Engineering a Better Classroom Experience

To help promote engineering education, Kristen Wendell is studying how teachers and students learn

Kristen Wendell

It’s all well and good to talk about getting students to learn more science and engineering, preparing them for the increasingly technological world. But we also need to know the nitty-gritty of how students and their teachers learn and apply such things as engineering concepts and skills, and how that knowledge can be taught most effectively and equitably to all students.

Those questions are at the core of what Kristen Wendell, EG11, the McDonnell Family Assistant Professor in Engineering Education, is studying. With the help of a new, nearly $1 million National Science Foundation grant, she is exploring how students learn engineering and science in an integrated way, extending earlier work she did studying how novice teachers learned to do and teach engineering. “Although I’ve seen it happen countless times now, I still get inspired by kids’ capacity to reason through an engineering design problem when given time and a compelling context,” she said.

Last year Wendell also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, one of about 100 awarded nationally, in her case an honorific on top of a 2013 NSF CAREER grant for young researchers.

When Wendell first went to graduate school to study aerospace engineering, she focused on designing spacesuits for NASA astronauts. But a chance meeting while an undergraduate at Princeton with Tufts engineering professor Chris Rogers had tipped her off to the rewards of engineering education. In the end, after getting a master’s from MIT, she came to Tufts for a Ph.D. in science education. She now leads the Engineering Learning Systems Lab, which is housed at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, where she works with Ph.D. students and undergraduates on engineering education projects.

Wendell, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and has an adjunct appointment in the Department of Education, spoke with Tufts Now about how important it is to successfully teach engineering concepts and skills, and what she hopes it helps students and their teachers achieve.

Tufts Now: What are you hoping to accomplish with your latest grant?

Kristen Wendell: I’m seeking to develop new community-connected STEM learning opportunities for K-12 students and see how they work. We’re partnering with public schools in Boston and Marlborough, as well as the MBTA, taking what we discovered about how teachers learn and using it to help study how students learn.

Part of the project is to have experienced teachers solve a problem posed by the MBTA using science and engineering. We’re calling that the teacher design squad experience, working with them here at Tufts, which helps them to then revise existing science curriculum at the elementary school level to better integrate engineering and community contexts.

What exactly do you mean by engineering design?

It’s the process of constructing solutions to human problems through the use of science, math and creativity, and it’s an iterative, systematic process. Sometimes the outcome will be a three-dimensional construction; sometimes it’s a two-dimensional representation, or software, or a process.

Why is it important that K-12 students and their teachers learn engineering concepts and skills and are able to use them?

The most important reason is that it’s empowering for them in their everyday lives. It’s a problem-solving process—that doesn’t have to be limited to designing technology, but that can be tried on any sort of problem. We’re not hoping to funnel all children into engineering careers, but to give them all access to use this really powerful process in their everyday lives.

The second reason is to expand who has access to careers that require engineering thinking. Historically, engineering programs have been available to kids with more privilege, but we want to make sure that kids who have been traditionally marginalized from engineering programs have access.

What is an example of something that would be used as a curriculum tool for learning engineering concepts and skills?

One example that has come up in prior work with students and teachers is how to provide water to a school or community garden. These gardens are often placed in locations that are hard for students and teachers to get water to—up a flight of stairs, across a playground—so there are design challenges. For elementary school-age children, we also use storage problems in classrooms, such as building backpack shelves. The students have to consider stability, forces and material selection.

You’ve been working with teachers this summer to help them think with engineering design in mind. What’s the focal point of that?

The project we did in August was to solve a flooding problem on the Green Line near the Fenway station. There’s a long-term engineering project going on to install a new flood barrier where the Muddy River overflows onto the tracks. The teachers attacked that problem, too. We had a scale model of the Fenway area, complete with water pumps to make a flood happen, and tried out solutions using the mechanical engineering makerspace at Bray Lab on campus.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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