Project-based Learning in a High School Pre-engineering Program: Findings on Student Achievement (RTP, Strand 3)

Todd France
2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition Proceedings   unpublished
Todd France is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is part of the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education Program and helps teach and develop curriculum at a high school STEM academy. His research focuses on pre-engineering education and project-based learning. The STEM academy In the fall of 2009, a pre-engineering academy within a newly-renovated public high school opened its doors. Though the program officially carried the label of STEM, the primary focus was set
more » ... ely on the 'E'. The overarching goals of the academy were to introduce students to the field of engineering, providing them with positive experiences in the field, as well as to help prepare them for entering an engineering or STEM-related degree program upon graduation. At the same time, there was a noted purpose to remain inclusive, to serve the local community and the general population of the school, more than half of which was made up of underrepresented minorities. By 2013, the once-dire school's previously-declining enrollment had turned around, due in large part to the STEM initiative. About one in four students at the school was enrolled in the academy, which boasted a total of 340 members. The academy was quite diverse, minority and female students each comprising 35% of the population, while 23% were of low socioeconomic status. Lacking the necessary funds to purchase ready-made engineering curricula at its inception, two science teachers had been tasked with creating the course plans themselves. These two, who also served as the original instructors, possessed valuable backgroundsone having earned a degree in mechanical engineering while the other had worked in the construction field. Although neither had experience in engineering education methods, faculty members from a nearby engineering college provided guidance. Before designing individual courses, the teachers generated two documents intended to form the foundation of all ensuring coursework. The first of these documents, entitled the Academic Standards, focused on five key areas for student development: 1) STEM career exploration, 2) collaborative teamwork skills, 3) STEM skills and knowledge, 4) open-ended hands-on design, and 5) communication skills. The second, called the Grade Level Expectations, broadly outlined the learning outcomes for each of the program's four years. These expectations dealt largely with the utilization of the engineering design process, computer-aided design, physical construction, technical report writing, and experimental data collection. For example, sophomores' expectations included the ability to "use provided STEM related content and resources to complete the required project," while juniors were required to be "aware of, and independently seek, STEM related resources to complete projects and assist with design needs." The college representatives recommended that the academy employ the project-based learning model. Not only would hands-on projects engage students in the classroom, much of the coursework could be completed in teams, allowing the students to gain valuable collaboration experience, a key skill the faculty members noted that their own incoming college freshmen were lacking. The engineering design process was established as the means by which students were expected to work through their projects, intended to foster critical thinking as teams proceeded through iterative cycles of ideation, creation, evaluation, and modification aimed at optimizing product performance. Rather than relying on traditional written assessments, students were to be largely evaluated by authentic methods, primarily the performance of their physical products as well as the quality by which they communicated their findings. Page 26.1265.2 Literature review A plethora of twenty-first century careers, including those which do not yet exist, require higherorder thinking skills, and professionals with abilities to apply knowledge in a constructive manner are becoming increasingly valuable in our ever-changing world. 1,2 Students, therefore, must be expected to develop sharp critical thinking skills, defined as the ability to reason, make judgments and decisions, and problem solve. 3 Employing this high-level cognitive process allows for hypotheses to be established, arguments to be examined, evidence to be weighed, and defensible conclusions to be declared. 4 Such practices are important for many careers, but are indispensable for engineers. In order for students to develop these qualities, there must be a clear communication of learning goals 5the knowledge they are expected to know, the skills they are expected to do, and the habits they are expected to possess. 6 In engineering, learning goals can be categorized into four broad areas: factual knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills (communication and procedural), and habits-of-mind. 7
doi:10.18260/p.24602 fatcat:ors4f7hlhbgwnlt3fnos3ak4eu