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Integrated STEM (iSTEM) curriculum is gaining momentum through research and policy-based recommendations. There are numerous potential advantages and challenges to introducing iSTEM to elementary students. The studies reported in this dissertation add new insights to existing iSTEM research by applying multiple methodological and theoretical perspectives on the moment-to-moment interactions and textual resources of six elementary engineering classrooms. This approach sets the context for students’ engagement in the engineering design process where students navigate design decisions using a variety of semiotic resources. The first study focuses on how the teachers facilitated encounters with texts and students’ shared experiences to create an authentic context for engineering design challenges. Drawing from the construct of figured worlds and affective stance patterns, the two storybooks and corresponding discussions in two third grade classrooms were analyzed to examine multiple pathways leading to students’ investment in the engineering problem space. The second study identifies and analyzes uncertainty encounters to illustrate how students engaging in a civil engineering design challenge positioned each other and their own ideas during collaborative decision-making processes using a multimodal social semiotics perspective. The third study explores how students use drawings as design tools in the context of production across two conditions: structured schematic diagrams using standard symbols to communicate a circuit design to an external audience compared to open-ended drawings of plant package designs featuring a higher variety of materials for an internal audience. Findings were organized according to four themes: (a) engagement pathways, (b) intersection of multiple literacy practices, (c) science concepts for engineering problems, and (d) participating in epistemic practices.  Taken together, these studies generated evidence-based conclusions informing the design of inclusive and equitable learning environments applicable to a range of contexts. Among these recommendations are the incorporation of multiple representations and hybrid texts to set the context for the design challenge and ways to structure the work at different phases in line with multimodal pedagogy practices, how to create opportunities for students to relate to and affiliate with science and engineering, how to support students with collaborative decision-making, and how design artifacts can be used as formative assessment tools.
























List of Figures…………………………………………………………………………………..vi


List of Tables……………………………………………………………………………………vii


List of Transcripts……………………………………………………………………………..viii






Chapter 1: Introduction………………………………………………………………………….1



Chapter 2: Manuscript One

Exploring Uncertainty Encounters in Elementary Engineering Groups………………..38


Appendix A Affective patterns across the storybooks and interactional data……………….…..88


Chapter 3: Manuscript Two

Students’ Investment in the Engineering Problem Space

through Engineering Storybooks……………………………………………………….93


Appendix A Sample Event Map…………………………………………….…………………134

Appendix B Transcription Symbols……………………………………………………………134


Chapter 4: Manuscript Three

Elementary Engineering Drawings as Design Tools……………………………………135


Appendix A Domain Analyses………………………..………………………………………..188

Appendix B How the Drawing Task is Scaffolded in the EiE curriculum………………………..193 Appendix C Component Counts for Analytical Structure Analysis………………………..…..193


Chapter 5: Discussion and Conclusions……………………………………………………….195


Chapter One




In this chapter I start with a personal anecdote as a springboard for a larger discussion about the uneven representation of women and underserved populations in engineering and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines and how new initiatives through standards, reform documents, and research recommendations aim to address equity, access, and improving learning opportunities for all students. Next, I provide an overview of the value of teaching engineering in K-12 settings, how engineering design can contribute to three-dimensional learning, and the role of engineering in integrated STEM (iSTEM) education. In addition to highlighting the prospective learning opportunities engineering education offers at the pre-college level, I also identify constraints and challenges of iSTEM implementation. After establishing the problem space and the need for further research in this area, I present an outline of my three dissertation studies with corresponding research questions. Following the introduction, three stand-alone manuscripts are included in thematic order (Chapters 2-4). Bringing the three studies together, in the conclusion (Chapter 5) I synthesize the major findings, overarching themes, and reflect on the potential implications and recommendations for future



Autobiographical Sketch/Researcher Reflexivity Statement


“Mom, can girls be engineers too?” 

  •     Jillian, kindergartener


Since my daughter, Jillian, was quite young I have often talked with her about science and engineering. We went to many STEM outreach events, kept a science journal, read picture books about science and engineering, and carried out simplified science investigations at home.

After Jillian attended a Harry Potter themed day camp, she thought science was magical and that we should do science at home. “Nothing fancy,” she said, “you know, just potions.” When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she would say she wanted to dig for dinosaur bones. I thought (and continue to think) that early exposure to STEM careers and learning is essential, especially for girls. Short of patting myself on the back, I was pleased with Jillian’s early enthusiasm for STEM disciplines.

Then one day out of the blue as we were driving home from her after-school program, Jillian asked me if girls can be engineers too. She had previously asked if girls were “less than boys” and I had reassured her that girls are strong, capable, and not “less than.” One may wonder how a kindergartener begins to question the feasibility of a career path based on false assumptions about gender differences. I was surprised by her question initially, but then realized that all the engineer role models she was exposed to were male: her father and both grandfathers. The Rosie Revere Engineer book (Beaty, 2013) we read together was not sufficient messaging that girls are capable of doing engineering work. In this case, reading about a fictional character who overcame failure and wowed her family with her whimsical cartoon-like inventions was interesting and enjoyable, but more learning experiences were necessary to change initial impressions of who can engineer.

When I started my dissertation work, I did not explicitly focus on gender and engineering, but I considered access and equity for underrepresented populations throughout each study. My motivation stems from being a mother of a young girl, a former middle school science teacher, a former molecular biology and physical chemistry research assistant, and a first-generation immigrant. Without discussing the complexities of identity and corresponding theoretical constructs, I would like to acknowledge that my experiences with schooling (as a student and a teacher) and interactions with others over time shaped my thoughts and ways of being. For example, I have looked for emerging patterns from the data and in one study, this practice led me to consult with feminist theory and epistemology. This is partly because my researcher interpretive frame is influenced by my past experiences, literature readings, and other subjectivities. Researcher subjectivity and reflexivity are often addressed along with research limitations. From my point of view, researcher subjectivities add distinctive, yet significant, perspectives and insights to the processes of data analysis. For this reason, I identified how inclusivity principles manifested in classroom interactions without being initially aware of the intentional inclusive design of the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum (see Chapter 5 Table 2, p. 205). The next section will address why a curriculum and pedagogical shift towards inclusivity is important for all levels of education, and especially for elementary settings where students are learning about the practices of science and engineering for the first time.

