Partnering for Engineering Teacher Education


It is not uncommon for elementary teacher candidates to arrive to the first day of the science methods course a bit anxious about the subject matter. They might not consider themselves scientists, or might be bringing what we refer to as school science baggage (Smetana, Birmingham, Rouleau, Carlson, & Phillips, 2017; Birmingham, Smetana, & Coleman, 2017) – an accumulation of negative and/or passive science learning experiences that can restrict one’s vision for what science teaching and learning can be. When they learn that not only will the course be focused on teaching science but also on teaching engineering in elementary grades, eyes grow even wider. “I was very overwhelmed by the thought of teaching engineering to such young students”, wrote one elementary teacher candidate reflecting on the beginning of the Teaching Science in the Elementary Classroom course. By the end of the course, our experience over the past few years is that candidates are not only more comfortable with, but genuinely enthusiastic about teaching engineering. “Now, I love it!” is a reflection typical of what we’ve heard candidates share at the end of the semester.

In this article, we describe our approach to moving elementary teacher candidates from a place of nervousness to one of excitement about teaching engineering through a field-based undergraduate course that incorporates in- and out-of-school science and engineering experiences. We begin with an overview of how we understand engineering in the context of elementary education. Then, we describe the various learning experiences of the course that take place across a variety of settings – the university classroom, a public elementary school classroom, a children’s museum, and a family night. We offer a summary of findings related to teacher candidates’ outcomes – specifically, teaching engineering self-efficacy – and discuss implications for our program and for other science and engineering teacher educators. The first author is the university-based instructor for the course; the second author is a graduate research assistant; the third author is a classroom-based co-teacher educator for the course; the fourth author is the museum-based co-teacher educator for the course.

Defining Engineering in the Context of Elementary Education

The Framework for K-12 Science defines engineering “in a very broad sense to mean any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems” (NRC, 2012, p.11). In order to prepare teacher candidates for teaching engineering in their future elementary [Grade 1-5] classrooms, we follow recommendations of the Framework, the Engineering in K-12 Education report (NAE & NRC, 2009) and the Framework for Quality K-12 Engineering Education (Moore, et al., 2014) including that pre-college engineering education should: 1) emphasize iterative processes of design; 2) incorporate important and developmentally appropriate science, math and technology concepts and practices; and 3) promote habits of thinking, working and communicating.

First, learners should be actively engaged in engineering design which involves processes and practices such as defining problems to situations that could be improved, researching the problem and specifying criteria and constraints for acceptable solutions, brainstorming multiple solutions, creating and testing prototypes, and optimizing a solution through analyzing results and considering improvements (Lottero-Perdue, 2017; NGSS Lead States, 2013).

Second, engineering – including its processes and practices, purposes and products – should be introduced in relation to the related but distinct disciplines of science, technology and math, as well as in relation to social studies, reading and language arts. Here, deFigueiredo’s (2008) model of engineering as comprised of four related dimensions is useful in illustrating how incorporating engineering challenges in the classroom can promote transdisciplinary teaching and learning (Figure 1).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Engineering dimensions, adapted from deFigueiredo (2008).

Third, learners should be apprenticed into the norms for how engineers go about their work. The sorts of habits of mind relevant to engineers, teacher candidates and elementary-aged learners include – among others – a desire to solve problems, creativity, persistence and a resilient response to failure (Lottero-Perdue, 2017; NAE & NRC, 2009). Similarly important are the development of collaborative teamwork skills, and the use of multiple means and modes of communication and representation (Moore, et al., 2014). The following sections illustrate how these recommendations have influenced our course, and some of the impacts the course has had on the teacher candidates we work with.

Developing Working Definitions

Before sharing the Framework’s definition of engineering with teacher candidates, the course begins by deconstructing ideas about technology, engineering, what engineers do, and how engineering relates to technology and the other S-T-E-M disciplines. Candidates select items around the classroom that they consider to be examples and non-examples of technology and then share their lists as they collaboratively develop a working definition of ‘technology’. Then, tasked with drawing an engineer, they are challenged to think about how the work of an engineer relates to these technologies (For more on this activity, see Lottero-Perdue, 2017, p. 208). After sharing their drawings and ideas, we arrive at a working definition for ‘engineering’ that will be further refined throughout the course. Candidates discuss how the examples of technology they identified solve a problem or meet a need, as well as how and why the design of that technology may have changed over time. The class enjoys watching and discussing videos from the Museum of Science, Boston’s Engineering is Elementary ( collection depicting elementary-aged children grappling with similar questions.

Field-based Experiences

The course begins in the university classroom but soon transitions to other settings that are designed to allow candidates to (a) experience engineering as learners themselves, (b) work with expert instructors who provide a vision for what best practices look like as well as the realistic challenges, and (c) have authentic, low-risk teaching opportunities and interactions with youth.

We believe that the combination of course experiences – in the museum, elementary engineering lab, and traditional university classroom – work together to develop candidates’ engineering self-efficacy better than any one experience in isolation. Table 1 summarizes how the course experiences relate to the Teaching Engineering Self-efficacy dimensions (Yoon, Evans, & Strobel, 2014) of engineering pedagogical content knowledge self-efficacy (KS), engineering engagement self-efficacy (ES), and engineering disciplinary self-efficacy (DS).

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Key Course Experiences Mapped to Engineering Efficacy Dimensions

Children’s Museum

The first field experience is a visit to a local children’s museum and affords an opportunity for candidates to think about how museums and out-of-school learning opportunities support and complement classroom-based engineering education. The visit combines: discussion with museum staff around two specific exhibition spaces that emphasize design thinking processes, engineering habits of mind, collaboration and communication, candidates’ free exploration in exhibition areas, and reflection on the kinds of instruction candidates could design around or draw inspiration from the exhibitions. The museum-based class session follows a collaborative teaching model that we’ve developed in which museum staff serve as co-teacher educators (Smetana, Bedford, Carlson, Clark, Cook, Incandela, Moisan, Rouleau, & Stecz, 2018) and share in the planning and facilitation of the session.

The first stop is to Chicago Children’s Museum’s Tinkering Lab, which invites young visitors to participate in creative, playful problem-solving with a delightful assortment of materials and tools available in the space – from hammers and saws to fabric and feathers. Tinkering, as explained by Bevan, Gutwill, Petrich & Wilkinson (2015), is a “generative process of developing a personally meaningful idea, becoming stuck in some aspects of physically realizing the idea, persisting through the process, and experiencing breakthroughs as one finds solutions to problems” (p. 99). Or, as one young visitor puts it, “Tinkering is playing around and eventually making something amazing.” (Slivovsky, Koin & Bortoli, 2017).

Teacher candidates, like any visitor to the space, are given a short, open-ended design challenge here, such as “connect two things together” or “make something that rolls” that can be approached from a multitude of ways. Museum educators explain how these sorts of short, specific prompts are excellent for school groups who have limited time in the lab and museum. For candidates, this is an opportunity to experience what it feels like to be given some structure (in the form of an open-ended prompt framing the challenge) as well as the invitation to experiment, negotiate ideas, goals and constraints, take risks and persist through frustration. Afterwards, candidates reflect on their experience in the space as learners as well as teachers. Educators explain their mantra of “wait, watch, follow”. That is, staff in the space step back and allow visitors to explore the space and materials and think about the challenge, watch for where visitors may need help, and then follow with a question or prompt that encourages visitors to figure out their own solutions.

Several candidates wrote in an exit slip how the Tinkering Lab was a defining moment for them in terms of thinking about balancing engagement, structure, choice and autonomy within the learning process. For instance, responding the question “What was a defining moment for your today in the exhibit – as a learner and/or as an educator?” one candidate wrote “When [the museum educator] was talking about the instructions and how they should be open-ended, it really gave us so much freedom to really think for ourselves and go for it, which is something kids should be given the opportunity to do.” Another candidate shared, “I really liked the Tinkering Lab and seeing how each person interpreted the directions differently and expressed themselves. I learned how important tinkering is for all ages and why it is important. Not only does it build cognitive/social emotional learning, but also builds confidence.” Here, we see evidence that candidates are beginning to identify aspects of their own Tinkering Lab experience that could be transferred to their future elementary engineering classrooms.

Next, candidates explore the Skyline exhibition space, in which they participate in small group teams in a challenge to brainstorm, design, and create a skyscraper structure under constraints of time and materials, and then reflect upon the process. This experience highlights the interdisciplinary connections with mathematics, science and language arts, but perhaps more prominently the importance of teamwork and communication – which groups often forget about in their rush to just start building but later come to recognize the value of as they progress in their creation. Candidates complete their towers and then step back to compare their design choices with their peers as well as with the designs of other structures previous visitors have left on display.

