Many educators today say that the traditional approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is outdated, and that the STEM subjects should be taught together rather than as totally separate, “siloed” disciplines. In this publication, we will look at how engineering, the “E” in STEM, can unify all four subject areas.

The best and most engaging way to achieve this unity is through engineering projects that ask students to design solutions for real-world problems. Consider that in the mathematics classroom, problem solving has long been promoted as the way for teachers and students to climb up the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid. Engineering projects steer students past simple questions of how many apples Sally has and toward authentic problem-solving situations. Whereas students in science class can sometimes get bogged down in following a series of steps to verify an accepted scientific fact, engineering projects open their eyes to the discipline’s true nature. Projects that ask students to apply current knowledge and exploration to new areas in pursuit of the elusive “best” solution make them active players in the world of science. Finally, when students see technology through the lens of engineering, they understand that it’s much more than a synonym for “something that can be plugged in.” Engineering both drives innovation of technology and uses technology to create advancements in the world around us.

What Is Engineering?

Before we consider how to introduce engineering into science, math, and technology instruction, there are some questions to be answered. Perhaps the most basic are “What is engineering?” and “What do engineers really do?”

Defining engineering and the work of engineers is somewhat like defining medicine and the work of those who practice it. In the field of medicine, there are surgeons, doctors, nurses, researchers, technicians, and many other kinds of workers. The challenge of coming up with a definition of what all these people do is compounded by the field’s many branches—cardiology, dermatology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and so on. Still, it’s a bit easier for us to grasp the “whole” of medicine because the average person actually comes in contact with doctors and nurses. We have the opportunity to talk to our X-ray technician, surgeon, pharmacist, or physical therapist. By comparison, very few of us will meet the civil engineer who designed the bridge we drive across on the way to work, or the chemical engineer who came up with the laundry detergent formula that makes our whites whiter.

A full examination of engineering and engineering education would require many more words than this format allows. But in the same way that a tourist heading to Paris can find in a Michelin guidebook ample information to make a stay in the City of Light more rewarding, in this publication’s overview of engineering, you’ll find guidance to help you bring engineering into the classroom in a more meaningful way—and make a real, positive difference in your students’ learning.

Let’s begin our tour by looking at how engineering is generally defined. According to the American Heritage Dictionary (2009), engineering is “the application of scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design, manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systems.” Most general dictionaries define engineering similarly—as an application of math and science.

When we turn to the definitions offered by engineering-based groups, there’s a definite shift toward a more specialized meaning. The American Society for Engineering Education produces a website and publication called Engineering, Go For It, or eGFI for short. (Available at, it is a great source for teachers and students interested in learning more about engineering fields.) In the October 2009 issue, eGFI states the following:

Engineers solve problems using science and math, harnessing the forces and materials in nature. They draw on their creative powers to come up with quicker, better, and less expensive ways to do the things that need to be done. And they find ways to make dreams a reality. (p. 2)

The difference from the standard dictionary definition is subtle but important. In the eGFI definition, and for engineers, solving problems comes first. However, we want to be careful not to translate this statement into something oversimplified, such as “to solve problems in math or science classrooms is to do engineering.” After all, at one time it was popular to try to teach critical thinking skills by giving students word problems or story problems. The trouble was, these problems were often one-dimensional and had little relation to the world in which the students lived. Engineers derive the problems they tackle from the real world around them. Yes, in the classroom, for educational purposes, it is sometimes necessary that problems be “made up” rather than actual, but they should never be simplistic or irrelevant.

Tools for Engineering

Having established that solving problems is the main goal in engineering, the next question to consider is how engineers go about that work. As the statement in eGFI indicates, they make use of math and science. In fairness to the “T” in STEM, they also make use of technology. But math, science, and technology are only some of the tools that engineers use. Depending on the field of engineering, an engineer’s toolbox can be filled with a tremendous assortment of methods to solve whatever problem is on the table. Let’s look at the most common tools at an engineer’s disposal.

Engineers generally have and need inherent curiosity. When I worked in a public engineering high school that had no entrance requirements, one of our principals advocated evaluating prospective students’ suitability for the program by asking them if they were good in math and science. I told the principal that it would be better to ask students if they liked to take things apart to see how they work. I knew that if students had inherent curiosity, we could teach them the necessary math and science. They would learn those subjects because they would see the need for them. On the other hand, it is quite difficult—although not impossible—to teach an incurious child to be curious.

Creativity is another essential tool, and another that is easier to support and channel than to develop from scratch. Even though some fields of engineering seem to consist of just following rules and regulations, there is always creativity below the surface. For example, civil engineers need to understand building codes, material strengths, and framing techniques. However, these engineers must also figure out ways to bring older buildings up to code, use new products, and satisfy clients who want something done that has never been done before. Other fields, such as computer engineering, are more obviously prone to divergent thinking. It may be a cliché, but engineers truly have to be able to “think out of the box,” or new and innovative products won’t happen.

Organization and logic may appear to be the opposite of creativity, but it is important for engineers to have these tools, too. As a part of my fellowship at the National Science Foundation, I visited 27 different universities that had grants for the Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program. In many cases, I was able to interview teachers while they were involved in the program. Ryan Cain, a teacher at NYU-Poly’s RET, talked about his interest in the maker/tinker movement. He said that he is the type of science teacher who loves to play with things to figure them out. When working on transparent soils in the RET’s engineering research lab, his “reaction was to act as a tinkerer, but [the program leaders] made sure we acted as engineers.” Due to time constraints, material costs, and other considerations, engineers must be logical in their problem-solving approach.

Likewise, in order to operate within the constraints of a given project, engineers must be able to use clear and concise problem formulation. Problems must be stated very specifically. “Find a way to provide clean water for third world countries” is too broad a challenge to tackle. “Create a filtration system using relatively accessible materials that is cheap enough to be deployed at scale in third world countries” may still be challenging, but it is much more focused. This type of focus is also needed in decision making. Engineers use critical thinking skills to consider the constraints, weigh the possible solutions, and come to an objective conclusion.

Because the American Heritage Dictionary is not an authority to be undervalued, knowledge of mathematics and science is unquestionably an essential tool for engineering, as is technical knowledge specific to various particular fields of engineering. This is not just “head knowledge” but practical knowledge as well. An engineer must be able to use mathematical and scientific understanding to analyze a problem, describe it, talk about it, and successfully find and execute a solution.

Many people have images in their heads of solitary engineers examining blueprints or diagrams—perhaps hunched over an old-school drawing board or peering at a computer-aided drafting (CAD) image on a screen. However, much of what engineers do relies on the ability to work in teams. When facing a complicated problem, having a group of people (each of whom brings unique experiences and expertise) work together is often a more productive approach. Communication skill is also essential when dealing with clients; it’s what allows engineers to understand client needs and make sure that their needs are met.

Not every challenge an engineer faces requires the use of all the aforementioned tools. In fact, maybe the most valuable tool in the engineering toolbox is one we have not yet discussed—the one that helps engineers choose the right tools for each job. It is the engineering design process.

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