Women and Underrepresented Minorities in STEM

Issues with the proportionally small number of women and historically marginalized minorities in engineering at multiple levels (across education and the workforce) have been well documented and framed as a diversity deficit with statements like, “Engineering has a diversity problem” (Chubin et. al, 2005, p. 74). Even though the number of women in engineering degree programs in the past couple of decades has increased, women’s representation in all engineering degree levels and fields of engineering is significantly lower than that of men (NSF, 2015). Not only are there still fewer women in undergraduate degree programs, but once they graduate and enter the workforce, they are more likely to leave the field in higher rates than their male counterparts (Mills, Ayre, & Gill, 2013). Additionally, women who finish graduate programs and enter academia are underrepresented in tenure-track positions and at full professor levels (NSF, 2015). Black and Hispanic populations are also underrepresented in science and engineering occupations. The number of Black women in engineering and STEM careers is lower than that of White women, an inequity described as the double bind due to both sexism and racism factors (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011). Other scholars prefer to use intersectional feminist theory (Crenshaw, 1989) to explain the complex and multifaced experiences of Black women in STEM (Ireland, Freeman, Winston-Proctor, DeLaine, Lowe, & Woodson, 2018). Intersectional theory acknowledges that there are multiple dimensions (personal, inter-personal) and structural forces (institutional and/or historical power dynamics and ones tied to race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc.) involved that cannot be treated in isolation when addressing the complex experiences of Black women and girls in STEM. Thus, studying issues of gender alone without the intersection of other factors would provide an incomplete account of the complexity

of the situation.

Because there are fewer practicing women engineers in Western countries like the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, they have less representation in decision-making about solutions to issues that impact society as a whole (Mills, Ayre, & Gill, 2013). Additionally, policy documents feature workforce arguments in a language of urgency about the leaky STEM pipeline, shortages of qualified professionals to fill workplace demands, concerns about global competitiveness, and not enough diversity in STEM disciplines overall (NGSS Lead States, Appendices C & D, 2013). This lack of diversity has been linked to the following: (a) issues with curriculum and workplace culture that is in conflict for many students who cannot identify with it (Mills, Ayre, & Gill, 2013), (b) “opportunity gaps” from lack of access to quality education, career counseling, and informal learning opportunities (Malcom-Piqueux & Malcom, 2011, p. 25); and (c) additional structural and historical inequities and constraints. These macro level inequities and constraints are best explained with socio-structural terms that consider the broader context, rather than with an individual lens that places blame on the underrepresented individuals’ “behavior, choices, and preferences” (Miner et al., 2018, p. 272). Phrases like opportunity gaps are often strategically chosen to avoid the pitfalls of deficit-framing discourses such as achievement gaps, but some have argued that the comparison between groups is inherently problematic to begin with (Carey, 2014). While acknowledging that language matters and there are larger power structures at play, it is also important to increase awareness and direct resources to promote a culture shift that can only happen with coordinated effort over time.          Thus, there are complex, macro level factors associated with the pervasive underrepresentation of women and minorities in engineering, and STEM more generally. Increased awareness and attention to this underrepresentation led to many initiatives by government and professional organizations to broaden participation targeting K-12 education, informal education, higher education programs, and post-graduate professional settings (Miner et al., 2018).  Examples include the White House Council on Women and Girls (whitehouse.gov/ administration/eop/cwg), National Girls Collaborative Project (ngcproject.org), Girls Who Code

(girlswhocode.com), Change the Equation (changetheequation.org), American Association of

University Women (aauw.org), Million Women Mentors (millionwomenmentors.org),

Association of Women in Science (awis.org), and NSF’s ADVANCE program

(nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5383). A concerted effort at all levels of education and workforce development over time may foster the type of structural change needed for equity and access to STEM disciplines and careers.

In conjunction with other national efforts to broaden participation, science education policy and reports have featured inclusive language about science for all students since the late 1980s; yet, significant equity and access issues still persist (NRC, 2018). One explanation is that some past reform efforts failed to acknowledge that “not all students start from an equal footing” and that “historical and current inequities of broader society are still reflected in schools and other institutional structures” (NRC, 2018, p. 1-3). Providing equal resources to all students, including to those starting from a disadvantage, is not equitable because it is insufficiently attentive to outcomes. “Equitable outcomes require attention to how people think about student access, inclusion, engagement, motivation, interest, and identity, and about the actions and investments required to achieve such outcomes.” (NRC, 2018, p. 1-3, 1-4; italics added for emphasis). Directing attention and resources towards the early grades would be beneficial and may reduce or ameliorate the disparities inherently present in the educational system.

This dissertation begins to address what a vision of equitable learning opportunities (leading to positive outcomes) might be manifested at the classroom level: how students (a) gain access to science and engineering practices, (b) start to build affiliation with the work of scientists and engineers, (c) develop ownership over their design ideas, (d) engage in identity related work with their peers, and (e) participate in multidisciplinary epistemic practices. Before presenting the three-part analysis findings and conclusions, it is important to frame the studies within existing science education policy and research recommendations designed to address equity and access in STEM.

A focus on inclusive pedagogies and three-dimensional learning (NGSS Lead States, 2013) begins to address how all students, regardless of gender, race, language, and socioeconomic backgrounds, can fully participate in science and engineering learning through meaningful engagement in scientific investigations and the engineering design process (EDP). (NRC, 2018). The next section provides an explanation of how the educational reform shift to three-dimensional learning and inclusion of engineering in K-12 can provide learning opportunities and increased access to STEM disciplines and careers.

Engineering in Science Education Reform Documents

The national science education standards document, the Next Generation Science

Standards (NGSS) (Lead States, 2013), was based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education

(NRC, 2012) as a conceptual and theoretical foundation. In turn, previous standards documents guided the development of the Framework: Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993), the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996), and the Science College Board Standards

for College Success (College Board, 2009).

