Thursday, June 28, 2007

Using Visual Learning Techniques to Teach Physics Concepts in a High School Pre-Engineering Course

Running Head: STEM Education

Zanj K. Avery

Elemental Technology and Engineering Design


Engineering and technology education (ETE) provides a means for educators to organize what students learn in their core academic courses, especially science and math education. The project-based approached that is emphasized in ETE provides a vehicle for students to synthesize, transfer, and apply what they learn in their science and math classes. Moreover, learning should be interdisciplinary and should provide a basis for students to use what they learn in the classroom in real-world manner. But with the advent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001, better known as No Child Left Behind, teachers continue to experience increased pressures to meet educational standards while ensuring that students make adequate yearly progress (AYP).

The aftermath of the standards movement has forced many teachers to concentrate less on project-based activities (Dyer et al, 2006) and more on rote memorization techniques for learning. This, in turn, creates a compartmentalized learning environment wherein little or no real world connections are made with what is learned in the classroom (Forrester, 1996). Without real world relevancy, it makes it increasingly difficult for students to: 1) make meaningful connections as they learn core academic subjects, and 2) achieve unity of core academic concepts, and 3) increase understanding of abstract concepts and principles, especially those inherent within science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Statement of Problem

Learning about the six simple machines, namely the lever, screw, pulley, wedge, incline plane, and wheel and axle, is a standard component of 9-12 STEM education. However, some students have difficulty applying the concepts and principles of the six simple machines into real-world practice. Visual thinking, which is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, construct, and make meaning of information, is essential to transferring theory into real-world practice. Despite the importance of visual thinking in STEM education, it is not given much emphasis in core academic areas especially as it concerns science and math education. Hence, an examination of using visual learning techniques i.e., the creation of simple animations, may help students to better visualize and transfer what they learn about the six simple machines into real world practice.

Literature Review

Passive versus Active Learning

According to Dyer et al (2006), Standards–based reform efforts, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), have increased the amount of pressure that teachers face due to a shift from minimum competency to high proficiency standards for students. With these shifts, a greater level of accountability has forced teachers to concentrate on achievement scores rather than school inputs thus reducing the amount of student-centered, real-world learning in the classroom (Dyer et al, 2006). The traditional method of teaching which views students as passive learners who are expected to memorize and regurgitate information in order to pass a written examination is outdated (Reeve, 2006). Delyser et. al. (2003) stated that learning should be an active process wherein students are constructing knowledge themselves rather than passively receiving instruction; students require frequent feedback, practice and opportunities to apply what they learn (Delyser et. al., 2003).

Student-Centered Learning: Linking the Classroom to the Real World

Instructional strategies that make connections between core academic areas and real world applications provide opportunities for students to see the results of their learning. In the process students develop critical thinking and problem solving skills from a reference frame that is relevant and meaningful (Reeve, 2006). In light of the aforementioned issues, teachers should facilitate learning by providing opportunities that foster self-exploration, enhanced metacognitive skills, and critical thinking abilities (Chen, 2002).

According to Delyser et. al. (2003), the main attributes of a student-centered learning environment are as follows: a) learning is an active search for meaning by the student, b) learning requires frequent feedback if it is to be sustained, practice, and opportunities to use what is learned, c) learning involves the ability of individuals to monitor their own learning, and to understand how knowledge is gained. Despite the evidence to support the benefits of a student-centered approach to teaching, the advent of NCLB has made it increasingly difficult for teachers to provide learning opportunities that make connections between classroom learning and real world practice (Dyer et al, 2006).

Visual Thinking in a Student-Centered Learning Environment

Technology has increased the potential for educators to provide opportunities for students to engage in nonlinear, exploratory, interactive, and collaborative learning environments (McGrath & Brown, 2005). The use of visual thinking techniques, such as animations, has allowed educators to develop more effective student-centered methods of learning. According to a study conducted by Hoban & Ferry (2006), the use of animation can increase motivation when learning science concepts. The researchers state that a series of learning processes are fostered as students’ engage in the production of animation projects, such as, research, planning, storyboarding, design, photography, conceptual visualization, the use of technology, evaluating and team working skills.

