Part 7 - Engineering for Equity: Re-envisioning Engineering Education, post 1

Working with Families to Re-envision What We Mean by Engineering

“Do we approach community engagement in ways that protect our own power and privilege, because we don’t want to lose them, or are we willing to figure out ways to share authority and open up space in ways that allow for something richer, more equitable, and meaningful?”

(Garibay et al., 2017)

Welcome to the Engineering for Equity blog series. As we shared previously, the Engineering for Equity project was an opportunity for us to gain some perspective on our current work, reflect on our assumptions, learn from others, and explore new ways that our research could both uncover and help dismantle inequities and racism in the STEM education system. Our work is situated at the intersection of engineering education, family learning, early childhood, and equity. As informal STEM learning researchers, we focus on studying and supporting ways that young children and their families engage with and develop long-term interests in engineering and other STEM topics through everyday learning experiences outside of school, including how these experiences are connected across contexts and over time.

Over the last year, we spent time talking to families and leaders in our community, interviewing experts on the intersection of equity and STEM education across the country, and reading reports and literature. This blog series is the result of that process, which we hope will not only help advance our own thinking and practices but also serve as a catalyst for deeper discussions across these fields.

In today’s post, we reflect with our colleague and guest contributor, Dr. Gina Svarovsky, on how this process has motivated us to think differently about not only how we engage families with engineering but also how we conceptualize the discipline.

Understanding the History of Engineering Education

As Bang and colleagues have argued (Bang et al., 2016), equity in education cannot be achieved without a deep understanding of the historical processes that shaped where we are today. With this in mind, it’s important to briefly consider the history of engineering education in the United States.

Broad engagement with the field of engineering education is relatively new, especially compared to similar efforts within mathematics and science. Although the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) was founded in 1893, the first department of engineering education was not established until 2004 at Purdue University—not even two decades ago. During the early years of the field, the majority of work in engineering education focused on the undergraduate level. Towards the end of the 2000s, engineering-focused standards for K–12 education were beginning to be included at the state level. These became much more prominently articulated in 2013 as part of the Next Generation Science Standards (Moore et al., 2015; NGSS Lead States, 2013). As such, it has been less than 10 years at the time of this blog post that engineering education in pre-college settings has been a major focus of research and education efforts.

During this time, the historical roots of engineering education in universities has shaped the discourse around what counts as engineering and how it should be defined (e.g., Bix, 2002; Pawley, 2009). Even while researchers and educators increasingly focused on engaging younger learners, there was an ongoing undercurrent of skepticism about the “legitimacy” of engineering for these audiences. Questions would arise, such as: Does it count as engineering if the students aren’t using calculus or differential equations, higher level understandings of statics and kinematics, or advanced software programs such as CAD? Engineering also continues to be a field dominated by White males (NCSES, 2021), which further shapes the conversation about what is and is not considered engineering.

Pre-college engineering educators and researchers (e.g., Cunningham, 2018; Moore et al., 2014) have addressed these questions in a number of ways, including the incorporation of engineering tools to support young learners and, perhaps most importantly, the centering of the engineering design process (EDP)—a defining hallmark of the discipline. By emphasizing the engineering design process and arguing that children could engage in the EDP even without traditional tools and concepts of formal engineering, Engineering is Elementary and other curriculum packages brought engineering ideas to younger students across the country (NASEM, 2021).

Taking a Critical Look at Where We Are

While this expansion throughout the school system has been an exciting time for engineering education, it has also highlighted fundamental challenges in the field (McGowan & Bell, 2020; Mejia et al., 2018; Pawley, 2012). Many educators and researchers are now exploring ways of supporting youth and communities that have traditionally been disenfranchised by this history. However, the field has been slower to critically examine the discipline itself and how our definitions and frameworks for engineering also contribute to systems of inequity and injustice (Mejia et al., 2018). Martin and Wendell aptly summarize this “flawed narrative” that “assumes that, even though the technical frontiers of the discipline are constantly evolving, the fundamentals of what engineering is and what it means to be an engineer are settled” (Martin & Wendell, 2021, pp. 42–43).