The substantial differences between the previous national science standards (NRC, 1996) and the NGSS are the introduction of engineering (technology was already included) and the shift from an inquiry approach to science and engineering practices, which are part of threedimensional teaching and learning. This new 3D approach is based on the connection of disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) (big concepts representing foundational knowledge of a discipline), science and engineering practices (engaging in aspects of what scientists and engineers do), and crosscutting concepts (multidisciplinary overarching threads). This was in part due to criticism that science curricula were “a mile wide and an inch deep” and to address a need for consistency and conceptual coherence—thinking in terms of a series of units over a couple of years rather than choppy, stand-alone lessons (NRC, 2012, p. 10). The Framework drew on literature on learning progressions and developmental pathways (NRC, 2007) recommending a purposeful research-based sequence that gradually builds on what students already know—pre-conceptions or initial conceptions, adding extra layers of complexity over time. Thus, the “hands-on, minds-on learning” promoted in the previous policy document (NRC,

1996, p. 2) was extended and grounded in science and engineering practices in conjunction with DCIs and crosscutting concepts, making connections across disciplines with the goal of developing understanding of essential concepts over time.

These changes in science education policy did not take place suddenly. There were ongoing discussions about the potential for engineering and curriculum integration at the precollege level (Rogers & Portsmore, 2004; Cunningham, Knight, Carlsen, & Kelly, 2007; Bybee,

2010). Many changes were taking place in how student learning was measured and conceptualized, but also in what students were expected to be able to do. For example, there was a shift from students as passive receivers of knowledge (transmission model) to students engaging in authentic disciplinary practices, such as scientific argumentation (Driver, Newton, Osborne, 2000). Preceding the Framework and the NGSS policies, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching in Grades K-8 compiled education research from many areas; one of the major findings was that young children are capable of more sophisticated reasoning than previously thought and that “the bar is almost always set too low” in schools (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007, p. vii). Since children have a great capacity for learning, an engineering first approach or “early exposure” to STEM fields was promoted (DeJarnette, 2012).

With a growing research base and following the large-scale implementation of the

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics, language arts, and literacy (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010a, 2010b) the stage was set for educational reform. Many experts and stakeholders worked together towards a unified vision and plan to write the NGSS standards document based on the Framework document. The process involved a large writing team coordinating with twenty-six states and took nearly three years to complete (Pruitt, 2014). A nonprofit focused on career readiness, Achieve, Inc., also facilitated the process with support from the National Governors Association. Several states adopted the NGSS as early as six months after publication, but as of 2019, not all states are on board. There is also a distinction between adopting and implementing the national standards. It will take a while for up-to-date research and evaluation of the implementation of the NGSS in schools to be completed. STEM integration and specifically making room for engineering in K-12 will take lots of “buy-in” and collaboration and support among teachers, researchers, administration, and other stakeholders.

One could say that the timing is right to make engineering education a larger part of K-12 since STEM interest continues to increase both in schools and in public discourse; engineering and technology related standards were already part of 41 states as of six years ago and efforts continue to increase (Carr, Bennett, & Strobel, 2012). To take advantage of this momentum, a lot of issues needed to be clarified, and researchers and policy writers aimed to reach a consensus or a common vision for what STEM is and what integration entails. A report on STEM integration in K-12 education (NRC, 2014b) is one example of such efforts to synthesize research and recommendations across disciplines and levels of schooling. Historically, science and math integration efforts have not met with much success, and some experts thought that adding engineering and technology to the mix would make STEM integration even more complex and challenging (Lederman & Lederman, 2013). Thus, there are many potential learning opportunities as well as implementation challenges that need to be researched and articulated in ways that are useful for practice, theory building, and for establishing foundations for further research.

Engineering Education and Three-Dimensional Learning

As mentioned earlier, engineering has a more prominent role in the recent national science standards and it is making its way into K-12 classrooms. Previously, engineering education was mostly restricted to the college level because it was believed that many science and mathematics pre-requisites were necessary, which meant that few students were able to engage in engineering practices (Cunningham and Carlsen, 2014a). The introduction of engineering to the K-12 setting has great potential for science learning and drawing connections across disciplines, which is an important component of 3D learning (practices, DCIs, and crosscutting concepts). Both the Framework and the NGSS focused on the engineering design process (EDP) as a way to introduce engineering; show overlap with science practices; integrate science, mathematics, and technology concepts; and “to explore the practical use of science”

(NRC, 2012, p. 12) or “applications of science” (NRC, 2012, p. 11). The NGSS introduction elevates the EDP to “the same level as scientific inquiry” and dedicates Appendix I to elaborate on its value:

The NGSS represent a commitment to integrate engineering design into the structure of science education by raising engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry when teaching science disciplines at all levels, from kindergarten to grade 12. Providing students a foundation in engineering design allows them to better engage in and aspire to solve major societal and environmental challenges they will face in the decades ahead.

(Lead States, 2013, p. xx)

The rationale for including the EDP at all levels of formal schooling is based on the anticipation that students will be better equipped to innovate and solve future “major societal and environmental challenges” (Lead States, 2013, p. xx). That is a noble goal, but also a large expectation of K-12 education that projects anticipated learning outcomes far into the future. A more concrete rationale could be based on the notion of 3D learning. Rather than memorize disconnected definitions for scientific terms, students can learn science and engineering concepts by engaging in “authentic” scientific and engineering practices that necessitate employing different types of disciplinary knowledge (DCIs) and crosscutting concepts like systems and modeling. I placed “authentic” in quotations because its meaning is greatly debated; for the scope of this introduction chapter, I am referring to practices that resemble aspects of scientists’ and engineers’ work or engaging in open investigations where the answer is not already known or there is not one right solution for the problem posed. For example, in project or problem-based learning, an authentic context is created that calls for engagement in science and engineering practices. Another point of clarification is that I am combining engineering and science practices because of how the Framework and the NGSS set up the practices dimension of 3D learning.