Finally, candidates use the exhibit’s recording studio feature to create a narrative reflection on their process, including design choices as well as challenges encountered and how they overcame them. Afterwards, the reflection discussion focuses on their process and how it helps them to understand what they’ve read about the engineering design process. Typically, the importance of planning, testing, failing and improving emerge in these reflections. As one candidate shared, “A defining moment for me today was building the skyscraper even though it ended up falling down. This visit helped me realize how important failure is and how learning from that is so beneficial.” Candidates also reflect on the opportunity for incorporating writing or other communication formats into learning experiences to allow for reflection on the learning process – whether it is for themselves or for their future students. These themes are picked up in the engineering lab classroom.

Engineering Lab Classroom

The majority of course sessions take place on-site at a partner elementary school, which is fortunate to have an elementary engineering lab space and dedicated engineering lab teacher. The neighborhood school is a high achieving, culturally and linguistically diverse, low socio-economic urban school within close proximity to the university. The class meets in a classroom made available by the school for the first two hours of class, and then transitions together with the university professor to the engineering lab to work with the elementary class that is scheduled to be there for that one hour class period. Engineering is built into the school schedule as an enrichment class with each grade level visiting the engineering lab twice in every six-day cycle. Since the teacher preparation course meets once per week on the same day of the week, candidates see different classes from the same grade level in the engineering lab. The large lab space has an open gathering rug space in the front of the room for class meetings and eight large tables. Students are organized into table teams of 4-6 students for each engineering design challenge; one to two teacher candidates are assigned to work with each table. The university class (teacher candidates and professor) arrives to the lab 10-15 minutes ahead of the elementary class to check in with the engineering lab teacher about the lesson for the day. This is also a good time to assist with any preparations for the activity. On any given class session, the teacher candidates assist with whatever portion of the design challenge students happen to be working on.

The engineering lab teacher and the university professor meet prior to the start of the semester to discuss both logistics and content. This is a chance for the engineering lab teacher to share specifics about the classroom context, including the specific curriculum content, background about the students and classes, as well as how the candidates can be of most help in the classroom. This meeting is also a chance for the university professor to discuss assignments and other course goals. Together, they also discuss how to manage the number of added people in the room, how to match candidates with students, and work out schedules for completing university course assignments that involve students (see below).

The engineering lab teacher has adapted the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum (Engineering is Elementary, 2011) to fit the particular needs and interests of her classroom. For instance, the Lighten Up: Designing Lighting Systems unit, which introduces the field of optical engineering and invites youth to design a lighting system for the interior of a model ancient Egyptian tomb, integrates well with the fourth grade focus on energy and matter (NGSS PS3.A-C). At the point of the semester when the university class joined the elementary classes this past semester, the 4th grade had just concluded their exploration of light properties and were excited to share their learning with the teacher candidates. Youth referenced the consensus charts around the room, which summarized their learning about light, how it travels in straight lines, reflects in a particular way, and interacts with different materials; these charts then became useful references for the teacher candidates as well as they practiced asking probing questions – rather than providing answers – and reviewed key vocabulary while assisting the teams of young engineers. When asked about what they were learning from the teacher and the students in the partner classroom, candidates remarked at how it was beneficial to see the strategies that they were reading and discussing about exemplified in the elementary classroom. “The entire experience of being in the [engineering] lab really stuck with me because everything we have been learning directly applied to what we observed,” one candidate shared in an exit slip.

The engineering classes monitor their progress through a modified engineering design process (EDP) using a large chart at the front of the room that displays the various stages of the EiE model – Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve – with a space for each group to mark “GTG”, short for “Good to Go”, once that phase has been approved by the lab teacher or one of the teacher candidates. The GTG is a coveted mark in team members’ journals and on the classroom chart because it signifies that the group can move onto the next phase of their design process. The EDP/GTG chart also serves as a space for the engineering lab teacher to make notes about where a group leaves off or what needs to be checked the next time they are in the lab. And, it is a useful resource for teacher candidates who may not be working with the same group of students from one week to the next. Further, in terms of modeling best practices, the journals are an example for candidates of ways to make student thinking visible and public, and empower youth to monitor their own learning. “I like the strategy because it encourages students to share their thoughts and ideas and also gives them a chance to show their thoughts to the other students, even in the other classes,” shared one candidate. Candidates also identified how the GTG chart functions as both a form of assessment and classroom management, since many students were eager to stay on task, progress through their design project and be rewarded with a GTG on the chart. “I saw how excited the students were to be able to be a part of a class that encouraged and explored a variety of different Engineering practices,” shared another candidate.

As candidates help facilitate small group work they are developing their own understandings about engineering as well as instructional practices consistent with the Framework for Quality K-12 Engineering Education and the Framework for K-12 Science Education. For instance, candidates learn about “talk moves” designed to support academically productive conversations (Michaels & O’Connor, 2012) in their course readings and then observe and try out these practices during their time in the elementary engineering lab, with the support of the lab teacher and university professor. Reflecting in an interview about the model lessons she observed, one candidate shared “seeing the class having a discussion about science is not something I was familiar with at all. So that was a really cool experience to see the students so engaged. No textbook at all. [Students] just taking initiative over their learning… It was a really cool experience to witness their energy and excitement about that.”

Candidates also learn from listening to the students since, by the spring semester, students are quite familiar with these talk moves and are adept at using them in their teams and in whole-class discussions. The lab teacher demonstrates appropriate questioning techniques using talk moves as she circulates to each table group to support students and candidates as they think through their design decisions as a team – brainstorming, creating and testing ideas, analyzing results and considering improvements. Rather than giving away answers or determining the course of action for students, candidates also practice implementing the “wait, watch, follow” approach introduced at the museum’s Tinkering Lab and demonstrated by the partner school teacher. Candidates follow the lead of the elementary engineering lab teacher as they practice and reflect on the experience of encouraging students to share their ideas with the team, listen to one another and think collectively through challenges, and deepen their reasoning using evidence.

Candidates also develop and carry out a “science and engineering talk” (Rosebery & Ballenger, 2008) with students. This past term, the talk took place at the start of a new unit mid-way through the semester and focused on Earth’s Systems (NGSS ESS.2A&C) and designing solutions for erosion (NGSS 4-ESS3-2 & ETS1.B). Candidates used a combination of questions suggested by the lab teacher as well as questions they wrote to lead their table teams in elicitation conversations about photographs depicting puzzling phenomena – landforms that had somehow been altered by erosion, weathering and deposition. Goals of the science talk include uncovering students’ initial ideas about the landforms and how they came to be, and identifying the sorts of prior knowledge and experiences students draw upon to make sense of the phenomenon. They also reflected on the implications of the talk for the unit and upcoming design challenge, focused on designing a solution to stop water erosion – a problem of particular interest since their school is a short distance from a lakefront and riverfront facing similar issues. Reflection prompts included “In what ways did conducting the science talk and observing the new 4th grade unit being introduced help you to think about the lesson and unit plans you’re developing?” As exemplified in the quote below, candidates remarked at how much they learned about the students through the talk, and how interested and engaged the class was in the phenomenon:

“The really interesting part of this assignment is how unique each student’s experience was with water, and how that affected their responses to my questions…As a future science teacher, I will begin my lessons with a particular Phenomena or big question! This will not only get my students eager to learn more, but it will cause them to draw upon their own personal experiences and perceptions of the world. By conducting this Science talk, I learned so much about my students, about the way students think and make connections, and about how I can guide them without giving away the answer.
These and other authentic teaching opportunities in the partner classroom help move candidates to develop confidence and understandings about the engineering and design processes, its connection to science and other content areas, its relevance to their own and their students’ lives and experiences, as well as in pedagogical strategies for teaching science and engineering at the elementary level.”

An ongoing challenge we’ve found is how to help candidates understand the relationship and interaction between science and engineering. Research suggests that explicit attention to this integration is necessary (Reimers et al., 2015). This year, we placed more emphasis on reflecting upon the interaction of science and engineering and on encouraging candidates to think about how to leverage students’ engineering experiences to develop understanding of science concepts. For instance, during the lighting system unit described above, we discussed how the engineering design challenge followed the class’s study of light and thus served as a context for students to transfer and further develop their understandings. Then, for their own 5E lesson and unit planning, we encouraged candidates to take a similar approach and integrate engineering challenges within the Extend/Elaborate phase. In another class activity, groups worked together to respond to the prompt: “Explain (through words, diagrams, etc.) your understanding of what the disciplines of science, technology and engineering are. How are these fields related? How are they distinct? What will you want to emphasize for your students about these fields separately, and as they relate to one another?”