At the University of Wollongong, Australia, a form of animation called “slowmation” (Slow Animation) was used to train teachers how to teach science at the elementary school level (Hoban, G.F., Ferry, B., 2006). The results were, for the most part, positive although one of the teachers had some issues with class management. Lastly, Hoban and Ferry (2006) mentioned that the intent of the study was not to ascertain the value of using this approach as it pertains to student learning. Thus further research is needed to better understand how student-generated animations benefit learning of core academic subjects.

Visual thinking techniques are beneficial in that they can be employed to open up new ways to explore concepts and solve problems. Visual thinking is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, construct, and make meaning of abstract information. It is an especially important skill for careers that require an individual to possess higher order thinking and problem-solving skills. For example, scientists, architects, artists, and engineers need to have strong visual thinking skills in order to solve problems and make meaning of abstract concepts and principles. Visual thinking is a major part of the engineering profession and provides the engineer with the necessary cognitive “tool kit” to critical think, analyze and solve complex problems.

Visual thinking techniques provide alternative ways of teaching students how to visualize and transfer what they learn in the classroom into real world practice. Moreover, visual thinking techniques that foster one’s ability to make meaning of abstract concepts enhance the education and practice of science, math, technology, and engineering (McGrath & Brown, 2005). Despite the importance of visual literacy in developing higher-order thinking skills, visual thinking techniques i.e., drawing, sketching, and animation, are not emphasized as part of science and math education.

Using Sketches, Drawings, and Animations as an Exploratory and Reporting Tool

Research concerning visual thinking in engineering education programs shows that students and faculty members place a high value on visual literacy. For example, a project funded by the National Science Foundation that is investigating the use of visual representations in science and math education, called “Picturing to Learn: Making Visual Representations by and for Undergraduates- A New Approach to Teach Science and Engineering”, reveals the importance of visual learning amongst science and engineering educators (NSF, 2005). The project was developed as a new program for freshman and sophomores in science and engineering. In groups, students collaborate and develop visual representations of fundamental science and engineering concepts. The intent is to adapt methods for creating visual representations, such as animations, photographs, drawings, and illustrations.

Educators have debated the benefits of engineering and technology education and its ability to make cross curricular linkages to other academic areas while increasing student achievement and comprehension in core academic areas, especially math and science. The potential for visual learning as it pertains to cross-curricular application is promising, as well as, using visual learning to promote collaboration between disciplines such as art and science (McGrath & Brown, 2005). More studies need to be conducted that help us to better understand how to assess visual thinking in STEM education, plus the effect(s) that visualization has on the transference of theoretical perspectives into real world practice.

In the aftermath of NCLB, technology educators have been compelled to show how their courses benefit general education. The project method /hands-on approach so commonly used in technology education requires reading, writing, research, technological literacy, scientific understanding, and mathematical procedures. Since high-stakes testing has become increasingly important, the benefits of technology education will be analyzed in greater detail (Culbertson et. al, 2004). According to McGrath & Brown (2005), a discussion of various strategies for implementing and integrating visual thinking techniques, such as animation, to help students better understand theoretical concepts provides an alternative approach to teaching physics concepts related to engineering design.

Purpose of Study

               The purpose of this project is to determine whether the use of visual thinking techniques, such as the creation of simple animations, increases student ability to visualize and transfer theory into practice. The researcher worked with a pre-engineering teacher, and a technology education curriculum specialist to develop supplemental learning activities to help students better visualize and transfer what they learn about the six simple machines into real world practice.  The supplemental learning activities consisted of five project-based activities that focus on the six simple machines. After the development of the activities was completed, it was pilot tested in a high school pre-engineering course to determine its effectiveness. The study focused specifically on this question: Do visual thinking techniques i.e., sketching/drawing, animating, used in a project-based learning environment, help 9th and 10th grade students visualize and transfer the theory of the six simple machines into practice?