Many equity scholars have argued forcefully for why simply introducing traditional conceptualizations of engineering is inherently flawed. The way engineering and other disciplines are defined and practiced is not benign, neutral, or apolitical (McGowan & Bell, 2020; Philip et al., 2018; Tan et al., 2018; Vossoughi et al., 2016). Instead, decisions about what counts as engineering and who decides have deep implications for equity in STEM education. They position some individuals and communities as possessing knowledge and others as needing teaching and remediation. They label some practices as valued and some as invisible or irrelevant (Pawley, 2012). These ideas become baked into institutions, policies, and evaluation systems to the extent that they are taken for granted and assumed to be free of value, bias, or judgement. Yet a critical look at their history reveals the ways they represent very specific world views and cultural perspectives and privilege the experiences and knowledge of some individuals and communities over others.

Reflecting on Our Own Assumptions

If we truly seek to broaden our understanding of engineering in education, then we believe we must recognize that individuals and communities possess deep skills, knowledge, and experiences related to engineering beyond what we as academics have delineated in our frameworks and curricula. We must also shift away from the view that there is a single “right way” to do engineering and begin to explore how engineering knowledge and practices are unique and variable across individuals, contexts, communities, cultures, and time periods (Philip et al., 2018). We also must reflect deeply on the troubled history of engineering and engineering education and leverage our work to help address these injustices and elevate those voices that have been traditionally marginalized (Bang et al., 2016; Major, 2020; McGowan & Bell, 2020; Vossoughi et al., 2016).

In our own work, these realizations have been a long time in coming. For years we have sought to bring high-quality engineering learning experiences to low-income communities, Latinx families, and other groups that are currently underrepresented in engineering and other STEM fields. And yet, even as we have worked to carefully design our studies and programs to be accessible and have tried to understand and incorporate existing knowledge, practices, and assets from families, we have only recently begun to intentionally interrogate our own core understandings of the discipline, the ways in which we frame it for the families we work with, and how this connects with existing knowledge and practices within communities.

Learning and education have traditionally been spaces where inequities are reified and reinforced. But they can also be powerful opportunities for contesting power and injustice and re-imagining a more equitable vision for education (Calabrese Barton et al., 2021; Philip et al., 2018). The evolution in our own thinking around engineering and engineering education has been productively and generously catalyzed by listening to families and observing them engaging in engineering practices within natural environments such as their homes. As highlighted in the quotes below, our study participants have graciously shared their interactions and their reflections around engineering with us over the years. In so doing, they have both directly and indirectly challenged us as engineering education researchers to push back on the traditional boundaries of what counts as engineering.


“When I thought of engineering, I didn’t think of solving problems. I thought of a technical person, like a space engineer—something that I wasn’t. At the end of the day, I learned that we are all engineers.”

— Program participant

“La principal sorpresa que me lleve era que no sabía, creí que ingeniería significaba que era un hombre construyendo unas casas es ingeniería, pero ahora pienso más sencillo. Utilizamos la ingeniería todo el tiempo hasta en pequeños proyectos que hacemos en la casa. Por ejemplo, hace poco hicimos una tabla para pegar fotos y se me acabó la pega. Pensamos en otras cosas que podíamos utilizar.” [The biggest surprise is that I thought engineering was when a man builds houses, but now I think it’s simpler. We use engineering all the time, even in small projects that we do at home. For example, when we were making a picture board and I ran out of glue. Then we had to think about what else we could use.]

