Definitions of Key Terms Used in This Framework

Definitions of Key Terms Used in This Framework

Because of the variety of meanings associated with words and terms that are used throughout this document, meanings and usages specific to this framework are offered here. The particular words and terms at issue are technology, engineering, technology and engineering literacy, and educational technology. It is important to note that these definitions have been developed for the sole purpose of informing NAEP about the field of technology and engineering literacy. No additional claim is made regarding the usefulness of these definitions for other purposes—and, in particular, they should not be used for the interpretation of state and local assessments, since these may be based on different definitions of technology and engineering literacy. This framework defines technology, engineering, and technology and engineering literacy as:

  • Technology is any modification of the natural or designed world done to fulfill human needs or desires.
  • Engineering is a systematic and often iterative approach to designing objects, processes, and systems to meet human needs and wants.
  • Technology and engineering literacy is the capacity to use, understand, and evaluate technology as well as to understand technological principles and strategies needed to develop solutions and achieve goals. For purposes of this framework, it comprises three areas: Technology and Society, Design and Systems, and Information and Communication Technology.

The following sections expand and elaborate on the above brief definitions of "technology," "engineering," and "technology and engineering literacy" with the goal of describing the knowledge and capabilities that are essential for citizens in the 21st century—and, in particular, in a way that can be assessed through an on—demand, large—scale assessment.


Research shows that most Americans associate technology mainly with computers and related electronic devices (Cunningham, Lachapelle, & Lindgren—Streicher, 2005). However, while the computer is certainly an important example of technology—and one that plays an especially important role in this framework—the term "technology" has a broader and deeper meaning. Broadly speaking, technology is any modification of the natural or designed world done to fulfill human needs or desires. This definition sees technology as encompassing the entire human-made world, from the simplest artifacts, such as paper and pencil or a wooden flute, to the most complex, including the Internet, medical imaging devices, and a country’s entire transportation system. Technology helps people do their jobs: giant particle colliders for physicists, oil paints and canvases for artists, and email for just about everyone. Technology also makes leisure time more enjoyable: movies, music, and electronic games to entertain, automobiles to get people where they want to go, audio and imaging tools to support creative expression, and books (either e-;books or the traditional paper version) to tell stories of other places and times.

But technology is not just the products or things that people create. It includes the entire infrastructure needed to support the processes used to design, manufacture, operate, and repair technological artifacts, from corporate headquarters and engineering schools to manufacturing plants, media outlets, and distribution networks (Shakrani & Pearson, 2008). Technology also includes the cyberinfrastructure and participatory technologies that open up greater access to complex learning and connections of experiences across settings (NSF, 2008).

Throughout history, technology has been one of the major factors shaping human life and human civilization, and, indeed, major periods of human development have typically been identified by the dominant technologies of the period: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age, and, today, the Information Age. Technology itself is constantly changing and evolving, as are its effects on society. Ten thousand years ago humans took the first steps toward agriculture with the purposeful planting of seeds; 100 years ago, farmers and plant scientists were regularly improving crops through hybridization; today, genetic engineering has been harnessed to create specially designed crops and farm animals. Perhaps the most dramatic example of technological evolution from today’s perspective is the rapid development of communications technology, from the invention of the telegraph and telephone in the 19th century to the development of radio, television, and the Internet in the 20th century—and to the past decade’s explosion of electronic communication, and social networking (Solomon & Schrum, 2007). Technology has become an enabling force behind globalization, knowledge work, and entrepreneurship (Metiri Group, 2006). With each of these changes comes new capabilities—and new challenges.


Engineering is the process of designing the human-made world. The process typically begins with the specifications of needs or wants. Engineers identify constraints, analyze the features of systems, and devise plans for developing solutions. Solutions may take the form of artifacts such as computer chips or bridges. Solutions may also take the form of improved processes such as assembly lines or traffic control. Engineering processes are typically iterative, involving testing and revisions. Engineers understand the nature of the technology area to be modified, engage in systems thinking, work through engineering design processes, and conduct maintenance and troubleshooting.

Technology and Engineering Literacy

Having defined "technology" and "engineering" broadly in these ways, "technology and engineering literacy" can be defined in an equally broad fashion as the capacity to use, understand, and evaluate technology as well as to understand technological principles and strategies needed to develop solutions and achieve goals. Technology and engineering literacy, like scientific, mathematical, or language literacy, is a measure of how well individuals have mastered the processes and tools they need to participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them. As described in reports from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE, 2006), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE, 2007), and the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA, 2007), technological literacy includes knowledge, capabilities, and critical thinking and decision-making skills (McAnear, 2009). From these documents, lists can be extracted of what a person who is literate in technology and engineering should know and be able to do.

Figure 1 depicts the major assessment areas and practices of the NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework. At the center, in blue, are the three areas of technology and engineering literacy that will be assessed by NAEP: Technology and Society, Design and Systems, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The surrounding yellow circle represents three overarching types of thinking and reasoning that generalize across the major assessment areas. These crosscutting practices will apply across tasks and individual test questions, also referred to as items, in the areas of Technology and Society, Design and Systems, and ICT. These key components of the 2014 NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework are described on the next page.