We study the culture of science and engineering learning settings, with a focus on the norms and practices that cultivate diverse youths’ STEM-linked identities so that a STEM pathway becomes possible for a wide range of youth.
"What does it mean to be scientific in [this setting]? Who gets to be scientific? What are the processes by which ‘promising’ and ‘struggling’ science students get defined? How compelling, imaginable and achievable are the meanings of ‘science person’ for different students?"
(Carlone, Haun-Frank, & Webb, 2011, p. 460)
Throughout her years of careful study of science learning settings, Dr. Carlone came up with design principles for equitable science instruction. Remarkably, this list aligned well with design principles developed by Dr. Christine Cunningham and her Engineering is Elementary team.
In 2013, Dr. Carlone, with support from the Museum of Science Boston, began to learn about and study classrooms enacting the EiE curriculum. She was interested in the potential of engineering to disrupt narrow, status-quo definitions of school “smartness” and “competence” and prompt meaningful disciplinary engagement for all youth.
We know that no one curriculum provides a magic bullet for science or engineering education reform, but we’ve found that EiE is a good tool to “think with” and “act with.” Our team’s research in elementary engineering centers on the storylines below:
Disrupting school smartness. Engineering, when well enacted in diverse elementary classrooms, has the potential to disrupt and broaden status quo definitions of school smartness. This finding has significant impacts on classroom culture, as hierarchies between traditionally “smart” and “struggling” students are minimized and more students feel affiliated with peers and the content area.
Engineering “competence." We conducted an ethnographic study of a fifth grade classroom engaged in two engineering units to identify what counted as “engineering competence” during those units. We outlined three consequential cultural narratives that shaped youths’ definitions of engineering competence: (1) get along with others; (2) be persistent; (3) use evidence. These narratives both enabled and constrained productive disciplinary engagement.
Productive conflict. As youth engage in engineering design challenges, they must learn to work together, compromise, make decisions using evidence, and productively argue their perspectives. We outlined four ways students respond to conflict in groups during engineering design challenges (avoiding, inciting, minimizing, and engaging), and suggest ways to scaffold groups toward productive conflict.
Social issues and ethics. Engineering is a rich context to prepare youth to understand how decision-making intersects with beliefs, values, and evidence. In well-taught engineering classrooms, even at the elementary level, students learn to evaluate, critique, and revise claims based on evidence. They also learn that values, economics, aesthetics, and environmental concerns shape the kinds of scientific knowledge we produce and the kinds of engineering design challenges we imagine and create.
Epistemic capital. Students bring with them a wealth of knowledge and understanding cultivated through lived experiences both in and out of school. These diverse assets or resources of knowledge and understanding, which we refer to as epistemic capital, have the potential to both enable and constrain students’ engagement in engineering design. What resources do students leverage as evidence to justify or legitimate design decisions? What evidence gets privileged and marginalized in the moment-to-moment classroom interactions throughout the engineering design process? Our TLC doctoral research assistant, Megan Lancaster, is examining these questions that explain the consequential nature of epistemic capital (her term) in promoting and inhibiting productive disciplinary engagement for all youth.
Articles for teachers. We aim to reach broad audiences for our work, so we communicate our findings through practitioner journals like Science & Children. We’ve written about a “we culture” and “green engineering” for this excellent NSTA journal.