Discovery Files

Mission Possible: Adding Engineering to the K-12 Curriculum

Museum director's dream to teach young students engineering spurs effort to bring technological literacy to all, with support from NSF

The eighth-grade class buzzed when Ioannis (Yannis) Miaoulis, a young mechanical engineering professor at Tufts University, finished describing how he made superconducting materials in his lab. A girl who'd taken copious notes during the talk approached Miaoulis and asked if he would help with her science fair project. Before he could respond, her teacher took Miaoulis aside and told him not to waste his time with the girl. Three "science boys" in the class should receive attention.

Surprised by the teacher's actions, Miaoulis not only helped the girl with her project--which won the science fair that year--but committed himself to changing the climate and curriculum of science education. "The experience opened my eyes and got me totally engaged," says Miaoulis, who went on to serve as dean of engineering at Tufts, and is currently the president and director of the Museum of Science in Boston.

Over the last 20 years, Miaoulis has racked up countless frequent flyer miles jetting around the country and abroad, describing the need to teach students about the human-made world as well as the natural world. "He is always on a mission," says colleague Wayne Bouchard, Chief Operating Officer of the museum. Miaoulis's passion for education and engineering has created opportunities for both K-12 students and teachers. Over the years he has received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his research in thermal analysis of materials processing, as well as for education outreach programs. One of his first NSF grants--a Presidential Young Investigator award--provided considerable support for the foundation in what is becoming an international movement to teach engineering in K-12 settings.

"We started with a thematic approach, reconfiguring the local curriculum and creating a Cape Cod farmhouse that allowed K-8 students to experience different engineering processes that were grade level appropriate," explains Miaoulis.

A hands-on approach that helps students make connections between engineering concept and application permeates all of the education projects Miaoulis pursues. Some of his early teacher-training efforts showed teachers how to introduce technology to elementary- and middle-school students using two common technologies--bicycles and bathrooms. Other projects created hands-on museum exhibits and specifically targeted programs for young women.

While at Tufts, Miaoulis wanted to create a course that would engage students and highlight the principles of heat transfer in materials. He didn't need to look far for inspiration. A gourmet cook and native of Greece, Miaoulis developed "Gourmet Engineering"--essentially a class in which students learn about thermodynamics while creating delicious dishes. The course was an instant success, says Bouchard. Miaoulis also developed a class on fluid mechanics that explained the movement of fluids from a fish's perspective.

Although Miaoulis's efforts to introduce engineering in the K-12 curriculum gained steam through the 1990s, he knew that to make a real difference he would need to reach out not only to schools but to the general public and policymakers. In 2001, because of his advocacy efforts, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to develop a K-12 curriculum framework and assessments in the area of technology/engineering. "That was our first big victory," says Miaoulis. Though he was making progress, he needed partners to extend his vision and take it to a national level. But finding those willing to sign on was a challenge, he says, because the project was viewed by deans at other schools as a Tufts initiative.

When the director's position became available at the Museum of Science in 2003, Miaoulis knew he'd found the right platform for his cause. In just 10 years, Miaoulis has transformed the museum and in the process created a home for his engineering education efforts. The big engine driving this change is the National Center for Technology Literacy® (NCTL®). Established in 2004, the NCTL supports several initiatives promoting formal and informal engineering education.

NSF funds have played an integral role in helping these initiatives achieve one of Miaoulis' goals for the museum: Introducing engineering and technology to schools and at least one science center or informal education organization in every state by 2015.

  • To promote elementary engineering curriculum development, NCTL has created Engineering is Elementary® which engages elementary-school students through stories about children in different countries who face engineering design problems in their daily lives. Hands-on experiments help students solve the problem. The lessons foster reading skills and social studies awareness as well as science, technology, engineering and math concepts.

    Since the program began in 2003-2004, the museum estimates it has reached nearly 3 million students and over 40,600 teachers in all 50 states. The program also includes a professional development component for teachers to familiarize them with the engineering concepts and story format.
  • To heighten awareness about nanotechnology, NCTL developed a national nanoscale initiative--the Nanoscale Informal Science Education NetworkTM (NISE Net). Launched in 2005 with the Science Museum of Minnesota and San Francisco's Exploratorium, NISE Net brings together researchers and science museum educators to create activities that explain the world at the scale of atoms. It offers a range of activities such as NanoDays, a nationwide festival of activities celebrating advances in nanotechnology research, short plays like "Attack of the Nanoscientist," and museum exhibits such as the Nano mini-exhibition that explores the basics of nanoscience and engineering. NISE Net also conducts original research and evaluation of the network's impact on informal science education.
  • To familiarize the public with current and future engineering technologies, the museum produced a traveling exhibition "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," created with Lucasfilm Ltd. Robots, virtual reality and other technologies introduced in the "Star Wars" movies come to life in this exhibit that allows visitors to discover parallels between these fantasy technologies and those used in the real world. Museums throughout the U.S. and Australia have hosted the exhibit.

The NCTL also advocates for curriculum change through state education bodies and policymakers. "We have to open the eyes of decision-makers that engineering is as important in people's lives as science," he says. Since its inception in 2004, the NCTL has helped create or add engineering and technology standards and assessments throughout the U.S.

The NCTL, for instance, has played a critical role in developing the National Assessment of Education Programs (NAEP) Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework of 2014. The framework lays the foundation for the first technology and engineering literacy assessment of students in the U.S. In 2013, a nationally representative sample of eighth-graders will participate in a pilot to prepare for the 2014 assessment. The NAEP--run by the National Center for Education Statistics--assesses what U.S. students know in a range of subjects. "If we are assessing students' engineering knowledge, it may motivate states to introduce engineering into the schools. We have to use every trick to make it happen," says Miaoulis.

These and other efforts have not gone unnoticed in the international science community. A consortium led by the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem in Israel and funded by the European Commission will use the Engineering Is Elementary® curriculum as a model to introduce engineering into European primary schools and science museums. The attention from international organizations is not surprising to Miaoulis, who points out that "engineering literacy is a global issue. Many people are clueless about 98 percent of the world around them which is made by humans."

To drive the point home about the importance of engineering in everyday life, Miaoulis likes to ask listeners to look around the room and consider what it would be like if all of the human-made items were removed. He even suggests that the listener may not exist. He then reminds his listeners that engineers have created advances in drug production and sanitation processes to extend our life span.  For these reasons Miaoulis says "it's critical to introduce technology and engineering as a core discipline beginning in kindergarten."

Although his engineering initiative has made much progress, Miaoulis says the biggest challenge is that "a lot of people still don't get it." They don't realize that the current science curriculum largely remains the same as it was in 1892, when a group of education leaders dubbed the "Committee of Ten" and led by Harvard University President Charles Eliot determined science education should include biology, chemistry, physics and Earth science. Until the curriculum includes a balance of science and engineering, Miaoulis will continue to advocate for change.

The consequences of accepting the status quo are far reaching. Miaoulis notes that industry leaders such as Google, Intel and Lockheed Martin are clamoring for engineers. "You could outsource these jobs, but national defense and infrastructure projects require U.S. citizenship," he says. "American ingenuity is going to fade away if we lose our innovative knack."

For a boy who failed physics in high school, the determination he showed learning his subject and passing with the highest grade in the class the next semester created a drive he continues to put to use so others will benefit. "Kids should have the opportunity to see how interesting a subject is," Miaoulis says. He also notes that he's had a great life because of his choice of professions. "You only live once so you have to have fun."