An important conclusion of each class session is taking time with the engineering lab teacher after students have left to debrief. While there would ideally be more time for a discussion (typically there are only a few minutes before other classes arrive), this time together affords the lab teacher an opportunity to make some of her thinking explicit to candidates. The university professor continues the debrief and also picks up on topics brought up by the lab teacher in exit slip reflection assignments and future class discussions. Together, these debriefings help candidates to develop their own professional vision. Conversations have, for example, helped to highlight the importance of setting aside time for team-building and encouraging productive responses to failure. Questions posed to candidates included: “Why do you think the class takes so much time for team-building? What did you notice about how the new groups worked together on their team folders? What did you notice about how project setbacks are addressed in the engineering lab? How might you support your students when they encounter frustrations and challenges with their assignments?”

In discussing the significance of giving time for students to get to know other members of their team by decorating team folders at the start of each new unit, one candidate shared, “I like that [the engineering lab teacher] switches up the groups after each project so that students have a chance to work with new classmates. I think it is great that she does ‘get to know you activities’ when the students get new groups so that they get to know one another better.” Sharing takeaways from another class period where the young engineering class took time to talk through setbacks they encountered in their design process, one candidate was pleasantly surprised by how “setbacks are looked at in a positive way in the Engineering Class…I need to realize that setbacks are okay [in my own work, too]”. Agreeing, another shared “failure and frustrations are places where students including myself can learn and come up with new ideas…I can work with them individually to come up with new ideas or new ways of looking at a problem.” These examples further illustrate how candidates are simultaneously deepening their understanding of engineering and engineering education, as learners themselves and as novice teachers.

Family STEM Night

A final, optional field experience takes place at the partner school’s annual Family STEM Night, where Kindergarten through Grade 4 students and their families attend a series of different interactive science, technology, engineering, and math focused sessions. Candidates are invited to help facilitate a session; due to time constraints, the university instructor selects the activity, gathers materials and provides a brief orientation before the event begins. Building on the museum-based experience at the start of the semester, the Family Night serves as another example for candidates of how informal engineering experiences can complement formal school-day experiences, promoting more connected learning and overall academic success (Fenichel & Schweingruber, 2010). The event allows for another touch-point with engineering for the teacher candidates and for the youth who visit the engineering lab with their classes. Held in late spring, elementary students and teacher candidates engage confidently in the engineering design challenges. Candidates have developed the vocabulary around the engineering design process, practices and habits of mind and are eager to assist youth and their families in thinking through the challenge, working on their designs and considering improvements or extensions to make at home.

Learning how teachers and schools work with families to support their children’s learning is another critical skill set for teacher candidates. Those who participate in the Family STEM Night witness firsthand how the event provides families another window into their children’s school experience as well as into the world of engineering, which may or may not be familiar. The positive energy of the evening, along with the collaboration between teachers, administrators, staff and volunteers that ensure its success, also illustrates for candidates the value of bringing families together for community-building events at the school that are both educational and social (Smetana, Chadde, Goldfien, & Nelson, C., 2012), making it more likely that they will participate in similar events in the future.

Candidate Outcomes

We began with the claim that the course shifted elementary teacher candidates’ perceptions about teaching engineering. In addition to the anecdotal evidence provided throughout the article as a way of illustrating what the field-based experience entailed, this section summarizes overall findings, reported in greater detail and expanded upon elsewhere (Smetana & Nelson, 2018), about candidate efficacy beliefs. Beliefs are of interest to us since teachers’ classroom actions are linked to their belief systems (Jones & Carter, 2007) and beginning teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning science are shown to be positively influenced by the support they receive early on (Cantrell, Young & Moore, 2003; Osisioma & Moscovici, 2008).

Overall, candidates over multiple semesters have shown increased confidence on a number of quantitative and qualitative scales. Quantitative data was collected through the Teaching Engineering Self-efficacy Scale (TESS), a 23-item instrument that measures teacher beliefs across multiple sub-scales including: engineering pedagogical content knowledge self-efficacy (KS), engineering engagement self-efficacy (ES), engineering disciplinary self-efficacy (DS) and outcome expectancy (OE) (Yoon, Evans, & Strobel, 2014). While outcome expectancy is a construct of interest, we found that the five TESS items corresponding with outcome expectancy were geared toward teachers who have the primary responsibility for their students’ engineering assessment and evaluation. Since our teacher candidates are only supporting classroom teachers at this stage of the program and not responsible for documenting students’ progress, they expressed uncertainty about how to answer most of the OE questions. For instance, while Item #23 (My effectiveness in engineering teaching can influence the achievement of students with low motivation) was something our teacher candidates felt comfortable answering, Item #19 (When a student gets a better grade in engineering than he/she usually gets, it is often because I found better ways of teaching that student) was confusing to our teacher candidates who do not assign grades to the elementary students they worked with, or know students’ overall course grades. Given this confusion, we did not want the OE scores to skew the overall TESS scores. In the future, we may re-word these five questions to be more applicable to the 2nd year teacher candidates’ experience or provide additional explanation for how to answer the items. For instance, Item #19 could be reworded for teacher candidates to state, “When a student performs better academically in engineering than he/she usually does, it is often because I found better ways of teaching that student”.

In order to measure the candidates’ self-efficacy towards teaching engineering, each candidate completed the TESS twice: once at the beginning of the course, prior to exposure to the engineering classroom or curriculum, and again, upon completion of the course. Data were collected from nine candidates in year 1 and twenty candidates in year 2. We calculated descriptive statistics to measure the change in the candidates’ self-efficacy towards teaching engineering (See Table 2).

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Teaching Engineering Self-efficacy Scale (TESS) Pre-test and Post-test Scores Over Two Years

In order to expand on the survey data, qualitative data were collected through an ungraded writing reflection at the end of the course that asks the teacher candidates to reflect back on the beginning of the semester and how their TESS responses and ideas have changed – such as new understandings or realizations about engineering and engineering education – if at all. The assignment also asked them to consider what has most contributed to the changes. Additionally, the second author conducted semi-structured interviews with candidates after the end of the course each year to further probe candidates’ ideas, understandings and beliefs. The following response is typical of what we found in written reflections and interviews over the past two years:

“I do notice many significant changes. Before this class, I was not one hundred percent certain on what engineering was. I knew it was a very diverse career field, but I did not know how to bring that into an elementary setting. I was not confident in the beginning of the semester on going into an engineering classroom, and was very nervous. Coming out at the end of the semester, I feel very confident in my ability to conduct an engineering activity with students and help them through the engineering design process.”

The overwhelming majority remark on how they were unsure of their understandings and nervous about the prospects of teaching engineering to begin with, but emerge with great – perhaps even inflated – confidence at the end of the semester. Inflated perhaps since our research suggests that candidates still hold some misunderstandings and misconceptions about engineering and its interaction with science at the end of the course (Smetana & Nelson, 2018), a challenge that we continue to explore and attend to in the design and implementation of each subsequent course.


Our approach to introducing elementary teacher candidates to engineering and promoting their comfort with and efficacy for teaching engineering in the elementary grades highlights the value of a) capitalizing on partnerships, b) immersing candidates as learners who, like their students, benefit from teaching and learning experiences across different educational settings and with expert educators, c) providing opportunities to observe, enact and analyze the enactment of high-leverage instructional practices and d) incorporating opportunities for independent and collaborative reflection. These elements resonate with those emerging from other studies that describe characteristics of practice-based and participatory approaches to teacher preparation (Forzani, 2014; Grossman et al., 2009; Lampert et al., 2013) as well as initiatives that successfully introduce educators to engineering education and pedagogies (Goldman & Zielezinski, 2016). When asked about their course experiences, candidates consistently rank the time in the elementary engineering lab as most influential on their ideas and beliefs about engineering and engineering education at the end of the semester. This is not unexpected given the amount of time spent in the classroom and the timing of the question, which comes at the end of the semester when candidates have just completed the school-based experience and said their farewells to the elementary classes. However, these findings reinforce the value of the field-based experiences and the collaborations between the university instructor and engineering lab teacher whose educational practices are consistent with current science/engineering standards and align with the rest of the course content and strategies. As Zeichner (2012) argues, it is not just being in a P-12 classroom that makes for a meaningful teacher preparation learning experience. Rather, a coherent and participatory learning experience focuses on the work of teaching and involves observing and participating in practice, as well as acquiring ones’ own skills in specific core practices through enactment and reflection (Forzani, 2014).

Although fewer candidates cite the influence of the museum in the end of semester essays and interviews, their early semester reflections illustrate how impactful the visit is on candidates’ understanding of engineering practices and habits of mind, but also structured yet flexible and self-directed learning environments, and strategies for scaffolding intellectual risk-taking. These findings suggest that the museum-based session laid the groundwork for the elementary engineering lab experience. That is, the visits provided an introduction to focused inquiry, through examining influences on the processes and conditions for learning that exist within the informal setting and that also have relevance for the classroom setting. Additionally, our experience and findings suggest that the museum session, with its behind the scenes look at the exhibition spaces and programing as well as the chance to personally experience them, helps candidates attend to both the learner and educator perspectives (Grossman et al., 2009).