While there is overlap between the practices, there are also significant differences and essential engineering practices that were not included in the policy documents. Cunningham & Carlsen (2014b) critique the Framework for misrepresenting the engineering practices and conflating engineering DCIs with practices. Although this point is well taken, the standard documents do not prescribe a set curriculum, and the issue can be remedied when applied in educational settings with additional distinct practices and DCIs for engineering beyond the engineering design process.

Another reason why engineering is well suited for 3D learning has to do with the close connection between engineering practices and engineering DCIs. The Engineering DCIs in the NGSS also incorporate aspects of how engineering is done, instead of knowledge specific to a particular engineering discipline like mechanical engineering.  For example, the DCI “Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem” (ETS1. A) is related to the first engineering and science practice “Asking Questions and Defining Problems” (Lead States, 2013, p. 8). Understanding engineering means engaging in engineering in a specific context, which is why it would be difficult to separate out the practices from the DCIs when dealing with the engineering field as a whole. Engineering is process oriented and the end-goal is usually something concrete or tangible. A focus on processes and products that solve problems may benefit students that may not have been as successful when engaging in science-only investigations. The integrated engineering approach has implications for students from non-dominant groups because engineering values a variety of skillsets (e.g., manipulating materials, drawing design ideas, testing measurements, and calculating results) and promotes innovative and creative thinking (Lead States, 2013, p. 104). Additionally, the engineering context has the potential to show all students how science learning is relevant to their lives and for addressing important society issues like sustainability. Early access to engineering design may encourage girls and underrepresented minorities to consider STEM careers. Exposing students to different ways of knowing and solving problems has benefits for outside the STEM pipeline also—it prepares future generations to think beyond a consumer’s point of view.

Teaching Engineering Design: Opportunities for K-12

The previous section on 3D learning examined how both practices and DCIs were based on the engineering design process and how the policy document framed the value of teaching the EDP for all grade levels. In this section I will elaborate on these opportunities using examples from literature. Curricula incorporating aspects of the EDP have been developed and tested in schools across the country (NRC, 2009). Initial research findings show that STEM integrated units featuring the EDP present multiple potential benefits and learning opportunities: (a) gains in understanding science concepts, (b) learning from productive failure (Johnson, 2016), (c) collaborative learning, (d) recognition of a variety of skillsets and talents, (e) opportunities for inclusion of groups that may have been marginalized in science (f) potential increased interest or change in attitude towards engineering and other STEM fields, and (g) increased technological literacy (Gattie & Wicklein, 2007).

The engineering design process manifests differently across various engineering K-12 curriculum projects and other iSTEM initiatives, but the overlying structure is similar – an iterative problem-solving method that incorporates engineering principles such as criteria and constraints (NRC, 2009). The committee on K-12 engineering education evaluated 34 large scale K-12 integrated engineering curriculum projects that used aspects of EDP (NRC, 2009). The EDP was presented as a series of steps or a cycle emphasizing improvement through multiple iterations. Two examples from The Infinity Project (IP) (NRC, 2009; SMU Lyle School of Engineering, 2016) and Engineering is Elementary (EiE) (Cunningham, 2009) are presented in Figure 1 on the next page.


IP Step-like Representation                                EiE Cycle Representation

  • Identify the problem or objective.
  • Define goals and identify the constraints.
  • Research and gather information.
  • Create potential design solutions.
  • Analyze the viability of solutions.
  • Choose the most appropriate solution.
  • Build and implement the design.
  • Test and evaluate the design.
  • Repeat all steps as necessary.


Figure 1: Examples of the engineering design process from two different integrated curriculum projects – The Infinity Project (IP) (NRC, 2009, p. 83) on left and Engineering is Elementary (EiE) on the right (figure 1 from Cunningham, 2009, p. 14)


The two EDP representations in Figure 1 show variation between format (steps vs. cycle) and the amount of detail included, which corresponds to different levels of instruction—high school versus elementary. Even though the EDP steps may be presented differently, they might manifest in similar ways—students participating in these engineering integrated units have the opportunity to engage in both engineering and science practices through an engineering design context. One of the main reasons for including engineering is to support science learning (NRC, 2009). Empirical quantitative research findings indicate that the engineering context increases students’ science learning when compared to a test curriculum (Lachapelle, Cunningham, & Oh, 2017). Additional qualitative research findings from the same project elaborated on how students engaged in both engineering and science practices and which specific contexts enabled students to elaborate on and appropriate science concepts while participating in an engineering design challenge (Kelly, Cunningham, Vanderhoof, & Licona, 2017). Showing how engineering supports science provides a good starting argument for the inclusion of engineering in science classes. On the other hand, there is more value to teaching engineering and design thinking than just to be of service to science learning.

Another unique opportunity of incorporating the EDP in K-12 is facilitating learning from productive failure (Johnson, 2016). Because of time and other constraints, school science laboratory activities often avoid negative results and failure. In contrast, engineering failure is an essential part of the iterative nature of design; instances of failure provide important feedback for improvement. By engaging in engineering design challenges, students can learn to reconceptualize failure as a necessary step to improvement. Teachers can design the learning environment to facilitate learning from failure by providing students with constructive feedback (formative assessments, peer response, and teacher guidance) and allowing multiple chances for improvement with several low-stake testing between iterations. Thus, introducing and facilitating productive failure experiences necessitates purposeful design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment models.

In addition to learning how to improve from failure, engineers develop essential collaboration skills because the majority of engineering projects involve large teams of experts and technicians. Collaboration and communication are highlighted as “engineering habits of mind,” which describe values, skills, and ways of thinking of professional engineers (NRC, 2009, p. 5). Teaching the EDP through team-based engineering design challenges allows students to develop important collaboration skills that can be useful in many other fields, especially science. By working together to solve problems, students learn how to “leverage the perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities of team members” (NRC, 2009, p. 5). Through collaboration students can also develop agency and try out different roles if the learning environment is supportive. Research in college engineering education recommends designing courses with opportunities for cross-disciplinary teamwork and describes how teachers can facilitate peer authority (Fredrick, 2008). Another college engineering study found “a positive relationship between collaborative learning, confidence, and academic achievement” and no statistical differences between males and females on achievement or self-efficacy tests (Stump et al., 2011, p. 17). The take home message is that women are just as capable of success in engineering courses and that increasing collaborative learning opportunities benefits all students. This same recommendation can be applied to the K-12 setting so that students entering college are better prepared and know what to expect. To address students’ needs and encourage participation, engineering design challenges at the elementary level need to encourage collaboration over competition (Cunningham & Lachapelle, 2014). One way this can be achieved is to focus on improvement rather than the highest testing score, and placing a value on all team members’ contributions.