Data Collection Methods

The data collected for this study involved a series of interrelated activities, including interviews, classroom observations, and assessment of student engineering notebooks. The organization of these topics is as follows: 1) I will discuss the teaching dimensions of this study, which includes what I learned during the interviews, 2) I will discuss how I applied what I learned from the interviews and how I used this information to develop the five visual thinking activities, and 3) I will discuss the learning dimension of the study which includes what happened during the implementation of the five visual learning activities. Pursuant to satisfying the objectives of the course, which was to teach principles of engineering, emphasis was placed on how to incorporate more visual thinking techniques, such as drawing/sketching, and animation into the existing curriculum via a project-based learning approach. Below, each data collection method is described in detail.

            The first part of this study investigates how to best infuse visual thinking techniques that employ animation as an exploratory and reporting tool for STEM education. Interviews were conducted with two adult participants: 1) an engineering teacher, who I will refer to as “BJ”and 2) a technology education curriculum specialist, who I will refer to as “RE”. The engineering teacher (“BJ”) was in his first year of teaching and received a degree in Engineering and Technology Education (ETE) from Utah State University. The course that he teaches is called “Principle of Engineering”. The technology education curriculum specialist (RE) is a Utah State University faculty member who works in the ETE Department. He specializes in curriculum development and communication technology. These two individuals were indispensable to the development of the visual learning activities. The visual thinking techniques used in this study were informed by the interviews, and class observations. It was important that the engineering teacher, in particular had ownership over aspects of this study. I wanted to make the implementation of the visual thinking activities seamless so that it would not interfere with the regular course of the class. Since the pre-engineering curriculum is standardized then it was critical that the activities did not add more busy work but rather enhanced the existing content.  Assessment of Student Interest, Motivational, and Learning Outcomes

Assessment of student ideas was achieved by reviewing student notebooks. Assessment of student attitudes towards the visual learning activities was ascertained via a questionnaire. I also conducted classroom observations to have an eyewitness view of how the students reacted to the activities. By making use o multiple sources, methods, and theories, evidence can be substantiated and used to discover themes and/or patterns inherent in the study. Findings of the above concepts will be discussed in the next section of this paper.

Analysis of Themes and Interpretations

The Teaching Dimension

Through conversations, four themes concerning technology curriculum emerged. These include: Infusion, Benefits, Application, and Visualization. Each of these themes characterizing the teaching dimension will be defined and discussed below.


Infusion is defined as the act of infusing or introducing a certain modifying element or quality. The infusion of engineering design, problem solving and analytical skills into 9-12 grade levels through technology education presents a rationale for educational reform which includes an interdisciplinary, student-centered approach to organizing core academic subjects (Childress et al., 2006). Technological literacy is defined as the ability o use, manage, assess, and understand technology (ITEA, 2000). The standards for technology education state what a person should know and be able to do at a particular grade level. A technologically literate person also understands how technology impacts the environment and shapes society. The technology education specialist that I interviewed provided insight into the methodology used to infuse engineering and technology concepts into core academic areas. In order to achieve this, he stated:

You develop a curriculum based on standards. These are not only technology education standards but math and science standards. Standards state what students should know and be able to do.

He then stated that each state has its own set of standards, which are usually based on national standards and it is important for curriculum developers to have a good idea of objectives prior to designing a curriculum. He went on to say:

…so as a curriculum developer you need to identify where you are going; your goals and objectives which relate to standards. To infuse engineering design into technology education you need to look at standards and infuse math and science principles.

Teachers accomplish this by knowing how to properly organize the learning environment and develop assessment instruments to measure the effectiveness of learning activities that infuse enginering and technolocial principles. Technology educators nderstand that standardized testing is an integral part of education and is not going to disappear so there needs to be an emphasis on ensuring that engineering and technology-based learning activities are aligned with local, state and national standards for education. This way, students can have a greater opportunity to connect what they learn in the classroom to real world applications. In the next section, we will discuss how these real world connections benefit learning.