Critical to the success of the course and partnerships with the museum and engineering lab is the museum educators, engineering lab teacher and the university professor all being positioned as co-teacher educators who share in the responsibility of preparing the teacher candidates. Each brings a unique set of experience and expertise, and each guides candidate learning in complementary ways. These collaborations and professional relationships have developed over several years, during which time tremendous energy and time have gone into meeting, planning and reflecting upon course sessions and activities. Along the way, we have all learned from one another, adding to our own professional repertoires.

Going forward, we are eager to continue to innovate in our practice, reviewing candidate outcomes and further improving upon the learning experiences we provide. Future longitudinal research in this area needs to consider how candidates progress into student teaching and beyond, and the extent to which the interest and efficacy demonstrated at the end of the course is indeed associated with high quality engineering instruction in their own elementary classrooms.


A Blended Professional Development Model for Teachers to Learn, Implement, and Reflect on NGSS Practices


The incorporation of engineering into science instruction is a vehicle to provide a real-world context for learning science and mathematics, which can help to make “school science” more relatable. Common arguments for the inclusion of engineering education in K-12 settings include providing and promoting: a real-world context for learning mathematics and science content, a context for developing problem-solving skills, the development of communication skills and teamwork, and a fun and hands-on setting to improve students’ attitudes toward STEM fields (Brophy, Klein, Portsmore, & Rogers, 2008; Hirsch, Carpinelli, Kimmel, Rockland, & Bloom, 2007; Koszalka, Wu, & Davidson, 2007). These arguments illustrate the potential for engineering education to make a significant and unique contribution to student learning, particularly for women and minorities (Brophy, Klein, Portsmore, & Rogers, 2008; National Research Council [NRC], 2012). The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) highlight the importance of incorporating K-12 engineering practices and performance expectations into science standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Integration of engineering into science standards requires a shift in current educational practices, as the majority of K-12 science teachers lack knowledge and experience of engineering and engineering education (Banilower et al., 2013; Cunningham & Carlsen, 2014).

As more states continue to adopt the NGSS and other standards that incorporate engineering into K-12 education, there is a critical need to provide practicing teachers with professional development. These professional development experiences must not only support teachers’ understanding of these standards, but also focus on changes in practice that are required in order to implement them (Cunningham & Carlsen, 2014). Calls through national reform documents highlight the integration of engineering into K-12 science standards as a mechanism to both improve the future of the STEM workforce and increase STEM literacy for all (NRC, 2012). Teachers in states like Michigan, which has recently adopted the performance expectations of the NGSS, require professional development in order to learn these new standards and develop a fundamental understanding of the field of engineering. This will allow teachers to help students relate science concepts to real-world issues using engineering.

The professional development described here was part of a state-funded grant to support and deepen in-service science teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical practices. At the time of funding, Michigan had recently adopted the NGSS performance expectations, which highlighted the need to support teachers in making a shift in their practice. Specifically, our work helped secondary physical science and physics teachers improve their understanding and use of inquiry-based and engineering-integrated instruction. The timing of this program was critical in helping our teachers transition from the previous state science standards to the NGSS. This transition is important, as these teachers will soon be expected to bring engineering practices into their science classrooms, but may lack knowledge related to engineering. Through our 18-month long professional development, we equipped teachers with tools and examples of engineering in physical science classrooms, focusing on the integration of these two areas. The work shared here describes our approach to addressing these issues in hopes of providing a framework for others to use in similar settings.

Description of Professional Development


A total of fifteen middle and high school teachers participated in our professional development over the course of eighteen months as part of a Michigan Title IIA(3) grant. These teachers from across the state applied for the professional development, and spots were filled on a first-come, first-served basis. All but one of these teachers taught a physical science or physics course at the time of the professional development; this last teacher was an industrial technology teacher, who had previously worked as a mechanical engineer. All fifteen teachers were instructing their students in the areas of energy, work, force, and motion, which we advertised as the science content focus of the professional development. Five of our teachers were currently teaching middle school, seven taught high school, and three taught across K-12 grades as the sole science teacher in their rural school. Generally, these teachers were experienced in the classroom; three had been teaching between 0-5 years, five between 5-10 years, 3 between 10-15 years, and three over 15 years of experience. These teachers came from eleven schools across ten school districts, four of which were considered high needs as determined by Michigan Department of Education. The majority of these districts represented rural schools with 50-75% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and less than 25% of the students were considered minority. For many of our teachers who taught in rural communities, they were either the only science teacher in their school or taught a wide variety of subjects due to the school’s needs. Table 1 provides additional details about each of the districts’ demographics.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
School Demographics from Eleven Partner Schools

Professional Development Framework

Our approach to this professional development was guided by both Michigan’s Title IIA(3) grant guidelines and our past experiences in working with physics and physical science teachers new to engineering (Dare, Ellis, & Roehrig, 2014). As teachers new to engineering often struggle to meaningfully integrate between science content and an engineering design challenge, we suggested three core components be included in professional development (Dare et al., 2014):

  1. Ascertain knowledge about teacher beliefs related to engineering integration prior to the professional development
  2. Foster discussions about what engineering integration in the classroom would look like
  3. Spend time modeling the creation of instructional goals that include both physics and engineering content

These three components framed our overall approach to the professional development in addition to known best practices (e.g., Banilower, Heck, & Weiss et al., 2007; Capps, Crawford, & Constas, 2012; Supovitz & Turner, 2000) to actively engage teachers in hands-on, engineering-integrated instruction. For instance, the literature on teacher learning and professional development calls for professional development to be sustained over time, as the duration of professional development is related to the depth of teacher change (Banilower, Heck, & Weiss, 2007; Supovitz & Turner, 2000). This is important for creating broad changes in overall classroom culture as opposed to small-scale changes in practice (Supovitz & Turner, 2000). For our project, we provided over 90 contact hours of professional development (a requirement of the Title IIA(3) guidelines) over the course of 18 months. Not only is the total number of contact hours important, but also the time span of the professional development experience (i.e. the number of months across which professional hours occur) to allow for multiple cycles of presentation and reflection on practice (Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Guzdial, & Palincsar, 1991; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; Kubitskey, 2006).


We provided two one-week summer workshops and sustained support during the school year by creating a blended professional development program that utilized both face-to-face and online meetings (Table 2). As facilitators, we were concerned that the large geographical distances (up for 10 hours away) between ourselves and our teachers would make sustained professional development challenging, particularly once our teachers returned to their classrooms. To mitigate this, we provided academic year support virtually. This blended form of professional development has been gaining traction with other researchers and teacher educators as the ability to communicate virtually is becoming more user-friendly (Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education, 2017). We designed the course of the project as follows: a one-week summer institute in Year 1 led by project staff, academic year follow-up in the form of virtual monthly group and individual coaching meetings, and another one-week summer institute in Year 2, in which teachers led the bulk of the activities. We started with learning the basics of engineering and engineering integration by engaging in example activities and lessons, which were scaffolded in complexity over our week-long workshop. This was followed by academic year coaching to help teachers reflect on their practice in a group setting. Additionally, individual meetings helped teachers reflect on a specific lesson or unit that they implemented and receive feedback from project staff. The second summer allowed for further practice and reflection, focusing on opportunities for teachers to gather feedback from peers and project staff. The following sections describe how each of these components provided our teachers with 18 months of sustained professional development.

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Outline of Overall PD Structure

Summer Year 1 Activities

The main focus of the first summer workshop was to provide our teachers with an understanding of engineering through integrated physical science and engineering activities in order to engage all students in authentic scientific and engineering practices. Our three main goals were for our teachers to: 1) learn in-depth content related to forces and motion, 2) learn about the engineering design process, and 3) develop lessons to implement in the following school year. Research identifies professional development that focuses on science content and how children learn as important in changing teaching practice (Corcoran, 1995), particularly when the goal is the implementation of inquiry-based instruction designed to improve students’ conceptual understanding (Fennema et al., 1996). This guided us to create an experience that was interactive with teachers’ own teaching practice. As the facilitators, we modeled instructional practices during the professional development, provided authentic learning experiences to allow teachers to truly experience the role of the learner in an inquiry setting, and supported teacher development of conceptual understanding of the physical science content. By allowing teachers to learn about the engineering design process using hands-on engineering activities in the context of physical science, teachers developed ideas and plans for how to bring engineering to their classrooms. We provided our teachers with a variety of engineering design process models (e.g., Engineering is Elementary, NGSS, PictureSTEM), feeling that it was important that they chose a model that they felt would work best with their students. In addition to modeling integration strategies, we built in time to discuss each activity to assist teachers in thinking about the activity from both a teacher and a student perspective. Figure 1 shows the typical progression when introducing a new activity.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Outline of a typical progression when introducing new activities in summer year 1.

