We Need More Engineering Majors In the Classroom

by The UTeach Institute

When you think of engineering, you may think of bridges and roads and rockets and the oil industry. But engineering is, in its purest sense, a form of problem solving, and it is reflected in the everyday things around you. At the K–12 level, the Next Generation Science Standards have incorporated engineering design into its classroom standards, which means that the need for classroom teachers with engineering training is more urgent than ever.

The UTeach secondary STEM teacher preparation model relies on the development of STEM degree plans that allow students to both earn a rigorous STEM degree and add teaching certification without requiring additional time at the university. In this way, students are able to earn one degree with two career options. College students value opportunities to increase their career options. Across the national network of 44 UTeach programs, there has been widespread interest in recruiting Engineering majors to add teaching certification to their degrees, just as they do with other STEM majors. The demands of typical Engineering degree plans, however, have made it difficult for students to pursue both without adding significant time (and costs) to their degrees. In 2013, the University of Colorado, Boulder developed a new, innovative Engineering program that increases flexibility and career options for majors. And in August 2018, the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Engineering Plus (e+) program received full accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

“It’s great for several reasons, first of all it gives the students options so that they can wind in and out of industry and education,” says Dr. Malinda Zarske, an instructor for the e+ program. “For industry, they have a unique skill set of being able to teach and lead. For education, they’ve got a unique skill set because they’ve got the depth of knowledge in their content area. The accreditation gives that legitimacy to the engineers in the program because they are then perceived as not engineering students who are going for teacher licensing; instead they’re real engineers going through a real program. How cool is that that we can send accredited engineers into schools to teach?”

Engineering Plus at the University of Colorado, Boulder allows students to pursue an engineering degree while exploring a concentration outside of engineering. Students can choose an e+ concentration like entrepreneurship, sustainability, business, or CUTeach Engineering, to name a few. “Our goal was to be the first engineering college that expanded the traditional CUTeach in math and science to engineering. Thinking about engineers not becoming teachers because there weren’t pathways didn’t make any sense,” says Dr. Jacquelyn Sullivan, co-director of e+ at CU Boulder. “At the same time, there was emerging simultaneously the engineering design component in all grades for the NGSS. And I was looking at that thinking, ‘Well, who in the heck is going to teach that?’ You can’t just tap the physics teacher and think that the physics teacher is going to teach engineering design.”

ABET accredits college and university programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels. It is the educational standard to which professional engineers are held for licensure in the United States and around the world. Having engineering teachers from an ABET-accredited program in public school classrooms has a knock-on effect for school districts and beyond, because e+ graduates with a teaching credential through CUTeach will teach their peers and colleagues, which, in turn expands the reach of engineering education.

“I think of it as an opportunity to democratize engineering, to get engineering and design thinking permeated through curriculum at all levels K–12,” says Sullivan. “It’s a different way of thinking. It’s not like science or engineering, it’s how you apply engineering and design thinking to solving the world’s problems. Our goal is to create a pathway through engineering for teachers, but also to create teacher leaders who will help their schools and their districts tap into the rich potential of engineering design embedded into the NGSS to democratize engineering, to really make that profession accessible to people from all walks of life.”

Opening up access to engineering to a broader pool of students also has the potential to increase the number of engineering and other STEM teachers. “I think we’re also going to be broadening interest into wanting to serve,” says Sullivan. “Why would a graduate of Harvard Law School who could make $200,000 a year go to work for the environmental defense fund? It’s the same with STEM teachers. It’s a call to service.”

“The CUTeach program is demonstrating that you can prepare engineers who also want to teach,” said Kimberly Hughes, UTeach Institute Director. “We expect that many UTeach programs will emulate this approach and hope that more universities will explore ways to develop pathways to teaching through all STEM disciplines. Creating STEM teachers must become a university-wide priority, and not just seen as the responsibility of the College or School of Education, if we hope to address the persistently poor-quality STEM education in the U.S. with any kind of significance.”