Three Areas of Technology and Engineering Literacy

Three Areas of Technology and Engineering Literacy

In recent decades, students in the United States have experienced three quite different (though by no means inconsistent) approaches to technology and engineering literacy. These are the science, technology, and society approach; the technology education approach; and the information and communication technology approach. In recognition of the importance, educational value, and interdependence of these three approaches, this framework includes all three under its broad definition of technology and engineering literacy. In recognition of the distinct goals and teaching methods involved in each, this framework recommends that assessment results be reported for each of these areas to monitor and analyze the results of each approach over time. The next few paragraphs present a brief description of each of these approaches.

• The Technology and Society assessment area has its roots in the science, technology, and society (STS) approach. In 1990 the board of directors of the National Science Teachers Association defined STS as the “teaching and learning of science and technology in the context of human experience” (NSTA, 2006, pp. 229–230). In practice many STS programs use societal issues as course organizers, including space travel, insecticide use, nutrition, disease, ozone, global warming, and other concerns reported in the popular press. Since technological advances and decisions lie at the core of such issues, the focus in discussing them is often on the technology involved (Yager & Akcay, 2008). A survey of engineering and technology in state science standards found that a majority of state standards reflect the STS approach (Koehler, Faraclas, Giblin, Kazerounian, & Moss, 2006). The STS approach is represented in this framework under “Technology and Society.”

• The Design and Systems assessment area is partly rooted in the school subject known as industrial arts (Dugger, 2005), a popular subject area throughout most of the 20th century, which provided education in the use of hand and power tools for fabricating objects from wood, metal, or other materials, as well as instruction on industrial processes. As conceived today by the field’s professional organization, the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA), technological literacy “involves a vision where each citizen has a degree of knowledge about the nature, behavior, power, and consequences of technology from a broad perspective. Inherently, it involves educational programs where learners become engaged in critical thinking as they design and develop products, systems, and environments to solve practical problems” (ITEEA, 1996, p. 1). Goals in technology education include creating a broad understanding of technology and engineering as well as developing specific capabilities in both areas (ITEEA, 2007). A survey of state science standards (Koehler et al, 2006) found that many states, especially those in the Northeast, include standards consistent with this approach, although not as many as those whose standards relate to STS. The engineering design approach is represented in this framework under the heading “Design and Systems.”

• Information and communication technology (ICT) is a third approach that has been growing in importance over the past three decades. The pervasiveness of technology in school, home, work, and play has profound implications for learning in schools and throughout life (p. 21, n.d.). The field’s major professional organization, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), was formed in 1989 by the merger of two associations concerned primarily with the use of computers in education. Today, the vision of ICT is much broader than the use of computers alone, having expanded from the earlier vision of technology as a teaching tool to today’s philosophy of technology as a learning tool. That is, the focus is no longer on using technology to assist teachers but rather on giving students new and more powerful ways to gather and assess information, think creatively, solve problems, and communicate. As expressed in the society’s National Educational Technology Standards (ISTE, 2007), ICT includes a variety of student skills that overlap with other areas, such as creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; and critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. These skills are applied specifically to the use of digital technologies and media, including the Internet and other networking applications.

“Every young person will need to use ICT in many different ways in their adult lives, in order to participate fully in a modern society” (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2006). The ICT approach to technology and engineering literacy is represented in this framework under the heading “Information and Communication Technology.”

Three Practices

A person who is literate in technology and engineering should be able to apply “crosscutting practices,” or generalizable ways of thinking, reasoning, and acting that are important across all areas of technology and engineering literacy. As depicted in figure 1, these practices are employed within and across the 3 major assessment areas. The practices can be grouped into these three broad categories, with several examples of each type of practice:

Understanding Technological Principles

  • Understands the nature of technology in its broadest sense.
  • Is aware of the various digital tools and their appropriateness for different tasks.
  • Knows how technology is created and how it shapes society and in turn is shaped by society.
  • Understands basic engineering concepts and terms, such as systems, constraints, and trade-offs.
  • Understands how cultural differences can affect technological choices.

Developing Solutions and Achieving Goals

  • Demonstrates appropriate usage of a wide range of technological tools and systems, ranging from kitchen appliances and alarm clocks to cars, computers, communication devices, and the Internet.
  • Can apply technological concepts and skills creatively, including those of engineering design and information technology, to solve problems and meet goals.
  • Collects and analyzes data to develop a solution and complete a project.
  • Uses multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions.
  • Can evaluate claims and make intelligent decisions.

