Equity in Opportunity: A Study of Student Learning and Interest in Engineering Design

Investigator: Tesha Sengupta-Irving

Funding: Hellman Fellowship Award

Recent mathematics and science teaching reforms have introduced engineering design into standard school curricula. The new math and science standards are meant to ensure that all children in the U.S. gain the knowledge and skills to pursue post-secondary Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. Previously, innovative learning opportunities like engineering design were primarily offered in after-school or summer programs.  These programs often required fees or, at a minimum, for families to re-organize resources (e.g., time). In contrast, traditional (rote, worksheet-based) teaching consistently has dominated math and science classrooms, particularly in high-needs urban schools.

The integration of engineering design into content standards for public schools carries the promise of engendering equity in students' access to innovative and project-based learning opportunities. An underlying assumption in the reforms is that opportunities for design will lead to greater student engagement and achievement. This case study, among the first of its kind, examines this assumption in the context of minority students in urban schools, a population with high rates of attrition from STEM fields in post-secondary education. Utilizing classroom observations, surveys, and interviews the researcher asks: What do middle school students learn by engaging in hands-on inquiry-oriented, engineering design projects? How might this way of learning impact student perspectives on STEM disciplines and on themselves as capable learners? Through purposive sampling of teachers and students, this study will have implications for how we understand what is required to better realize this promise for equity.