Effective collaboration is based on recognizing team members’ abilities and distributing the work accordingly. In extended engineering design challenges, a variety of skillsets and talents are recognized, giving more students an opportunity to shine and develop expertise. This is in line with facilitating authentic problem-based learning opportunities that are sufficiently complex and challenging, requiring students to collaborate. This has important implications for underrepresented populations who have been historically marginalized in science fields (Cunningham & Lachapelle, 2014). Another important feature of an inclusive curriculum is connecting the engineering design process to a real-life context that students can relate to, like their local environment. On the other side of the spectrum, global contexts may help students with diverse backgrounds see themselves as an engineer. Another advantage to teaching the EDP is that it can involve just as much hands-on manipulation of materials as articulating scientific explanations. Emerging bilinguals would have the opportunity “to do specific things with language” in order to solve a problem (Lee, Quinn, & Valdés, 2013, p. 224). Engaging in design work brings together many modes of communication such as drawing, gesture, manipulation of materials, writing, and speech, which may be beneficial to all students, not just emerging bilinguals.

Making engineering and science accessible to all students is an explicit goal in the NGSS. Integrating engineering and science practices through the EDP has the potential to increase students’ interest by making science relevant to their lives and connected to solving real-world problems. Additionally, early exposure to engineering can promote the vision that everyone can engineer (with proper scaffolding), not just people who are good at math. There is also a fun component that’s not often mentioned in the literature. For example, the Engineering is

Elementary units include a rating scale of “fun, ok, not fun.” The journals from the five EiE units analyzed in this dissertation had a majority of “fun” ratings. Although “fun” is hard to quantify,

other indicators show that students are invested in the design challenges:

…a number of teachers, including those of urban, at-risk youth, report that their pupils are so captivated by the challenge of improving their designs that they secure materials and continue to hone their solutions at home after school or during vacations. For example, one teacher who completed the Designing Windmills unit was impressed that two of her students redesigned their windmill blades at home, resulting in significant improvements in power. A second reported that her students bought out all the flour at the local urban corner-food mart over spring break as the class itself had decided to continue improving their play dough design at home during their vacation. (Cunningham

& Lachapelle, 2014, p. 133).

The potential for learning science might matter most for including engineering in the science curriculum, but the “fun” factor may resonate the most with children. The experiences of EiE teachers with students carrying on their engineering work outside of school shows that students were engaged and interested in solving engineering problems. Many opportunities have been described so far, and there is one more that is increasingly important for living in the 21st century—developing technological literacy. Engaging students in the engineering design process is an effective way to explain “the methodology that generates the technology” (Gattie & Wicklein, 2007). Students can learn about a variety of technologies and realize that the concept of technology extends past digital or electronic advancements. Broadening the definition of technology to include a product or process that solves a problem, may provide avenues for

exploring technology learning in ways that students can relate to.

Engineering Education for Integrated STEM Education

The previous section elaborated on the value of engineering design in K-12 settings. This section will address another benefit—how the context of engineering design can be an effective vehicle for STEM integration. As mentioned earlier, there is still a lack of clarity about what STEM means across policy and practice or a consensus of what STEM integration entails (Bybee, 2010). The term is used often in academia, schools, and public discourse to refer to one or more disciplines under the acronym’s umbrella. STEM integration can refer to the teaching of multiple disciplines separately or making connections across at least two of them. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) and STREAMS (Science, Technology, Reading/wRiting, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, and Social Studies) acronyms[1] are also gaining popularity in an effort to avoid excluding other disciplines, but they are outside of the scope of this paper. The explosion of all things STEM was dubbed “STEMmania,” as skepticism and critique grew; integrative STEM (iSTEM) education was proposed as a more specific term (Sanders, 2008, p. 20).

What is becoming increasingly clear is that there are turf wars, bids for increased status, and disagreements. Using a cheeky title, Lederman & Lederman (2013) posed the question “Is it STEM or ‘S&M’ that We Truly Love?” The high status of mathematics in the K-12 setting is not in dispute considering the amount of instructional time dedicated to math learning and its formal assessment, and the efforts schools are making to adapt to common core standards (Porter, McMaken, Hwang, & Yang, 2011). Science has had to compete with mathematics and language arts for instructional time at the elementary level because of increased accountability in those areas. Technology was incorporated into the first national science standards (NRC, 1996), but technology instruction mostly took place in separate technology classes taught less frequently than science. The literature on technology integration mostly focuses on incorporating technology (mostly electronic/digital) into pedagogy rather than integrating technology principles and its connections to society (Inan & Lowther, 2010). And lastly, engineering has been dubbed the “invisible” or “missing” discipline in K-12 because it is traditionally associated with higher education and does not have a formal place in pre-college education; occasionally it is taught in technology classes (Grasso & Burkins, 2010; Cunningham & Carlsen, 2014a). This is all changing due to many engineering first and iSTEM initiatives, but not in a consistent way across the country.

Engineering has multiple unique features important to iSTEM education: (a) it can provide a context for synthesizing science and mathematics knowledge, (b) the practices of engineering have overlap with science practices, (c) the engineering design process and the technological cycle or technology education design process are very similar, and (d) engineering education can serve as a model for integration—concepts from multiple disciplines are so deeply enmeshed with practices and crosscutting concepts like systems and models that it is difficult to separate them out, as evidenced by the muddling of engineering practices and DCIs in the NGSS.