We introduced a variety of topics and engineering design challenges as we scaffolded the complexity of the activities with either more content or new instructional strategies. With each activity that we introduced, we attempted to focus on something new each time (for example, emphasizing teamwork or using data analysis to make design decisions). We frequently moved teachers around and arranged them in different groups, using a variety of means to group them to model different strategies for use in their own classrooms. We discussed how to come up with learning goals/targets that aligned with both science and engineering practices; starting on Day 2, we never shared an activity that did not include both physical science content and engineering standards. This was a strong emphasis throughout the professional development, as we frequently asked questions such as, “What made you decide on that design? What evidence do you have? What standard does this address?” We shared various assessment approaches, focusing on performance assessment. Table 3 describes the core activities that shaped this one-week institute, along with the NGSS standards that were addressed. When appropriate, we discussed safety measures in the classroom, building off of our teacher’s own knowledge of safety in the science classroom.

Table 3 (Click on link to view table)
Summary of Year 1 Core Activities


Beyond the core activities, we administered a pre/post content assessment (based on the Force Concept Inventory), an instructional practice survey required by the Michigan Department of Education, and a self-efficacy survey (described below); discussed the nuances of the new NGSS compared to previous state standards through “unpacking the standards” activities; and formatively evaluated the previous day’s learning. We also guided teachers through using both Google Drive (where they were expected to later upload lesson plans and classroom videos) and the Google Site we created for them, where we shared all of our professional development materials (i.e., slides, handouts, materials lists, readings, etc.) and quick links to Google Drive. Throughout the week, we provided teachers with ample time to write lesson plans for their classrooms in the coming academic year, encouraging sharing between peers and facilitators for feedback. On the last day, we supplied teachers with recording equipment (video camera, tripod, and lapel microphone) to record engineering-integrated lesson in their classrooms and discussed what we were looking for in the academic year.

Year 1 Teacher Feedback

As part of our formative evaluation, we provided teachers with a brief course evaluation at the end of the week. This evaluation showed that teachers received the course positively, but most importantly, they felt that our strategies were helpful to their learning. For instance one teacher noted, “One of the best aspects was the instructors didn’t act like this was the best and/or only way to teach this material. Discussions abounded with many alternative ideas.” Teachers appreciated our modeling strategy such that, “The literal hands-on approach made a huge difference in my comprehension of the material. I also felt that by utilizing an open-forum approach we were able to feel more comfortable for invaluable discussion.” Further, “Hands on opportunities to learn from a student’s perspective and reflect from the teacher perspective,” were seen as beneficial. The biggest failure in this first year was that the course was not long enough: “This could be a 2 week class with more emphasis on other standards in the 2nd week,” including, “More time for teacher discussions.” This feedback helped us design the workshop in summer Year 2, where we emphasized a greater focus on teacher-led activities and discussions.

One teacher commented that, “I sent a note to my principal telling him a couple of our teachers [who were not a part of the professional development] could have benefited from the class, too.” It was clear that teachers valued the work they did over the summer. These teachers left feeling confident about the upcoming year, armed with new tools in their teacher tool belts to bring engineering and the NGSS to their classrooms. In particular, “I had such an amazing week and feel so much more prepared to create engineering challenge lessons for my students. The instructors shared great ideas with us and empowered us to come up with our own amazing ideas.” By allowing teachers to struggle with engineering hands-on they felt prepared to add engineering to their instruction.

Academic Year Coaching

In order to support our goal of sustained professional development during the academic year (Garet et al., 2001; Richardson, 2003; Supovitz & Turner, 2000), we provided time for teachers to try out new instructional techniques, obtain feedback, and reflect. Facilitators of professional development should provide opportunities for teachers to reflect critically on their practice and to fashion new knowledge and beliefs about content, pedagogy, and learners (Darling-Hammond, 2005). During the academic year, we set goals for our project in which our teachers would: 1) implement new activities and lessons in their classrooms, 2) receive feedback from professional development facilitators, and 3) develop reflective practice skills. While teachers were expected to implement and video-record engineering-integrated lessons into their instruction during the school year, they were also expected to meet with project staff in monthly group coaching meetings as well as less frequent individual coaching meetings. Individual meetings provided teachers with opportunities to meet one-on-one with project staff and engage in conversations about their individual practice. These intentional conversations provide one of the most powerful forms of reflection (Ortmann, 2015; York-Barr, Sommers, Ghere & Montie, 2006), as “awareness of one’s own intuitive thinking usually grows out of practice in articulating it to others” (Schön, 1983, p. 243). When the conversation partner is a coach or mentor, this practice of reflection is non-evaluative and seeks to deepen the teacher’s reflective practice (York-Barr et al., 2006). This type of coaching has been used in science and mathematics classrooms to effectively expand teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogy (Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love, & Stiles, 1998). Further, coaching in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classrooms has the potential to drive success in K-12 STEM education in addition to increasing teacher self-efficacy (Cantrell & Hughes, 2008; Ortmann, 2015).

Monthly group coaching. We scheduled two online meetings each month using Google Hangout; each of the two monthly meetings covered the same topics and were scheduled so that half of the group would meet during the first meeting and the other half would attend the second meeting. Meeting times were determined simply by polling teachers using a Google Form; one meeting was at the end of the school day and one was at a later evening hour. During these group meetings, teachers shared what was going on in their classrooms and elicited help from facilitators and colleagues. The topics of each month were guided by teachers’ interest in topics, which they shared with us at the end of each meeting. As the months continued on, we changed our strategy to make sure that the coaching sessions better met our teachers’ needs. In this, we ended up going through three phases of meeting type.

Discussion and topic driven. For the first meeting, the first author emailed a Google Form to teachers to indicate topics that they would like to address in the first meeting. A short list of specific topics was provided in the form, but respondents were also able to add in their own suggestions. From the responses, we determined that the first topic would be a continuation of a discussion about creating motivating and engaging contexts for student learning. The first four meetings (September to December) followed a similar format that began with a welcome and general check-in with teachers, a short interactive PowerPoint presentation to ground the conversation, whole group discussion and sharing, and a closing. At the end of each meeting, we asked teachers to contribute to a table in Google Doc to note the following: “I’m planning to implement…”, “I’m excited to try…”, and “I’m still wondering about…”. This third item led us to determine the topic for each subsequent monthly meeting, which covered assessment strategies, formative assessment, and planning ahead for Summer 2.

A focus on classroom practice. After the winter break, we adjusted our approach to the monthly meetings. We incorporated breakout sessions in which the meeting would start as a large group, then we would create small breakout groups on the fly in Google Hangouts, and the whole group would finally come back together for the last 10 or so minutes. We created separate Google Hangout links ahead of time and emailed the small groups when it was time for these small group discussions; because we never knew who was attending which meeting, this second part was done in the moment. As the facilitators, we would “drop into” these meetings using those links, much like a teacher would check in with a small group in a classroom setting. During these two sessions, teachers discussed issues, challenges, and/or successes in their classroom (January) and then identified a particular area that they wanted to work on to improve (February). This latter topic helped us in planning ahead for the Year 2 summer institute. In particular, teachers voiced their struggle with classroom management and creating performance assessments, and were proud of their success in increasing student engagement in their classrooms.

Video work. Our original plan was to engage teachers in video reflection during Summer 2, so we shifted our focus in March to prepare teachers for watching their peers’ classroom video to provide feedback. We first introduced teachers to VideoAnt, a free online tool for video annotations, and asked them to view a video from the Engineering is Elementary video collection. Specifically, we asked teachers to annotate 3 things they found interesting, 2 things they would ask the teacher if s/he were present, and 1 implication for their future engineering-integrated instruction. In April, we continued this discussion by encouraging teachers to comment on all of the annotations from the previous meeting. We used this experience to help our teachers generate ideas via a Google Form to establish guidelines/norms for sharing video clips during the summer. The teachers worked together to define the following guidelines, which were implemented in the summer Year 2:

  1. Teachers can share strategies or elicit feedback on specific aspects of instruction
  2. Viewers can help solve a problem
  3. Anyone can ask probing questions
  4. You can give advice related to your own instruction
  5. Everyone will recognize that not all classrooms are the same
  6. No high-fiving or being negative – constructive criticism only!

By May, we realized that a week full of video clips and feedback might be monotonous for this group of teachers who thrived on variety, so we opened up the summer session to include a micro-teaching option. In this option, teachers would be able to showcase or pilot an activity they wanted to receive peer feedback on. This required that we discuss what this meant during our May meeting.