Benefits can be defined as anything contributing to an improvement in condition. Engineering and technology-based activities can provide more relevancy to classroom learning. Since engineering and technology education places a high value on experiential learning via project-based activities, students can see the benefits of their learning. In the aftermath of NCLB, technology educators have been compelled to show how their courses benefit general education. In order to justify the need and importance for technology education as an integral part of general education, RE stated: “Like most things, you have to show people the benefits.” When asked how technology education benefits students, RE stated: “The number one thing that employers want is problem solving skills. These are life skills whether you’re going into engineering or not these are important skills to develop.” He further emphasized that students need to be able to solve highly complex problems that involve fundamental skills in reading, writing, math, science, research gathering, time management, information synthesizing, and the use of technology.

Being in the classroom everyday allows BJ to see first hand how his course benefits his students by helping them develop basic life skills. As he says:

here are some students that did not know what an Allen wrench or a Phillips head screwdriver was them being able to identify some of the everyday tools that are used will help them at some point [they might have] to put something together whether [it’s] a bike for their kid or whatever they’ll be able to look at these diagrams and actually put it together.

With the guidance of a teacher and a relevant educational program, students who possess basic technical skills will be able to function in a technologically-driven society. With these 21st century skills, he feels that students are more likely to make a successful transition from school to career.


Application can be defined as the act of bringing something to bear; using it for a particular purpose. For example, Dyer et al (2006) stated that students should be able to apply what they learn in novel situations (Dyer et al, 2006). Technology education is known for its potential to help students apply what they learn in their math and science classes. RE reinforces this view by stating:

I think our biggest strength in technology education is that we can begin to apply what students learn in their math and science classes.

Project-based learning (versus subject-based learning), which is used heavily in technology education, fosters a learning environment wherein students have greater ownership over the process of their own learning and get to apply what they learn. Although he realizes the importance of theory, BJ emphasized that he dedicated more time for the students to engage in hands-on activities so that they can embody the theoretical concepts taught in the class.

I probably spend more time on practice…being able to apply the theory rather than spending a lot of time going over theoretical perspectives because there are a lot of students who, quite frankly, are not ready for it.

By connecting theory to real world applications, many people feel that it helps students understand the theory better. As BJ attests, within an engaging learning environment, teachers become the designers of enriching educational experiences, processes and environments rather than “talking textbooks”. This, in turn, shows students the purpose for their learning.

If we didn’t teach that real world aspect, it wouldn’t make any sense. For example, when I was learning…concepts in math, I did not understand the purpose until I could see the data in some sort of graphical form. Then it made more sense to me.

From this perspective, BJ emphasizes the importance of visual representations and their impact on learning, plus the role they play in helping people visualize abstract concepts. This further authenticated the need for this study because of the difficulties that students face as they attempt to transfer abstract physics theory into practice. When questioned about areas that students struggle with the most in his class, JB stated: “Students struggle with being able to put things together or figuring out how to put things together…I guess being able to turn an idea…into something…tangible even if it is just a sketch.” Hence, the need for more visualization techniques became apparent.


Visualization can be defined as the formation of mental visual images or the act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visual form. The goal of this study was to introduce students to visual thinking techniques that can be used to help them visualize and transfer physics theory (i.e., simple machines) into practice. Prior to developing and implementing the visual learning techniques, it was critical for me to understand why others felt that visualization was so important. RE stated:

It can be looked at as a sixth sense and is critical to solving problems. As I solve a problem I always try to think it through my mind. When you’re putting something together I try to visualize what it will look like rather than reading the instructions.

Pursuant to answering the research question, I wanted know why both participants felt that some students struggled with transferring theory into practice. Moreover, students do not have a problem calculating answers to equations but when its time to build something, they oftentimes struggle to do so as RE reinforced:

I don’t think they see how it relates. Start with something simple and show it. Get some hands-on and show it instead of drawing it all on paper…show it.

Drawing and sketching were part of the techniques used to help students visualize what they were going to do. When asked how important he felt visualization was, BJ responded: “I think visualization is very important. Visualization helps people to see how everything is going to fit together.” BJ felt that visualization is imperative because students who do not spend time visualizing struggle with transferring theory into practice.

