What does the “E” in STEM really stand for?

May 10, 2013 | posted by Dean Fontenot, Senior Director, Texas Tech University T-STEM Center

It is exciting to see that engineering has become a recognized discipline in K-12 education. For years, very little was said about engineering in K-12 schools.  Engineering was rarely mentioned in the K-12 curriculum until about eight or nine years ago. Prior to then, very few school teachers and administrators knew about engineering as it was not the focus of the time. Yet, as times have changed and the demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum to be integrated into K-12 has become more relevant, the demand for engineering has increased.

Engineering is now being introduced not only in T-STEM Academies but also in the K-12 curriculum.  Students are learning about engineering concepts, teachers and administrators are seeking and receiving professional development in engineering, and parents and communities are encouraging their children to seek engineering careers.

So what does the “E: in STEM really mean?  We all probably have a good idea of what is included in science, technology and math curriculum, but what’s in engineering curriculum? What does it look like? What does it consist of? For some engineering is described as the hands-on application of science and math. While it is true that engineers apply mathematics, science and technology to assist in solving problems, engineering is much much more.

Engineering encompasses many subjects but probably one of the most interesting subjects, for students, that is included in engineering is that of creativity. Engineering is as much about creativity as it isabout math and science.

For example, robotics and rocketry have become two popular subjects taught in K-12 and in T-STEM academies. In both students experience, building spaghetti towers, dropping cocooned eggs from measured heights, and the launching of rockets. Engineering is about students being able to explore what makes things work, how they work and how to make it better. One would not expect and engineer to have a creative streak, yet, creativity and critical thinking are essential for engineers.

However, as essential as creativity is, it is not always taught in our schools. Yet many K-12 institutions are beginning to change that. Many have begun to implement extra-curricular activities centered around STEM subjects which require creativity. In addition, the introduction of increased project based learning lessons also increases opportunities for creativity in the classroom, especially when creativity is notes as a component on a grading rubric.

As a higher education instructor, I can say that the efforts of K-12 to introduce creativity are essential for the success of students as they continue on to post-secondary education. Most IHE do not normally ponder how to increase the creativity of students. Creativity is one of those things you would hope most students arrive with; which is not usually the case. Creativity is not usually taught at the post-secondary education level, yet is essential in many majors. For example, the majority of my college engineering students do not think of themselves as being creative, yet, engineers are extremely creative; they must be in order to create engineering designs.

Samuel C. Florman, a civil engineer who wrote the The Civilized Engineer and the The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, said that “engineering is the art or science of making practical.”  If students are good in mathematics and science, we encourage them to choose engineering as a career option. However, maybe we should also be looking for our future engineers in the arts: visual arts, music, creative writing, or in the humanities: English /Language Arts, social sciences.  The beauty of engineering, and what might attract more women to engineering, is the art of engineering and the creative aspect of engineering.

In closing, William Oakes and Marybeth Lima note in Service Learning: Engineering Your Community, “As an engineer, your designs must be logical, but the best designs speak to a social contest, aesthetics, and address multiple needs.”   Engineering requires the creative process of designing something to solve problems for society. As we excite our K-16 students about engineering and encourage them to seek careers in engineering by introducing them to hands-on activities, let’s emphasize the engineering design process and the creative process and teach our K-12 and higher education students about creativity.


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