Another aspect to consider is the advantage of different starting points and end-goals than science. To ask good scientific questions students need a lot of prior knowledge or expertise in science; in comparison, engineering design problems can be more accessible to students who lack “deep disciplinary understanding” (Cunningham & Carlsen, 2014a, p. 748). Comparing the end product of a school scientific investigation—constructing an evidence-based explanation, with the end product of an engineering design challenge—designing and improving solutions, shows that students would need to engage in different ways of thinking and knowing. The engineering context is well suited for multimodal pedagogy and communication approaches, which is said to offer increased access, participation, and agency for diverse student populations (Archer & Newfield, 2014). This multimodal focus on research and pedagogy is growing, both at the college level (Archer, 2006) and elementary level (Varelas & Pappas, 2013). These concurrent moves towards inclusivity and multimodality in pedagogy and curriculum will be addressed again in the conclusion chapter, which draws out implications for curriculum design, professional development, and future research.

There are many other reasons why engineering education is important, some that are tied to global competitiveness, hopes for the future of the country, the STEM pipeline, and other workforce or economy needs (Lead States, 2013, Appendix C). Although these are significant economic issues, it is more important to focus on immediate and practical research directions like elaborating what engineering education can do for STEM integration in schools, identifying best teaching practices, and how to design an effective and equitable learning environment. Through engineering education, students can explore how concepts from a variety of disciplines come together to solve a real-world problem. There is much to be gained from “an educational approach that first places life situations and global issues in a central position and uses the four disciplines of STEM to understand and address [problems] ” such as climate change (Bybee,

2010, p. 3). This can be framed as “context-based STEM education” with the understanding that integration of the disciplines (rather than individual silos) is an essential part of this vision

(Bybee, 2010, p.3).

Challenges and Constraints for Teaching Engineering in K-12

Along with the opportunities of engineering in K-12 presented earlier, it is important to also acknowledge and address the challenges of iSTEM implementation and relevant constraints. Implementing the changes recommended by the Framework and the NGSS will require significant resources and work over time.  One concern is that engineering will compete for instructional time with science and that science educators will have less time to teach science. Availability of instructional time is a valid constraint, but it can be overcome with purposeful planning. With a well-integrated curriculum implementation, classroom communities can engage in engineering, science, and other related disciplines simultaneously. Curriculum designers and researchers are already showing evidence that students can deepen their science understanding by participating in engineering integrated STEM units (Lachapelle, Cunningham, & Oh, 2017). Alternatively, some schools have adopted stand-alone engineering programs, such as Project Lead the Way (PLTW) in Texas with promising results (Van Overschelde, 2013). Longitudinal data from students who participated in this program indicates statistical gains on math assessment scores.

In a recent book chapter about engineering education, Sneider (2016) presents a list of nine grand challenges (see list below) for STEM integration, the first dealing with technology. While the order of these challenges can be debated, it is a good place to start. This section will address the most relevant challenges for K-12 and bring up additional constraints.

  1. Explaining Technology (p. 20)
  2. Explaining What Engineers Do (p. 23)
  3. Developing New Curriculum Materials (p. 24)
  4. Teaching the Design Process (p. 26)
  5. Developing Assessments (p. 27)
  6. Teaching the Teachers (p. 30)
  7. Balancing Technical and Academic Subjects (p. 31)
  8. Engaging Technology and CTE Teachers (p. 31)
  9. Teaching the Teacher Educators (p. 33)


Teacher training and professional development (Grand Challenge #6) is one area that will take considerable coordination and effort since K-12 teachers have had little exposure to engineering practices (Cunningham & Kelly, 2017). This can be seen as an advantage for introducing new approaches to pedagogy and revisiting existing ones, such as project-based learning, in light of the engineering context. By reflecting on and re-examining current teaching methods, there is potential to innovate and expand interdisciplinary connections. Introducing the

“epistemic practices of engineering” (Cunningham & Kelly, 2017, Table 1, p. 492) in professional development, instruction of teaching methods, but also doctoral education classes would be a worthwhile start (this would address Grand Challenge #9 – “Teaching the Teacher Educators”). A rationale for including engineering should not only explore the potential for science, mathematics, and technology learning, but also the merits of teaching engineering concepts and practices, ways of thinking, and skillsets. In this way, students may start to develop affiliation with the work of engineers and later consider engineering as a potential career pathway.

Another area where changes are taking place is assessment (Grand Challenge #5). The Framework and NGSS are already calling for considerable changes in the way assessment is designed and implemented in order to measure three-dimensional learning and performance while considering issues of equity and access (NRC, 2014a). Engineering education provides more opportunities for formative assessment, i.e., important data that teachers can use to adjust instruction to fit students’ needs; teachers and researchers need to work together to rethink and expand assessment formats in the classroom. The constraint will be how to quantify areas of engineering learning that cannot be captured by a survey, such as learning to improve from failure. The solution will require some creative thinking and less emphasis on standardized testing. STEM integrated curriculum units with built-in formative and summative assessments are already starting to address this need.

The NGSS highlighted the role of engineering in K-12 and continued to add to the ongoing academic conversation about the inclusion of engineering in pre-college settings. One constraint is the limited aspects of engineering that were selected to be part of the standards. This passage from an article written by Pruitt (2014), senior vice president at Achieve, Inc., who, along with others, led the development of the NGSS, indicates that this was purposeful – the limitation of engineering practices and DCIs to a general focus on the engineering design process was done in service of science learning:

Engineering is an important, and for many states, new aspect of science standards. It is important to know that the engineering in the NGSS is not intended to be a full-blown engineering course; rather, this is the application of engineering design. Engineering in the NGSS is intended to be the natural point where the understanding of science content is used to solve a problem or improve a situation…These PEs [performance expectations] should not be viewed as intended to be taught in absence of content; rather, they are the opportunityto allow students to apply their scientific knowledge. While engineering activities have been used before, a key change with the NGSS is the engagement in the design process. Students are expected to define problems and design solutions, but they will also be expected to optimize those solutions, all of which occurs in the context of the more traditional sciences. (Pruitt, 2014, p. 152; bold areas added for emphasis)

