Around the world, efforts are underway to include engineering design as part of elementary science instruction. A common rationale for those efforts is that Engineering Design-based Science Teaching (EDST) is a productive pedagogical approach for developing students’ understanding of core science concepts. Effectively utilizing EDST requires that teachers develop design activities that are highly connected to science content so that students can apply and expand their understanding of relevant concepts. In this study, we examine how a group of elementary (grades 3–5) pre-service and in-service teachers incorporated EDST into their planned science instruction. Those teachers were participants in a professional development project aimed at supporting EDST. We examine the ways that participants used EDST, the extent to which engineering design activities were connected to science concepts, and factors associated with those connections.
Most of the participants in the study developed science units in which an engineering design activity was placed at the end of the unit. Approximately half of those design activities lacked connections to the science concepts in the unit; they were typically related to the topic of the science unit, but did not require the use or development of key science ideas. Eleven percent of participants developed engineering activities with deep connections to science concepts, and 35% developed activities with shallow connections. No differences were found between life science, physical science, and earth/space science units in terms of the extent of conceptual connections. However, we did find that participants who utilized and adapted published engineering curriculum materials rather than make them from scratch were more likely to have unit plans with higher levels of conceptual connections.
Our findings suggest that elementary teachers need additional support in order to effectively utilize EDST in their classrooms. Even within the context of a supportive professional development project, most of the engineering activities developed by our participants lacked substantial connections to the science concepts in their unit plans. Our findings highlight the value of high-quality curriculum materials to support EDST as well as the need to further expand the curriculum resources that are available to elementary teachers.