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Michigan kids may soon be required to learn engineering

Tommy Cohn, a junior at Skyline High School, teaches a few students about motors.
Gabrielle Emanuel/Michigan Radio

Biology, chemistry, physics, these traditional science classes may soon be getting a new bedfellow, engineering.

On Tuesday, Michigan’s State Board of Education is voting on new science standards that would, for the first time, require students to learn engineering. This is prompting both excitement and concern.

For one group of students at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor this is great news. These students are part of the school's First Robotics team. They are in a bustling classroom doing all sorts of things -- some are learning to code and others are being taught how to use a saw.

It’s 8 pm and there are about 50 students at the team meeting.  Tommy Cohn, a high school junior, is teaching a group of freshmen and sophomores about motors and torque.

“Let's stick a motor over here and we'll wire that to there and that to here,” Cohn says while drawing on the whiteboard.

Cohn estimates he sometimes spends more than 20 hours a week doing robotics and engineering. It's his favorite part of school -- except it's all in the evenings and on weekends.

“It's completely unlike any of my classes at school,” says Cohn.

But that may change.

Michigan has been part of a multi-state effort to develop new standards, called the Next Generation Science Standards. The proposed standards introduce engineering practices starting in kindergarten.

Joe Krajcik, a professor at Michigan State University who has worked on the standards for several years, says one thing helped him realize Michigan needs to start teaching engineering.

“We have some outstanding engineering schools in our state,” Krajcik says. “But when you go to them, they are not necessarily populated by our students.”

He says the hallways at these colleges and universities are often filled with international students.

Krajcik says that’s because “most [American] kids don’t know what an engineer does.”

Tommy Cohn and other kids who get to do robotics are the rare lucky ones. But the proposed science standards will make it such that engineering is taught to all Michigan students. 

However, it's not all robots. Many schools plan to integrate engineering into their existing science classes, instead of adding an additional class.

This would mean that when kindergartners study weather, they may also figure out how to insulate an outdoor dog house, or when middle schoolers learn about force and motion, they may build a model bridge that can support a certain amount of weight.

Schools have this type of flexibility because these are standards and not curriculum. This means local districts decide how to teach the information to the kids.

Krajcik says, with the proposed standards, the goal is the same in all sciences classes.

“The focus is on the kid actually doing something,” Krajcik says. “It's not the teacher presenting a model. It's actually the kid saying, ‘Does this model actually work?’ ”

This would mean big changes in the classroom.

Trish Miller, a chemistry teacher at Lowell High School in Western Michigan, says she’s already begun integrating engineering practices into her classes.

She says it makes sense. “Scientists do a lot of the: ‘Why does this happen?’ And then, engineers do a lot of the: ‘How can we make this happen?’ ”

But Miller admits that in the hallways at her school teachers are nervous.

“There’s a lot of apprehension and tension,” says Miller.

Since the science standards haven't yet been approved by the State Board of Education, there are still unanswered questions about how they’ll be implemented.

“Is the timeline realistic? What needs to be done now?,” Miller says ticking off questions. “How is that going to be funded? Do teachers take professional days off in order to develop curriculum? And, of course, don't forget, there's always that fun question of who is certified to teach what now?”

Stephen Best, of Michigan’s Department of Education, says they have an implementation plan but are still figuring out exactly what type of professional development will be necessary for teachers – and who will pay.

Best says he hopes there will be money in the state budget for implementing the new science standards.

But if there is no state money, he believes teachers will be supported by a grassroots effort. He says engineering schools and other groups, like the Society of Automotive Engineers, will step up to train teachers and help them develop lesson plans.