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Designing the Future

The school year has ended and many of you are already planning your new year. If you are like any of the many teachers I have worked with, there is no room for “more” in your curriculum. But we are all aware that there is a lot more beyond our classroom walls; information is exploding, challenges are more complex, and the future is less predictable. As teachers, we are always trying to find ways to do things better. If you are looking for a way to make learning more relevant and to make creative and collaborative problem-solving part of your classroom, think about including a little Engineering. It will help your students see that what they learn now can help help them to design a better world in the future.

Pre-college Engineering Design inclusion can do many things. It can give students a taste of what engineering is all about and perhaps interest them in STEM career fields. Many nations recognize the importance of increasing understanding of the process and promise of Engineering.  Countries around the world report difficulty in attracting innovative young thinkers to the science and engineering fields (NYAS, 2016). Public perception of engineering is universally limited and often inaccurate, and often reverts to decades old images of socially awkward, technically competent but verbally challenged “geeks” (Create the Future, 2017). Exposure to the creative side of science and to any aspects of engineering is minimal at the middle and high school level (Schmidt, 2011) (NAE, 2009). Introducing your students to a field that can and has changed the world opens endless career possibilities and places value on the wide range of talent needed to drive innovation

Including Engineering challenges in your classroom also allows students to situate the ideas they learn in science, math, and other subjects into real-world contexts. It provides a reason for learning and helps to generate engagement and a “need to know”. Policymakers and researchers are recognizing the overall learning potential inherent in the inclusion of Engineering in pre-college education. In the US, the Next Generation Science Standards highlight the need for exposure to engineering and engineering design across all three dimensions: core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and practices. The National Research Council (NRC) identifies Engineering Design as providing the iterative process necessary to enhance learning through application (NRC, 2012). But perhaps, most importantly, Engineering Design practices can provide young people with creative problem-solving methods and skills that transcend a wide range of disciplines. In many countries, skills such as problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity stand beside core curricular content as being critical parts of education for the future. “Public education systems across 113 countries have defined education as being much more than equipping students with basic academic skills or technical skills for the world of work” (Brookings Institution, 2017).

Perhaps one of the most important reasons to bring the real-world into your classroom is to model the holistic, transdisciplinary nature of most problems and challenges. This is not the model present in most of our schools. Middle and high schools, in particular, are generally places where schedules and learning silos reign. Math gets one hour, English gets one hour, biology gets another, and history happens in an hour after lunch. The rest of the world does not work that way and most problems do not fit in nice neat boxes. We all adopt problem-solving approaches that are not specific to any one discipline. We use a lot of associative thinking where one thought leads to another; we connect experiences from the past with novel situations. Boundaries are blurred as we multi-task, both physically and cognitively, and we rarely live in isolated one-hour blocks of time. Rather than knowing how to answer every question, we learn how to find those with the expertise to help us. We know enough of the basics of other fields to know when and how to get help. Those of us who cannot manage numbers rely on accountants to help us with taxes; architects design the buildings we live in; and most of us work on and with diverse teams at work. It is rare that everyone in a group has the same background. We live most of our lives beyond school in a trans- and multi-disciplinary manner, where getting things done efficiently and well blurs divisions and boundaries. “How” we work is often more impactful than “what” we know. In other words, processes and skills that transcend specific disciplines may be more significant than products and content. In many ways, the time has come to highlight the E in STEM, not as a standalone subject, but as a way make the connections to the skills and content that are critical for 21st century success.

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My work at ProjectEngin has about been about helping teachers to use Engineering Design to enhance, not increase, what they teach; to give them a way to support the development of skills while teaching content. Countless workshops and classrooms experience have led to the creation of my new book, Designing the Future. It is full of ideas, resources, and reproducibles to help you “engineer’’ new learning experiences for your students. I am hopeful that it will help to create a culture of creative critical thinking in your classroom.

NYAS (2016)  New York Academy of Sciences  The Global STEM Paradox. Accessed at   

Create the Future (2017) Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Report. Accessed at

Schmidt, Adele L. (2011).  Creativity in Science: Tensions between Perception and Practice. Creative Education, 2(5)  435-445

NAE (2009) National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Accessed at  

NRC (2012) National Research Council  A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas Washington DC: National Academies Press

Brookings Institution (2017)   Skills for a Changing World.


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