall 2019.


Design Principles

The principles used to guide the development of the I-Engineering materials include:

  • Supporting identity development in engineering among students from underrepresented backgrounds
  • Developing curriculum and tools that promote both identity development and learning in engineering
  • Identifying patterns across classroom implementations that may indicate patterns towards broader dissemination
  • Engaging students in core engineering practices and design challenges
  • Providing support for teachers to teach engineering design
  • Communicating the value of iterative design


Links to the Next Generation Science Standards

Though not a central focus of the I-Engineering project, there are several connections to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). In their efforts to localize engineering design, researchers chose to focus on two engineering practices that are best suited to helping students merge the technological and social dimensions. These practices are 1) defining problems and 2) designing solutions.

In addition, energy is a cross-cutting theme in the NGSS. It is also a fundamental concern in engineering for sustainable communities. This project will require students to consider the roles that energy (and energy systems) play in everyday lives and in communities. Curriculum will focus specifically on forms of energy, energy transformations, and energy requirements.