In sum, the interviews were indispensable in helping me to understand how to better approach this study. The interviewees revealed aspects of the teaching dimension that were important to consider prior to designing the visual thinking learning activities. By using what I learned during these interviews, it helped me to understand the difficulties that students face as they attempt to transfer theory into practice. After, gaining insight into the teaching dimension, I felt better prepared to approach the learning dimension of this study. The learning dimension includes all of the events that took place during the design and implementation phase of this study. The implementation of the visual learning activities was documented via classroom observations and field notes. In the next section, I will discuss how the learning activities were put into practice and what I observed during the classroom visits.

The Learning Dimension

The high school engineering class that I observed was comprised of 9th and 10th grade students. 14 students were in the class. In this class, called “Principles of Engineering” students learn about and apply fundamental engineering concepts and principles through project-based learning activities. The five visual learning activities were designed to be supplemental learning units for teaching students about the six simple machines, namely, the screw, the pulley, the wedge, the inclined plane, the wheel and axle, and the lever. The objective of the project was to have students design a simple machine energy transfer (SMET) device that uses each of the six simple machines (See Figure 2) to transfer motion from one simple machine to the next. As part of the five visual learning activities, students were required to document all of their work in notebooks.

Lessons Learned During Pre-observations

I realized the importance of visualization during my pre-observations (which were conducted with another group of students who were not included in the actual study) by noticing the frustrations that students experienced while building their SMET devices. I felt this was due to the lack of visual learning techniques used in the classroom. Out of three classes, only a few SMET devices worked properly and were consistent. These failed attempts validated the need for improved visualization techniques.

As I observed students during my pre-observations, there was a natural tendency for students to begin building a project prior to considering constraints, design parameters, and other limitations. For instance, on the day that student notebooks were due, I noticed a student sketching his SMET device (at the last minute) on the day evaluation of student projects took place. The teacher required that students have a final sketch of their projects in their notebooks but did not require them to have sketches prior to building. I wanted to avoid these practices so I decided that the five visual thinking activities should serve as a jumping-off/starting point for the construction of their SMET devices. In the following sections, each of the five activities will be explained in detail.

Activities One and Two: Research

The first activity and second activity were done in conjunction with each other although they were listed as two separate activities. Students were asked to: 1) conduct internet research and 2) bring in examples of each simple machine from home. On the first day of the study, students were given a homework assignment so that they could begin to gain an understanding of the six simple machines by examining their purpose and applications. For their homework, students’ conducted research on the 6 simple machines by using the internet, books, videos, etc. As shown in Figure 3, students documented what they learned and were required to list at least 4 web sites in their engineering notebooks. Some students printed out pictures and other information they deemed interesting and helpful. They also performed an image search so that they could begin to conceptualize how the six simple machines are used in real world applications.

Activity Three: Brainstorming

The overall intent of using the five visual thinking activities was to have students conceptualize and optimize their designs prior to constructing their projects. The third activity involved brainstorming ideas for their projects. As shown in Figure 4, students were required to conceptualize and generate sketches of how their projects would work. Students used an engineering notebook to document their work. These documentation items were used as an assessment to ascertain the amount of “thinking” that transpired through the process. Although, it is impossible to know every detail regarding the cognitive processes that took place as students engaged in these activities, it does provide one with a sense of how much time was dedicated to their projects.

Activity Four 4: PowerPoint Block Diagrams

Block drawings are simple representations of mechanical objects using basic shapes such as circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, and lines. As shown in Figure 5, students took their sketches a step further and generated block diagrams using PowerPoint to help them visualize how their projects would work. As stated earlier, this activity was essential because I had observed during my pre-observations that students have a tendency to start building things without having thoroughly visualizing how their SMET devices would actually come together. By using more visual thinking techniques, students could better see what things they were doing right and what things they were doing wrong. This way, they could find potential problems with their designs and remove the “bugs” prior to building. In real-world engineering, this process (which is referred to as constraints, optimization, and predictive analysis) helps save a lot of time and frustration during the construction phase. As you will see later on in the discussion section, the majority of the student responses were positive and most of them felt that the visual thinking activities helped them with their projects.