Inclusion of engineering in the science standards may run the risk of watering down important aspects of the engineering disciplines and their corresponding foundational knowledge. There is a call for separate engineering education standards (Bybee, 2011), which may help clarify how best to introduce engineering to K-12 students. If there is a push for engineering to be taught alone as a separate subject, the question would be when and how would schools make room for it in their already packed schedules. There are some high schools that offer engineering as an elective, although, saving engineering until secondary school would miss out on the benefits offered by an “engineering first” recommendation. After-school clubs and other spaces for informal learning also offer opportunities for exploring engineering and technology. One example is Studio STEM, a program where college students mentor middle schoolers in rural Virginia on engineering design and technology related activities that draw interdisciplinary connections (Evans, Schnittka, Jones & Brandt, 2016). Their goal is to increase students’ interest in science and other STEM fields before middle schoolers lose interest or disconnect from science. This is a noble goal and a great model for informal learning in STEM, but it only reaches a small number of students. Every student deserves access to engaging technology and opportunities to learn through connected curricula.

Teaching engineering through an integrative STEM approach or context-based STEM education will reduce the problem of finding available instructional time and how to reach the most students. On the other hand, STEM integration has its own challenges, such as determining a unified vision of STEM education and coordinating professionals from different disciplines who are used to a silo approach (Herschback, 2011). There are no easy solutions, only difficult problems to solve through sustained effort.

Need for Further Research

The emergence of engineering in K-12 education brings forth many opportunities, but also challenges that can be addressed with collaboration between schools, researchers, policy writers, and teacher training programs. These efforts need to be coordinated to get buy-in from important stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, administrators, policy writers, curriculum developers, teaching methods instructors, and educational researchers). The time is right and there are many resources available already (tested engineering integrated curriculum units, such as EiE; emergence of STEM centers at major universities; after-school STEM programs, student interest; and parent support). Engineering, as a stand-alone field or as part of STEM, has much to offer to K-12 education—drawing connections between disciplines to solve problems connected to real life; access to different ways of knowing and recognition of a variety of skillsets and talents; increased student interest through local and global contexts; learning from productive failure (Johnson, 2016); opportunities for identity work (Kelly, Cunningham & Ricketts, 2017) and developing agency; higher technological literacy (Gattie & Wicklein, 2007); increased understanding of science and mathematics principles; development of collaboration and communication abilities; and other 21st century skills (Cunningham, Lachapelle, & Davis, 2018). In addition, early exposure to engineering might increase students’ interest in STEM careers. It is important to find ways to encourage girls and students from non-dominant backgrounds to pursue engineering and other technical fields. An engineering first approach might improve access to these fields.

As evidence of the benefits of STEM education and STEM integration grows, additional research and guidelines are needed. Separate engineering education standards would also be helpful to provide a better understanding of specific engineering disciplines (not just the field as a whole) and to make sure engineering education does not equate to a superficial focus on engineering design without the content and context that makes it valuable to the engineering profession. There is much work to be done: continue development of integrated STEM curricula, design professional development to teach about engineering practices and ways to scaffold engineering design challenges for young learners, incorporate engineering in teacher training programs and education of doctoral scholars in educational research, and breach the divide between research and practice to address implementation challenges that may come up.

It is important to make a case for engineering and STEM, but also for engineering in its own right. The fields that make up STEM come together in the form of innovations, scientific advancements, and technology that improves lives; but the many disciplines housed under the STEM umbrella also have “epistemological characteristics that differ markedly” (Hershbach, 2011). These differences need to recognized and addressed when designing STEM programming so we do not risk losing the integrity and essential knowledge of each field.

Rationale and Overview of the Dissertation Studies

Although there is continuing support for iSTEM and inclusion of engineering in K-12, many issues still need to be resolved in order for adoption and subsequent implementation of the NGSS reform agenda throughout the country. One of the most significant issues is the limited number of empirical research studies in K-12 engineering education and successful STEM integration. The aims of this dissertation are to add to the existing body of knowledge in this area to address this research gap, make a case for the value of engineering in K-12, and provide recommendations for how to design an inclusive and equitable learning environment to best support elementary students as they engage in engineering design for the first time.

The records for this dissertation study are from a large-scale NSF sponsored efficacy study of the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum project from the Museum of Science, Boston (Cunningham, 2018). Pre-collected video, audio, and student artifact records from five engineering curriculum units were analyzed across the three studies (See Table 1 on the next page). Although the implementation time varied between units, each one had a similar lesson structure and was based on the same engineering design process (the Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create,

Improve cycle). Lesson one started with a storybook narrative to set the context for the engineering design challenge and introduce science and engineering concepts. Lesson two contained science and pre-design activities. Lessons three and four engaged students in an

extended engineering design challenge with three iterations.

Table 1: Selected EiE Data Set


Unit ID and video hrs Grade Level State School Setting
A Stick in the Mud: Evaluating a Landscape (EL) T14164

9 hrs 39 min

4th MA Suburb (Large)
A Slick Solution: Cleaning an Oil Spill (CO) T13867

12hrs 7min

4th MD City (Small)
To Get to the Other Side: Designing Bridges (BR)   T14142   3rd MA Suburb (Large)
  T14098   3rd MA Suburb (Large)
An Alarming Idea: Designing Alarm Circuits (AC) T15149

7hrs 58 min

5th MA Suburb (Large)
Thinking Inside the Box: Designing Plant Packages (PP) T13871

11hrs 21 min

3rd MD City (Small)


This multipart study investigates how elementary students: (a) engage with engineering storybooks and invest in the engineering problem space (Chapter 2), (b) make design decisions through a process of navigating uncertainties (Chapter 3), and (c) use engineering drawings as design tools (Chapter 4). Each set of analyses focus on how students interact with and transform diverse semiotic resources across the units–engineering storybooks as textual artifacts enacted through read-alouds and whole class discussions; student and material interactions surrounding decision-making processes in small groups; and the creation and use of engineering drawings across different stages and iterations of the engineering design process.  The research questions

on the following page were addressed through three related studies.