Communicating and Collaborating

  • Communicates information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats.
  • Participates thoughtfully and productively in discussing critical societal issues involving technology related to humans, the environment, knowledge, and citizenship.
  • Collaborates with peers and experts.

The framework recommends that results of the NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment be reported separately for the three major assessment areas of Technology and Society, Design and Systems, and ICT, although it cannot be stressed strongly enough that today’s youth are expected to acquire knowledge and skills in all three areas of technology and engineering literacy. These areas are neither learned separately nor applied separately; they overlap and interact. A person who is literate in technology and engineering understands and is able to analyze the relationship between technology and society, has a broad understanding of technology and can solve problems using the engineering design process, and is able to make fluent use of digital technologies and media in creative and innovative ways. Specific assessment targets related to the three areas are described at length in chapter two.

Educational Technology

Although it is not an assessment target for the purposes of NAEP, the field of educational technology provides another example of a common use of the term "technology." Broadly speaking, the field of educational technology is concerned with the use of various types of equipment as teaching and learning aids. Many teachers remember when overhead projectors were in widespread use or when whiteboards replaced chalkboards. Advocacy for the use of computers in classrooms began more than 20 years ago, and the uses of computers have evolved rapidly from computers-as-teachers to computers-as-learning-tools. Today a vast array of computer applications is available for use in all school subjects, and these applications are fundamentally altering the way students learn in school, giving them unprecedented input into and control of their own learning. Some devices, such as interactive whiteboards, combine technologies for entirely new purposes. An area of digital or cyber literacy is emerging that encompasses newer forms of technology and media (Kress, 2003; Livingstone, van Couvering, and Thumin, 2008). Traditions of media and information literacy are converging and focusing on skills needed to take advantage of digital systems for representing and distributing information (Livingstone, 2002). The variety and use of such tools for learning, expression, and communication are expected to expand rapidly over the next decade, affecting the way all people—not just students—work, collaborate, and communicate (The New Media Consortium, 2009). The 2014 NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment will take advantage of new developments in educational technology as one of the first NAEP assessments to be administered entirely by computer.

The Relationship Among Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are so closely interlinked that it is often difficult to know where one starts and the other ends. Students in science classes are often taught about technology, engineering, and mathematics, while students in technology classes learn about science, engineering, and mathematics. Technologies are changing fundamentally the ways scientists work, and are becoming important components of science education. Students' skills in using the tools of science are becoming components of the "new literacies" (Quellmalz and Haertel, 2008). In a recent report on cyber learning, the National Science Foundation points out that research has demonstrated that “incorporating information and communications technology into science and mathematics can restructure the necessary expertise for reasoning and learning in these domains, in effect opening up greater access to complex subject matter.” Examples include multiple linked representations in mathematics and modeling and visualizations for understanding and investigating complex science (NSF, 2008, p. 13).

For the purposes of designing a framework to assess technology and engineering literacy, it is important to keep the distinctions among the science, technology, and engineering clear. The relationship among engineering, science, and technology is explained this way in the joint National Academy of Engineering/National Research Council publication Technically Speaking:

Science and technology are tightly coupled. A scientific understanding of the natural world is the basis for much of technological development today. The design of computer chips, for instance, depends on a detailed understanding of the electrical properties of silicon and other materials. The design of a drug to fight a specific disease is made possible by knowledge of how proteins and other biological molecules are structured and how they interact.

Conversely, technology is the basis for a good part of scientific research. The climate models meteorologists use to study global warming require supercomputers to run the simulations. And like most of us, scientists in all fields depend on the telephone, the Internet, and jet travel (NAE & NRC, 2002, pp. 13-14).

One other distinction that is important to make is between technology and engineering. Again the explanation from Technically Speaking is helpful.

Technology is a product of engineering and science, the study of the natural world. Science has two parts: (1) a body of knowledge that has been accumulated over time, and (2) a process—scientific inquiry—that generates knowledge about the natural world. Engineering, too, consists of a body of knowledge—in this case, knowledge of the design and creation of human-made products—and a process for solving problems (NAE & NRC, 2002, p. 13).

Of the three terms—science, technology, and engineering—the clearest parallel is between science and engineering, as both represent an approach to knowledge taken by a group of well-trained professionals. As explained in the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996, p. 166), "Scientists propose explanations for questions about the natural world, and engineers propose solutions relating to human problems, needs, and aspirations."

A fourth area that is often associated with these other three is mathematics. Although mathematics is a field in its own right, distinct from science and engineering, mathematical tools are essential to the work of both scientists and engineers. In fact, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are so intimately connected that they are frequently referred to by the acronym STEM.