Activity Five: Animating the PowerPoint Block Diagrams

After the instructor was satisfied with the students’ sketches and drawings, students converted their sketches into simple Power Point animations The drawings and sketches generated in the last step served as a blueprint for the simple block diagram they used to animate their designs. To help students further visualize how their designs would actually work, the simple animations created by the students helped them to clarify potential problems with their ideas. Thus giving them the opportunity to analyze, evaluate, and refine their designs prior to any hands-on development. Also, after the students demonstrated a sound design, the instructor displayed their animations with the rest of the class. This allowed other students an opportunity to see other ideas. The goal was to generate as many individual ideas as possible so that each student would bring something to the table when the teams were formed. This way, everyone developed ideas and then combined their ideas when teams were formed. After the students had an ample understanding of how there designs would work, they formed teams of two and began to construct their SMET devices. Note: Due to a scheduling conflict, I did not see the finished projects but had an opportunity to take photos of their projects as they were completing their final testing. Examples of student SMET device are shown in Figure 6.

Assessment of Student Attitudes towards the Five Visualization Activities

Question One

When asked about their attitudes toward sketching, all of the students wrote how it helped them to visualize and transfer how they would apply the concepts they learned about the simple machines. They were asked to answer the following question: How did drawing and sketching your ideas help you with the design of your energy conversion machine? One student wrote: “It made it so that I wasn’t just thinking it up as I built it so then I knew that it would work.” Another student wrote: “It let me brainstorm and come up with different ideas and after drawing it I could see things I could do to fix it better or change here and there.” By visualizing their ideas through sketches, students had a better idea of what their SMET devices would like and how they would operate. “It helped us to have a plan so that we knew where we were going.” Visualization techniques such as sketching allow an individual to document their ideas in a form that can be readily accessed and manipulated. These expressive models can be used to detect potential misconceptions and/or errors in one’s design, as one student wrote: “It helped us to spot errors in our ideas and work out some bugs before they occurred in the actual project.” It was important that students realized how these visualization activities were designed to reduce the amount of trial and error they experienced during the construction phase of their projects. One student confirmed this by stating: “It helped me visualize what the project should look like and how to build it.” This statement substantiated the usefulness of the visualization activities as they were meant for students to develop a plan for what they would do before engaging in any hands-on work. As we will discuss in the next two sections, students elaborated on their brainstorming sketches and used them to further develop their ideas through block drawings.

Question Two

The next question concerned how they felt about animating their drawings/sketches and if it helped them to better visualize their designs. 81.8% of the students responded that the animation activity was useful in one way or another. Some students wrote how it helped them to make corrections. For example, one student responded: “Yes, it showed us potential problems in our project.” A second student responded: “Yes it helped us understand what would work and what wouldn’t.” A third student wrote: “Yes, it helped us remove certain errors from our designs decreasing the time it would take to remove bugs.” It is interesting to note that some students have better visual-spatial abilities than other students. One student responded:No not really because I can see how it works in my head.” The aforementioned student is a good example.

On the contrary, some individuals have difficulties picturing things in their heads and, in turn, transferring their ideas into a tangible form, such as a drawing, a sketch, or an animation. For example, one student responded: “The animating actually confused me a lot. It wasn’t very helpful.” Another explanation is may be that he/she just did not put the effort in to the assignment. During my observations, I noticed a few students who were off-task and were not using their class time efficiently to develop their ideas. In sum, I noticed that during the animation activity, the teacher did not have to prompt the students to get to work. Upon entering the class, each student immediately grabbed a laptop and began converting their sketches/drawings into simple PowerPoint animations. This was the first time I observed this many students being self-regulated and taking greater ownership over the processes of their own learning.

