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Advancing science learning through engineering design

Advancing science learning through engineering design

Magazine Section: Change The World
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Issue Feature
Feature Intro: National attention is turning to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Purdue researchers are integrating science education and engineering design in elementary education.
Considerable attention has focused on the important role of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. While curriculum has grown in high schools and colleges, there is a growing movement to incorporate these disciplines into elementary education.

That’s the focus of the Science Learning through Engineering Design (SLED) program at Purdue, a five-year, $6.7 million project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Math and Science Partnership program aimed at improving science learning in third through sixth grades. The partnership, now in its third year, involves faculty from Purdue’s colleges of Engineering, Science, Technology and Education working with teachers, students, and administrators from four Indiana school districts: Taylor Community School Corporation, Plymouth School Corporation, Lafayette School Corporation and Tippecanoe School Corporation.

The SLED faculty has devised a series of design- and standards-based tasks that use instructional methods and ongoing assessments to train pre- and in-service elementary teachers in central Indiana to teach science using engineering design.

How it works

SLED incorporates summer institutes, follow-up sessions, and a cyber-infrastructure to equip teachers with design-based skills and science content that they can pass along to their students. An external advisory board made up of experts in science and math education and engineering design meet annually to provide input to the project team.

Alyssa Panitch, professor of biomedical engineering, is principal investigator and co-project leader with Brenda Capobianco, associate professor of science education.

Now in its third year, Panitch says the focus will be on working with third- and fourth-graders and their teachers. The first two years have focused on fifth- and sixth-grade activities.  At the same time, the SLED team will be assessing the impact of engineering design on student learning and teachers’ implementations across all four grade levels.

Engineering design provides a real-world, constraint-driven, and active way for students to learn science by making products to meet specific needs. New Indiana elementary-level academic standards as well as national science education standards call for students to understand and use the engineering design process.

Members of the SLED partnership are developing materials, testing out new and innovative instructional approaches and building a research base for meeting the new standards. Elementary teachers collaborate with Purdue science, technology, engineering and education faculty to generate new tasks and further develop plans for implementing the activities in their classrooms.

The partnership involves teachers and administrators in the participating schools, teacher educators, university scientists and engineers, and community partners all working together to improve student learning.

“The idea has been to bring in engineering design to the elementary classroom so that students better grasp science concepts,” Panitch says. The teachers learn how to implement the tasks before integrating them in their classrooms.

Learning by doing

Through in-service training and workshops, teachers learn how to adapt, refine or develop innovative design- and standards-based curricular tasks that results in student learning of science through engagement in design-based activities in real-world STEM contexts.

In June more than 40 teachers from Indiana elementary schools attended a workshop at Purdue to learn how to incorporate engineering design activities into their science classrooms.

One example is “The Reason for Seasons” — a project where art, science and engineering join together. In this example, students examine the reasons why we have different seasons and what causes them.

“Why is there winter or summer? Why does the sun appear at different angles throughout the seasons?” Panitch asks. “What does the Earth’s tilt have to do with the seasons?”

By constructing a 3D replica of a building or a tree, students study shadows at various times during the year, measure the angle of the sun, and relate that to the earth’s tilt. Students apply their results to other engineering and science topics like harnessing the sun’s energy through solar panels.

“The students learn how this relates to solar panels and how their angle can be adjusted to collect the most amount of energy,” Panitch says.

The first two years of the five-year grant have been spent developing and implementing engineering design-based activities for grades 5 and 6.  The next year will involve the development of similar projects for grades 3 and 4. Year 5 will entail an expansion of the partnership and the integration of activities for grades 3-6 in all schools.