Students’ Investment in the Engineering Problem Space through Engineering Storybooks

  • How do elementary students engage with and relate to storybooks featuring children as protagonists who help solve an engineering problem?


  • What is the relationship between affect and investment in the engineering problem space through storybooks?


Navigating Uncertainty within Elementary Engineering Groups

  • How do students negotiate moments of uncertainty among the group members?


  • How does student positioning (of self and others) affect the group’s decision-making process?


Engineering Drawings as Design Tools

  • What is the role of student-produced diagrams within the collaborative engineering design process?


  • How do structured schematic diagrams compare with free-form drawings for design purposes?


  • Which science concepts are featured most prominently in students’ engineering design drawings? How are design characteristics shaped by science concepts?


  • How do engineering drawings support students’ engagement in epistemic practices of science and engineering?


Each study started with an interactional ethnographic perspective to establish the context for analysis by constructing event maps from the video records and writing analytical memos about the classroom norms, participant interactions, and particular events that stood out from the rest of the unit (Kelly, Crawford, & Green, 2001). After situating the activity into phases and sequences based on the regularity of the lesson structure, discourse analysis was conducted using transcripts that accounted for different aspects related to each study. Where appropriate, theoretical sampling and researcher memos were used to locate episodes for microanalysis. Recursive inductive analysis allowed for patterns to emerge from the data set and then was connected with theory to draw implications for curriculum development, pedagogy, and future research directions. Using this non-linear process, I was able to reformulate the research questions from more general to more specific and reframe the three studies based on additional analysis and repeated encounters with the literature relevant to each research area. Without going into detail, I will provide a brief orientation to the theories, methods, and perspectives that informed the dissertation studies.

Interactional sociolinguistics is a field of study based on ethnography of communication which examines the everyday discourse processes of social groups in context (Gumperz, 1982). Analysis is based on multiple iterations, ethnographic descriptions, and paying attention to contextualization cues, such as code switching where speakers change the type of language they are using. Analysis of interactions across speech events includes stacking up multiple types of

evidence over time.

Interactional ethnography refers to a logic-of-inquiry or orientation towards the study of culture, discourse processes, and how meaning is constructed by members of a group. Special attention is given to how members establish norms and organize activity over time. Most importantly, “it considers the social contexts discourse uses as cultures-in-the-making” (Kelly & Green, 2019, p. 5). This approach builds from insights derived from interactional sociolinguistics and places emphasis on the ways that cultures are constructed through social processes and discourse. For example, to examine the culture of a group, the interactional ethnographic approach may use techniques from cognitive anthropology, such as domain analysis—a type of ethnographic analysis that allows a researcher to get a range for the typicality of processes across the records (Spradley, 1980). This is a systematic way of accounting for different processes and terms used by the participants. See Chapter 4 for an example of this type of analysis with a large number of student design representations across two units.

Discourse analysis refers to multiple approaches and types of analyses of discourse processes, such as grammar, stance patterns, genre, participation structure, indexicality, positioning, and agency (Strauss & Feiz, 2014). Analytical constructs are often accompanied by guiding theories. See Chapter 2 for figured worlds theory (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner & Cain, 1998), Chapter 3 for positioning theory (van Langenhove & Harré, 1999), and Chapter 4 for metafunction analysis (Halliday, 2004). Different approaches to discourse analysis include conversation analysis (CA), critical discourse analysis (CDA), systemic functional linguistics (SFL), and multimodal social semiotics analysis. All three studies feature some aspects of a multimodal approach, with Chapter 3 providing an example of multimodal social semiotics analysis combined with an interactional ethnographic perspective.

Multimodal literacies acknowledge the plural and complex nature of literacy practices embedded in twenty-first century culture, technology, and globalization (Jewitt, 2008). This approach constitutes a deliberate shift from “literacy solely as a linguistic accomplishment” (Jewitt, 2008, p. 241) to an expanded view that includes multiple modes (visual, written, gesture), mediums (sound, digital), and particular places that situate the activity. See Chapter 2

for more on the intersection of multiple (multimodal) literacies.

Epistemic practices are “the specific ways members of a community propose, justify, evaluate, and legitimize knowledge claims within a disciplinary framework” (Kelly, 2008, p. 99). In classroom communities like the ones featured in this dissertation, students engage in multiple social practices where they actively co-construct knowledge. Chapter four explores the epistemic practices of engineering for education and areas of overlap with science practices. Chapter five synthesizes findings from across the three studies and explores epistemic practices and learning of science and engineering concepts through design.

The concept map in Figure 1 on the next page illustrates the relationship between the orienting theory informing the research methods and the processes analyzed for this dissertation. The theory shapes and is shaped by the methods, the appropriate/suitable tools of analysis (in this case, various discourse analysis elements), the epistemological orientation of the study (ways of knowing), the nature and scope of the resulting claims (the findings and implications), and what counts as supporting evidence (recurring patterns identified through multiple rounds of analysis). Using an interactional ethnographic perspective (Castanheira, Crawford, Dixon, & Green, 2001; Kelly & Green, 2019), I analyzed video records to examine disciplinary and literacy practices, knowledge building processes, and identity work embedded in classroom discourse featuring multiple layers of interactions (texts, images, speech, gestures, artifacts, tools, and materials). Thus, there is constant dialogue between each component of the study design, as emerging patterns are identified and the methods and research question are redefined.


Figure 1. Orienting theory, methods, and perspectives informing the three studies



Through these multiple methods, theories, and perspectives, I aimed to shed light on how elementary classroom communities make sense of, relate to, use, and transform semiotic resources from narratives and other texts, images, and symbols. Emerging patterns led me to consider small groups’ decision-making processes and the different tools, resources, and strategies students used to persuade their group to take up their ideas. The next three Chapters contain detailed manuscripts of these studies. The concluding Chapter brings these studies

together, summarizes findings, and develops further implications.



















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[1] For additional background on one of these initiatives, see https://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3522


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