Question Three

The final question asked the students if they felt that five supplemental simple machine activities were helpful. They were also asked which activities did they enjoy the most and to provide a brief explanation of why they liked a particular activity. Some students said that they liked animation the best. Because of the range of activities that students got to partake in, there was a variety of responses. Some students respond to activities they pick up easier and are enjoyable to complete. For example, one student wrote: “Yes, the sketching using PowerPoint, I enjoyed because it was easy.” Some students become more engaged when they have an opportunity to learn something new using a particular technology they like. For instance, one student responded: “Yes, the sketching and animation activities were helpful enough to outweigh the others.” “I enjoyed the animation because I like to use computers and learn new things I can do with them.” Other students enjoyed the social interaction that occurred during the second activity which required them to bring in examples of the six simple machines and share them with the class as one student expressed: “Yes, I enjoyed the time we brought the six simple machines because I like the real world applications that they showed.” As students learn more about the six simple machines they began to identify simple machines in items found in their everyday lives as one student stated: “Yes, it did by bringing 5 simple machines to school; I learned that there is a simple machine in everything we have.” In this regard, the world around them becomes a tapestry of learning opportunities that allows them to be able to recognize and appreciate how engineering and technology helps shape their world. To illustrate this point, one student wrote: “Yes, I liked when we brought in simple machines from common household things, I didn’t know shoelaces were simple machines.” I could see the excitement on their faces as they shared the items they brought into class. One student demonstrated every simple machine in one object by bringing his bicycle to class. It was apparent that by giving students more ownership over the process of their learning they became more self-regulated as they explored fundamental engineering concepts and principles from a reference frame that was relevant to them. Who says learning isn’t supposed to be fun?

Some students enjoy building things or using their hands to create something. One student responded that s/he liked “building the simple machines because it was fun.” Furthermore, some students enjoy the whole continuum of learning and appreciate seeing their projects from conception to finished product as one student noted:

“I enjoyed building the SMET project the most. It was fun to watch our ideas turn into a project.” From this statement, it is evident that when this student was allowed to construct his/her own knowledge, they find more meaning and relevance in their education. The significance of these findings will be discussed in the next section as we examine the results of the learning dimension of this study.

Significance of Findings

The implications of this study are noteworthy for educators who teach in a standards-based environment. Although the standards in this study involved principles of engineering, they are standards nonetheless. The concepts explored in principles of engineering relate to physics (science) concepts and principles thus having cross-curricular applications. Consequently, the organization of core academic content influences how students respond to the learning material. In other words, if students are able to see the results of their learning, they are much more apt to want to learn the material being delivered.

There were multiple findings in this study that provide a basis for teachers to explore as they strive to increase achievement and motivation for learning core academic subjects. The significance of these findings is as follows:

Infusing science (core academic subjects) with design concepts and principles makes learning more interesting.

Students benefit from real-world activities in a manner that enhances technical and/or life skills.

Application of engineering principles to build something retains student interest and motivates students to want to learn.

Visualization techniques enhance students’ ability to see what they will do.

If students are interested in doing something, such as animation, they will regulate processes of their own learning without any extrinsic motivation.

In sum, student understanding of STEM concepts and principles can oftentimes be determined more readily by assessing the quality of sketches, drawings, and animations. Using these images as a formative assessment tool allows students the opportunity to clarify, and rework their ideas. These approaches can be used to establish a better balance between theory and application. According to McGrath & Brown (2005), drawing, sketching and creating images can foster creativity, and help develop higher-order cognitive skills such as problem-problem solving. Assessment is a major driving force behind standards-based reform and allows teachers to identify what aspects of their teaching is working and is not working.


Although standardized testing plays a major role in our modern education system, it does not measure skills and capabilities. Moreover, since standards-based testing handicaps teachers from providing more project-based activities, it is not a good indicator of a student’s ability to transfer what they learn in core academic areas. For this reason, assessment instruments need to be developed to gauge student’s abilities to transfer what they learn into practice.

As teachers strive to prepare their students to be successful in life, it is exigent that learning is made more relevant and meaningful so that students can began to unify concepts that they are taught in the classroom. In turn, this will set the stage for students to become better contenders as they make a transition from school to career. As the global economy becomes more competitive, Americans are realizing more and more that a focus on transferable skills is necessary for our children to compete in the world market. As part of any curriculum, student self-assessment can be a useful delivery method that allows students to generate questions and be able to answer those questions on their own. This type of learning is more reflective of what students will be expected to do when they enter the workforce. Engineering and technology education has increased the potential for educators to provide opportunities for students to engage in nonlinear, exploratory, interactive, and collaborative learning environments. From this, technology educators and educators in general can develop learning curricula that meets standards of learning (SOL), and, in turn, better prepares students for later life.


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