Individual coaching. During the school year, teachers implemented activities and lessons in their classroom that focused on engineering integration (many of which reflected slightly-altered versions of activities shared in the Year 1 institute). In addition to the monthly group meetings, they also engaged in individual coaching meetings. Because of the large distance between the project team and the teachers, teachers video-recorded lessons in their classrooms and shared the recording digitally via a shared Google Drive folder; these were only shared with the project staff, not all of the teachers. The first author then watched these recordings in order to prepare for a one-on-one virtual meeting with the individual to discuss the lesson. During this meeting, the first author used a coaching approach to learn more about the teacher’s experience in implementing the lesson of focus and to inquire about future practice, providing an opportunity for the teacher to reflect on their current practice. Although some specific questions were drafted ahead of time, typically these meetings were organic. Meetings often started with a broad question such as, “How do you think your implementation went?” From here, the first author would elicit not only the teachers’ concerns, but also their successes. These discussions were often centered on student learning and engagement, as teachers were most concerned about this aspect of their instruction. While the project only required one of these meetings, a handful of teachers took advantage of this external support and engaged in multiple conversations.

Summer Year 2 Activities

The original plan for Year 2 was to have teachers share segments of their recorded classroom video, but as the monthly meetings progressed during the school year, we realized that sharing video may limit the activities. Because of this, we altered our plan slightly. We knew from the group meetings that teachers were interested in what their peers were doing in their classrooms, so instead of watching video clips for the entire week, we added the option for teachers to micro-teach a lesson. Teachers could share either what they had implemented in their classrooms or something that they were thinking about implementing (i.e. a pilot). The first author sent out a Google Form to elicit responses and to assure that each teacher signed up for either micro-teaching or video share. We made it clear to our participants that this second workshop would be extremely different from the first, as we would provide very little new information. Similar to professional learning communities, our aim was to continue to allow these teachers to build their knowledge from one another as they continued to develop ideas for classroom use.

This second summer institute followed a similar format each day, where the goals were for teachers to: 1) reflect on experiences from the classroom with peers, 2) build on knowledge gained during the academic year, and 3) continue to develop lessons and units for classroom use. In order to reduce the stress of having a teacher lead a discussion on the very first day, the first author led the group through an engineering design challenge related to forces and buoyancy (Dare, Rafferty, Scheidel, & Roehrig, 2017). This final engineering design challenge – design and build a watercraft for use in floods – was revisited at the end of the week. Each day included video scenarios, two rounds of micro-teaching, and an Engineering with an Engineer segment (described below) or time for lesson development.

Video scenarios. Teachers who elected to share classroom video were asked to select a video clip no longer than 10 minutes to share; this was done prior to the week-long summer meeting and with support from us. Teachers were expected to not only share the video clip, but to ask for specific feedback from their peers. During the professional development we shared the video clips either in a large group or two small groups. After watching the clip, the group engaged in discussion, led by the focus teacher, where others followed the previously established viewing guidelines and constructive feedback norms.

Micro-teaching. Teachers who chose this option provided the first author with a list of materials needed to complete the activity and were asked to prepare any handouts necessary to implement it in the classroom. Teachers were provided approximately 45 minutes to introduce and lead the activity as they would in their classroom; while this meant that a multi-day lesson may not have been fully implemented, this activity provided teachers an opportunity to share enough to receive feedback from their peers. Afterward, the group debriefed the activity, where the teacher asked his/her peers for specific feedback and suggestions for improvement.

Engineering with an engineer. To encourage teachers’ growth in their understanding of engineering, the third author (a doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering) led activities to share more about what real engineers do, using real engineering practices and situating them within an activity. For instance, engineers make informed decisions using a systematic process; this is reflected in NGSS standard MS-ETS1-2. In one activity, teachers were asked to consider how they make decisions while evaluating three different roofing materials. Teachers used a decision matrix (Figure 2) to identify criteria and constraints based on their roof project needs, wants, and overall budget. Once teachers individually documented their ideas, they paired up and shared their decision matrix with a colleague. Each teacher team reached a consensus, agreed on their top three decision criteria, and selected one roofing material. While no physical product was created as a result of this decision-making activity, this exercise is one example of how real-world engineers work in a team, using an objective process to make decisions by prioritizing facts, importance, and values. As part of this process, teachers practiced discussing trade-offs, used the matrix as supporting evidence to determine the best design solution, and enacted engineering practices that they could take back to their classroom.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Example template for a decision matrix used in summer year 2.

Lesson development. In order to encourage continued collaboration within the group, we incorporated time for teachers to brainstorm and write activities and lesson plans. This was similar to the summer workshop in Year 1, but by this point, teachers had been exposed to multiple ideas. Teachers worked both individually and in groups to write down ideas and possible activities for their classroom. As part of this, all lesson plans and handouts from the micro-teaching were shared digitally on our course Google Site.

Year 2 Teacher Feedback

Evaluations from both summers indicated that teachers were positive about their experiences with this professional development approach, emphasized by the fact that they asked when they could work with us next. Specifically, in this second summer, teachers were positive about the video shares and the micro-teaching. They noted, “The time to collaborate with other Science Professionals at all levels was so helpful to view ideas/lessons/concepts from multiple perspectives. This time allowed for troubleshooting, idea formulating, and just plain professional discussion that benefited all.” The collaborative aspect of this second summer appeared to be fulfilling: “The amount of collaboration between teachers was astronomical and really accelerated my understanding of the different sciences and how they are taught.” The micro-teaching enabled teachers to get more ideas of activities to use in their classroom: “Having numerous hands on activities that can be applied directly to class. I also liked talking with others about activities that worked.” It appeared that this sharing of ideas benefited our teachers.
When asked to comment on improvements for us to think about future professional development offerings, most responses were similar to, “None that I can think of,” however, “I think the biggest drawback to this class was the time. It was great to talk with other teachers and how we use stuff in our classes-ideas, ideas, ideas. This class could have easily gone two weeks both summers. There was more than enough useful material.” Teachers appreciated their colleagues and commented, “I know everyone has been suggesting it, but, honestly, a continuation so that our strong network of teachers can meet again.” Without being prompted, our teachers thanked us for providing them with this opportunity:

I just want to thank you for treating us like professionals, allowing us the time to interact in fun and engaging ways that we can apply directly to our classrooms, and for providing this opportunity to connect with other science teachers facing similar issues.

Similarly, teachers felt that this opportunity, “…has helped me improve as a teacher and make my classes better for my students,” and helped gain confidence in understanding the new NGSS standards such that, “I feel much more confident in teaching NGSS after this workshop, thank you for allowing me to be a part of this.” Our format clearly impacted teachers who were hungry to learn more about engineering and to connect with others outside of their schools.

Other Measures of Success

As part of our reporting measures, we administered the Teaching Engineering Self-Efficacy Scale (Yoon, Miles, & Strobel, 2013) as an assessment to measure the impact of our professional development workshop on teacher’s self-efficacy; the first assessment occurred at the beginning of the first summer workshop and the second at the end of the second. The TESS uses a 6-point Likert scale ranging from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (6). The survey measures four constructs (Yoon et al., 2012): Engineering Pedagogical Content Knowledge Self-Efficacy (KS), Engineering Engagement Self-Efficacy (ES), Disciplinary Self-Efficacy (DS), and Outcome Expectancy (OE). According to Yoon et al. (2013), analysis of the Teaching Engineering Self-Efficacy Scale (TESS) can be done by examining the average score of each of the four constructs and also by looking at the overall score for self-efficacy by summing these averages. This was done for all participants for their pre and post surveys. We used a paired t-test to analyze the significance of any gains (Table 4). Teachers’ self-efficacy significantly increased in two of the four different constructs, as well as overall, using a cutoff of p<0.05. Although teachers rated their Engineering self-efficacy fairly high in the beginning of our time with them, we can confidently say that this professional development helped to build that self-efficacy even more.

Table 4 (Click on Image to enlarge)
Teacher TESS Results (Likert 1-6 scale)


As noted by teacher feedback in both Years 1 and 2, teachers felt that the professional development helped them understand the new NGSS-like standards, which would help them to develop activities and lessons for their classroom. Additionally, teachers successfully implemented lessons in their classroom and received feedback from project personnel and peers; this feedback helped teachers reflect on their development. While further study would shed light on aspects of classroom practice, it was clear to us as facilitators that this project was a success. It is also evident to us how important it was for teachers to work through learning about engineering and the NGSS with their peers. While we provided a foundation for their learning, most of their growth appeared to be a result of collaboration with their peers.

Although we had not explicitly planned for it, we believe that one of the most successful aspects of this project was the development of collegiality between the teacher participants; this collegiality was unlike any seen by us. We attribute this success in part to the sustained contact throughout the school year. The inclusion of monthly group meetings allowed teachers to remain connected not only with project staff, but with each other. Additionally, we designed these virtual group meetings to fulfill the needs of these teachers by asking what they wanted to work on and encouraged responses from their peers.

