From mechanic to designer: Evolving perceptions of elementary students over three years of engineering instruction

Anastasia M Rynearson, Purdue University


Due in part to increasing state standards that require engineering in K-12 curricula and the Next Generation Science Standards’ incorporation of engineering outcomes, inclusion of engineering into elementary classrooms is on the rise. Teacher development and experiences in learning about and implementing engineering have been studied, but elementary students’ experiences when learning about engineering have not been explored. The purpose of this study is to address the question: How do elementary students’ knowledge of, attitudes toward, and overall conceptions of engineering evolve over three years of engineering instruction? This study follows seven elementary school students through three years of engineering instruction from second through fourth grade. During each year of the study, students took part in one complete Engineering is Elementary unit, preparatory engineering lessons discussing engineering and technology, and optional additional engineering design activities. Data was collected at the beginning and end of each school year, including a semi-structured interview, a Draw an Engineer Task, the Engineering Identity Development Scale, and a Student Knowledge Test. This data was used to build descriptive case studies for each individual student, addressing the research question at the beginning and end of each school year. A cross-case analysis compares findings across all seven students to further explore the research question. Through the engineering intervention, students were expected to learn that engineers design technology. For a complete understanding, students needed to know that technology is any object, process, or system that is man-made in order to solve a problem. They also needed to understand engineering as a technical design process where the outcome is the complete plan for a product or process, not necessarily the product or process itself. All of the students in the study described engineering as design and nearly all of the students correctly described technology as man-made, useful items at some point during the study. Three of the seven students described engineering as design of technology with a correct description of technology by their third year. Students had positive attitudes toward engineering, however many did not recognize some of the activities as engineering, attributing them to science instead. Overall, students were not interested in pursuing engineering as a primary career option though they enjoyed the in-class engineering activities. Students’ conceptions of engineers and engineering evolved from naïve representations including mechanics and laborers to designers during the study. The patterns and rates of change differed between students; some quickly understood engineering as design and retained this understanding, while others slowly or partially developed an understanding of engineering as design. The findings of this study have implications for practice and future research. Educators need to be prepared for strongly-held misconceptions regarding engineering and technology and be explicit when presenting engineering, especially when it is presented in a science context. Elementary students are able to understand engineering as design, however not all students fully grasped this concept. Future research is needed to explore how students understand technology, how elementary students understand design at their developmental level, and what long-term impact a foundation of engineering in elementary grades provides.




Capobianco, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Elementary education|Engineering

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