— Program participant

As we discussed in our previous posts, we believe an asset-based perspective is essential to shaping a more equitable vision for engineering education and research (Martin & Wendell, 2021; Mejia et al., 2018). This perspective positions educators and researchers as learners in a process of understanding the existing knowledge and practices of families and allowing these to drive education and learning (Vossoughi et al., 2016). A variety of scholars are actively working towards identifying and supporting children and families’ engineering-related assets. For example, Amy Wilson-Lopez and her colleagues have described the powerful ways that Latinx youth bring their everyday funds of knowledge related to engineering to address community challenges or contribute to more human working environments (Wilson-Lopez et al., 2016; Wilson-Lopez & Acosta-Feliz, 2021).

Similarly, the families and community members we work with are helping us co-create a more expansive definition of engineering that we then are iterating on and sharing back with new families as a way of creating a learning space that recognizes multiple ways of knowing and doing. We agree with Yosso and others that the ultimate goal of this work is not to simply document assets and funds of knowledge but to collaborate with families and communities to leverage these assets to reshape education systems (Yosso, 2005). Similarly, in her work on “rehumanizing” mathematics education, Gutiérrez challenges us to think about how we can both honor existing knowledge and help support and expand ongoing learning for children and families. This is akin to the notion of “third space” (Soja, 1996), which describes a learning environment in which families’ experiences and ways of knowing are valued and incorporated alongside other types of knowledge, such as the disciplinary practices of working engineers (see also Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2009; Moje et al., 2004; Verdín et al., 2021; Wilson-Lopez et al., 2016). In this way, we create a dialogue between multiple perspectives and experiences that contributes to a broader, more inclusive understanding of engineering education.

Moving Forward

Our reflections over the last year have challenged our own thinking about how we define engineering and the ways this influences our approaches to supporting engineering learning for families with young children. These reflections have also catalyzed a new depth to our collaborative research—pushing us to learn from families and expand our own definitions and assumptions. In the next post, we outline three areas that have emerged in our recent studies: (1) appreciating that the engineering process is not always linear or complete, (2) acknowledging the productive connections between engineering and everyday problem-solving, and (3) seeing children’s imaginative play as a space for supporting a rich and more expansive view of engineering learning.

Navigate to other blog posts in this series here:

  1. Introduction - Engineering for Equity
  2. Family Collaboration, post 1
  3. Family collaboration, post 2
  4. Applying Asset-based Approaches
  5. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 1
  6. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 2
  7. Engaging Families with Engineering, post 1

About the Authors

Scott Pattison, PhD, is a Research Scientist at TERC. He has been studying and supporting STEM education and learning since 2003, as an educator, program and exhibit developer, evaluator, and researcher. His current work focuses on engagement, learning, and interest and identity development in free-choice and out-of-school environments, including museums, community-based organizations, and everyday settings. He has led numerous informal STEM education research projects and initiatives, including Head Start on Engineering, Storybook STEM, Math in Making, and REVEAL.

Smirla Ramos Montañez, PhD, is a bilingual (Spanish/English) and bicultural (Puerto Rican/American) Family STEM Learning Researcher at TERC. She has led and supported a variety of projects, including program and exhibit evaluation as well as STEM education research designed to provide accessible, culturally relevant, and engaging experiences for diverse audiences. She is currently the PI of the Diálogos project, which will engage parents as research partners to explore how we can leverage informal family engineering activities to support the development of executive function skills for preschool-age children from Latinx families.

Gina Svarovsky, PhD, is an Associate Professor of the Practice at the University of Notre Dame Center for STEM Education. For nearly two decades, she has been interested in how young people learn science and engineering in both formal and informal learning environments. Specifically, her research interests are focused on exploring how youth from traditionally minoritized and non-dominant populations in engineering are able to develop engineering skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking as a result of participating in a variety of learning experiences. In addition to helping to collaborate with the other authors on the leadership of Head Start on Engineering and Storybook STEM, she currently leads the REACH-ECE project, which focuses on exploring how the different elements of engineering activity kits can catalyze engineering engagement for young children and their families.


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Part 7 - Engineering for Equity: Re-envisioning Engineering Education, post 1
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Scott Pattison, Smirla Ramos Montañez

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