This success also came from our participants. We were extremely fortunate to work with teachers who were eager and willing to learn and push themselves outside of their comfort zone. Their written feedback showed us that our model worked for them and that they built their own learning community within this project. This encourages us to consider improvements to any future professional development opportunities we offer. Many of our teachers asked to keep the video recording equipment that they used during the academic year to continue their growth as educators. This is something we plan to include in our future work to expand the use of video reflection. Unexpectedly, few teachers implemented integrated lessons early in the school year; the majority of them chose to wait until the last month or two. Anecdotally, our prior work in similar engineering-focused professional developments showed similar patterns. We suspect that this is due to teachers viewing engineering as something “new,” meaning there is no time in the school year except at the end; a formal study is necessary to more fully understand this phenomenon. This limited our ability to engage teachers in much meaningful video reflection throughout the academic year; however, during the professional development in Year 2, we felt that teachers began to notice the value of video sharing. It was perhaps an error of ours to attempt to fit so much into summer Year 1, as we missed some opportunities to showcase the benefits of video reflection before teachers returned to their classrooms. This is parallel to teachers’ comments about the need for more time in each of the summer workshops.

Another successful piece of this project was the inclusion of micro-teaching in Year 2. For an activity that we had not originally planned for, teachers rated it as one of their favorite activities on course evaluations. This practice, which is more often used in pre-service teacher preparation, clearly has uses for in-service teacher education as well. This may be an imperative addition when in-service teachers are learning new skills; they need opportunities to engage in new practices in a low-stakes environment, reflect on those practices, and receive feedback from their peers. The lessons that teachers did implement in their classrooms between the two summers tended to be modifications of the activities we shared in Year 1. For teachers new to engineering and engineering integration, this may help to build confidence. At the end of summer Year 2, it was clear to us that teachers were going back to their classrooms with new ideas from their peers, in addition to what we shared with them as facilitators. Further study with these teachers may allow us to understand how these teachers continue to grow with respect to engineering integration once they were equipped with the tools and increased their confidence in understanding the NGSS. If we were able to expand this work and focus on developing high-quality curriculum for classroom use, we believe that we would have seen more novel engineering activities in these classrooms in a second year of implementation. Beginning experiences like these are necessary for teachers who are now expected to bring engineering and NGSS to their classrooms.

Our model used here can be successful outside of rural and remote settings. While we had some bumps along the way, the model of professional development that we used helped teachers develop their practice over time while creating a small community with their peers. We still receive emails from our participants about accomplishments (such as being successful in securing grant money to purchase equipment for their classrooms or participating in professional conferences). We have been fortunate enough to invite these participants to join other projects we are conducting, and we hope to continue working with these amazing individuals over the years. A model of professional development such as the one described here may be beneficial for pre-service teachers, school-wide or district-wide reform, or long-distance professional development opportunities.


This study was made possible by MDE Title IIA(3) grant #160290-023. The findings, conclusions, and opinions herein represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of personnel affiliated with the Michigan Department of Eduation.

Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange Revisited: Using Literacy Strategies to Support and Enhance Teacher Candidates’ Understanding of NOS


It is more important than ever that teacher candidates have a clear understanding of why scientists do what they do and what science is all about. Science methods courses are opportunities to help students develop tools and skills to engage with and deepen their understanding of the nature of science (NOS), a necessary skill set for teaching at the elementary and secondary grade levels.  Dynamic activities, such as Cobern & Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange encourage teacher candidates’ inquiry, and critical thinking about NOS and the incorporation of cross-curricular literacy strategies promotes cooperative, collaborative interactions between students.

The consensus among science organizations is that developing an understanding of NOS should be one of the primary objectives of science teaching and learning. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993), National Research Council (NRC) (2013), National Science Foundation (NSF) (1996) and National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) (2012) recognize that understanding NOS is as essential to student success in science as scientific knowledge and skills. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) (2008) has also called for the restructuring of teacher preparation programs to ensure science teachers are confident in both their science content knowledge and ability to engage students in the NOS.

Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange “works well,” explains Cobern (1991), “because it begins with students getting up, moving around, and talking to each other, things almost all students like to do” (p. 45). The card exchange is an engaging and non-threatening method of introducing NOS to teacher candidates.  It allows for students to reflect upon their conceptions of NOS that lead to both small group and class-wide discussion on NOS.

Teacher candidates have commented that the card exchange was not only fun but also gave them a better understanding of how and why we do science. Students comments on the card exchange noted the activity broadened their perception of science, enhanced their ideas about science, and increased their appreciation the role of philosophy in science. They have also reported increased confidence and science teacher self-efficacy. However, despite enjoying the overall experience and providing positive reviews about the card exchange, some teacher candidates have had difficulty with the vocabulary and card statements used during the exchange.

This article explores how integrating simple, constructivist cross-curricular vocabulary and literacy instructional strategies teacher candidates needed tools and skills to engage with Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange.  It also describes the integration of simple, yet powerful, vocabulary and literacy instructional strategies. The incorporation of dynamic literacy strategies encouraged students’ inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills and has transformed the card exchange into a broader and more impactful activity for teacher candidates.

Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange

The game is run as described by Cobern and Loving (1998) with some minor changes. While Cobern and Loving (1998) describe running the card exchange in classes of 30 to 40 students, I run it in classes of 15 to 25 students with each student receiving six cards.  I have also taken to numbering the cards and card statement categories consecutively.

Cobern and Loving’s (1998) process takes students from an internal dialogue on the card statements towards building group consensus (first in groups of two and then in groups of four) and finally a whole class discussion. The overall structure of the exchange allows students to debate the merits of some statements over others and share their thoughts on statements with others in the class.

1) Six to eight cards are distributed randomly to students.  They have 5 minutes to read their cards and think about what the statements mean and rank their cards from their most to least favorite statement.

2) Stage I (10 minutes): Students trade cards (one-for-one) with each other to try to improve their hands.  Their goal is to gain more cards with which they agree while discarding cards they do not like.

3) Stage II (10 minutes): Students pair up and compromise to reach eight cards on which both can agree.  During this process, students must contribute at least three of their cards.  Students return extra cards to the instructor.

4) Stage III (15 minutes): Students form groups of four, (two pairs) and compromise to reach a total of eight cards on which all four students can agree.  During this process, each pair must contribute at least three of their cards.  Students return extra cards to the instructor.  Students then rank the cards in order of importance and write a paragraph statement answering the question “What is Science?” based on their cards.

At the conclusion of the game, groups share their statements aloud and other groups comment.  What follows is a discussion as to why a group chose some cards and rejected others and cross-group discussion.  Students debate the merits of some statements over others and share their thoughts on statements with which they agreed but were not chosen by the group and vice versa. Additionally, Clough (2011) suggests questions relating NOS and science education such as “how does the work of [insert scientist(s)] illustrate that data does not tell scientists what to think, but instead that creativity is part of making sense of data?” (p. 58) that can be used to create classroom discussion and debate.

Card categories and statements of their meanings are revealed at the conclusion of the activity as part of an overall group discussion on NOS. This revelation has led to exciting student insights into biases that exist concerning NOS and individual versus group preferences for statements during the card exchange activity. Finally, I allow time to address questions and comments students might have about the game or NOS in general.

Reflections on The Card Exchange

During the card exchange, teacher candidates often experienced difficulties with the vocabulary and the wording of card statements.  The students’ inability to unpack the meaning of the cards in the time allotted prevented the game from flowing the way it was supposed.

While not technical, the card statements can be confusing. Students found the concepts described in non-technical and procedural vocabulary on the cards to be abstract and lacking in contextual detail. The words and phrases “operate with expectations,” “strive,” “refined,” “logical construct,” “dogmatic,” “pragmatic,” “social negotiations,” “Nature has nothing to say on its own behalf,” and “infallible propositions” on cards 1, 2, 5, 12, 31, and 38 respectively were sources of confusion and frustration for some students. The dense wording on some cards also proved to be a source of student frustration. On more than one occasion, after I explained a card statement, students responded “Well why doesn’t it just say that!” or “Why do they have to use all these big words?  Why can’t they just say what they mean?”

One of the factors that make the card exchange work is the pace. Momentum builds throughout the game as students move from working individually to pairs to groups of four and finally to the broad class discussion. This pacing gets lost when the game is put on hold to address vocabulary and phrasing of the statements. These types of discussions are still teachable moments and can improve student literacy and can eventually lead to a better understanding of NOS. However, valuable class time was spent defining terms and unpacking the meanings of card statements instead of thinking about and discussing the statements to advance their understanding of NOS. What should be an exciting experience becomes frustrating to students and teachers and a tool that can help gain a better understanding of NOS is ignored and discarded.

Literacy Strategies for NOS Learning

The adoption of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is changing the way teachers and students approach and engage in science content through crosscutting concepts that connect core ideas in different disciplines.  It is also, to a certain extent, changing the language that teachers are using.  Science already relies heavily on the use of specific vocabulary.  Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) note “a pressing need for all students to master the academic language and vocabulary” (p. 252).  This includes science-specific technical terminology (e.g., ‘photosynthesis’), non-technical vocabulary (e.g., ‘component’), procedural/signal vocabulary and general academic vocabulary (e.g., ‘the result of’) (Ardasheva & Tretter, 2017; Harmon, Hedrick, & Wood, 2005; Taboada, 2012).

Researchers such as Miller, Scott, and McTigue (2016), Shanahan and Shanahan (2012), and Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2016) believe literacy activities and strategies aid to encourage students’ interest, inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving in disciplines such as science. Reading and language ability has been shown to be factors that impact student achievement in science (Reed, Petscher, & Truckenmiller, 2016; Taboada, 2012).  Like my students, Collier, Burston, and Rhodes (2016) have noted that science-specific vocabulary is akin to learning a second, or for some students a third, language.

Integration, repetition, meaningful use (Nagy, 1988; Nagy & Townsend, 2012) and scaffolding (Jung & Brown, 2016; Van Laere, Aesaert, & van Braak, 2014) can be applied to the Card Exchange to support student achievement in both literacy and NOS. Research by Harmon et al. (2005) describes independent reading, providing context, student self-selection of terms, and teaching targeted vocabulary words as strategies that support students struggling with the science-specific academic language.

The literacy strategies implemented in the NOS statement review for the Card Exchange promote cooperative, collaborative interactions among students.  The idea is to generate a more authentic form of hands-on and student-centered instruction, along with the possibility for a more meaningful, genuine, and personal kind of learning. Additionally, integrating literacy strategies with science concepts demonstrates how to integrate seemingly content-specific learning strategies across the curriculum (Moje, 2008).

Both the expansion from a one to three-week activity and introduction of the statements prior the card exchange game uses the principle of repetition – providing multiple exposures to targeted terms. “While this practice may seem obvious, it is an essential one, especially for those readers who need more time and repetition to learn key vocabulary than other students” (Harmon et al., 2005, p. 276). Rather than pre-teaching the statements, this solution offers students the opportunity to highlight, draw attention to, and then discuss difficult terms.

The structure of NOS statement review also utilizes the principle of meaningful use.  Students engage in individual reflective thought followed by small group and class-wide discussion of card statements. The students’ active involvement in this process, particularly their thinking about and discussing word meanings and using the new words meaningfully, leads to more learning and deeper processing of the underlying concepts of the card statements (Ardasheva & Tretter, 2017; Nagy, 1988).  Talking about ideas and concepts in a text can improve vocabulary, academic language development, helps students make sense of their thinking, and can foster academic language development.

The long-term goal is for students to learn science-specific technical vocabulary and integrate new words into their vocabulary. However, before the integration of unfamiliar words and phrases, it is necessary to scaffold science-specific academic language by presenting targeted terms in a way that is more familiar and contextual to students (Ardasheva, Norton-Meier, & Hand, 2015; Jung & Brown, 2016; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012; Vacca et al., 2016).

The NOS Statement Review

The NOS statement review gives students time to examine the statements individually, think about their meanings, self-identify words and phrases they find confusing, and discuss the statements in small groups and later as a class. Early introduction of the statements makes use of ‘powerful’ vocabulary instruction principles such repetition and meaningful (Nagy, 1988).  Additionally, the transformation of the Card Exchange from a once-and-done activity to a multi-class exercise encourages both independent reading and learning by allowing students to self-select words and phrases (Harmon et al., 2005).

The overall goal of the NOS statement review is threefold: 1) to help students unpack the card statements and gain a better understanding of their meanings, 2) the come to class-wide understandings on the meanings of the different statements, which could include rephrasing, and 3) to prepare students to participate in the Card Exchange activity.

The review is run in four phases over two class periods and mirrors the structure of the Card Exchange, which is run during the next class following the review.  During phase 1, students receive a graphic organizer (see Figure 1) with card statements from each of the card topic categories as a homework assignment at least two weeks ahead of the card exchange activity. The graphic organizer has the prompts “What do you think this statement means?” and “What word(s) or phrase(s) do you find confusing?”  Assigning it as homework allows students to read and reflect on their particular statements at their own pace. As students read through the cards, they are encouraged to answer the prompts and to circle or underline parts of the card statements (see Figure 2).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Graphic organizer for students with assortment of card statements and reflective prompts.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Student work sample.

Phases two through four occur during the following class.  During phase two, students use their completed graphic organizers and are given ten to fifteen minutes to have several small group discussions.  First, they are grouped (two to three students) based on the number in the upper right-hand corner of their worksheets. This ensures that students with the same card statements have the opportunity to share their thoughts and comments with classmates that read and reflected on the same statements.

Phase three involves students moving around and meeting with classmates who were assigned different card statements.  Students have ten to fifteen minutes and can meet one-on-one or in small groups of no more than four students.  The groups must consist of students with different card statements, and each member of the group must have the opportunity to share.

As the instructor, both phases two and three are opportunities to circulate work with students individually or within the small groups.  It is a time to listen to student conversations, ask guiding questions, address individual concerns and questions.

During the fourth phase of the NOS statement review, all of the students come together to engage in a class review and discussion. Students receive a second worksheet (see Appendix) with all of the card statements and students are invited to share their respective statements with the entire class.  Cross-group discussion is encouraged with the instructor as moderator.

At the conclusion of the NOS statement review, we try to come to some understandings about specific terms used in the card statements and what they mean in and out of science.  Sometimes the discussion involves the rewording of a statement.  For example, in one class statement 12 (see Appendix) was reworded to read “Science is never opinionated; it is practical and open-minded – always subject to adjustment in the light of solid, new observations.” In another class, statement 32 (see Appendix) was reworded to say “When scientists work together they can be influenced by each other.  Therefore, it can be hard to identify alternative ways of thinking.” Finally, students are then encouraged, but not mandated, to look over all the statements before the card exchange activity during the next class (week 3).


Introducing and discussing NOS is still tricky and finding active methods to engage students in NOS discussion can be a challenge.  Herman, Clough, and Olson (2013) lament that “much is understood about effective NOS teaching and learning, but while the phrase nature of science is widely recognized by science teachers, accurate and effective NOS instruction is still not widespread” (p. 2). Since language ability is quickly being recognized by both NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012) and NGSS (2013) as a critical component of student success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) the integration of literacy strategies can help address both NOS and literacy skills for students of all ages.  Integrating simple, yet effective, literacy strategies in the form of a NOS statement review before Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange transforms the activity into one that emphasizes both NOS and literacy skills.

Early Introduction: A Double-Edged Sword?

The introduction and repetition of the card statements benefit students by providing them with time to reflect upon and discuss the meanings of the NOS statements.  However, there was a fear that a review could take away from the trading aspect of the game. By reading, reflecting, and discussing the statements, students could have already made up their minds about the statements before the actual activity.

Since implementing the NOS statement review, I have asked students to provide feedback on whether the review enhanced or took away from the Card Exchange.  Students (n = 64) were asked to fill out a short online survey at the conclusion of the card exchange that asked them to rate two statements about the NOS statement review and card exchange on a four-point Likert-like scale (1 = strongly disagree:4 = strongly agree).  The voluntary survey has an average response rate of 87.7%. In response to the statement “Reading, reviewing, and discussing the card statements ahead of the card exchange enhanced the card exchange game” 81.8% responded that they “strongly agree.” Conversely, 78.2% “strongly disagreed” that reading, reviewing, and discussing the card statements “took away” from the card exchange game.

One of the more difficult aspects of the NOS statement review, mainly during phases three and four, was keeping students focused.  During both small group and class-wide discussion, students kept veering away from focusing on the meanings of the statements instead wanting to debate the merits of the statements.  While appreciating their enthusiasm, they were reminded throughout these phases that they would have the opportunity to debate the merits of the statements and whether they agreed or disagreed with them, during the Card Exchange.


The importance of understanding NOS is important to the science and science education community.  However, there is still a need to find interesting and exciting methods of engaging teacher candidates as well as elementary and secondary students in discussions about NOS. Cobern (1991) concluded his original article stressing the card exchange activity’s effectiveness at hooking his students into discussing and considering NOS – a subject, according to him, they had previously avoided. Speaking about science teacher candidates, he noted that the card exchange “capitalizes on the innate gregariousness of students and the diversity of opinion among students” (p. 46) and stressed the need for “creative instructional strategies” for NOS instruction to be effective.

Despite the issues cited earlier with vocabulary and phrasing, the Card Exchange is still a creative and effective introductory NOS activity for both elementary and secondary teacher candidates.  Integrating cross-curricular literacy strategies, such as a NOS statement review, enhances the Card Exchange without taking away from the initial focus of the Card Exchange activity. Instead, it creates a deeper more meaningful learning experience for students.