Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy





First Advisor

Joanne K. Olson

Second Advisor

Kristina M. Tank


This dissertation focuses on the nature of engineering (NOE) as an objective of engineering education efforts within the context of K-12 science education in the United States. The dissertation examines the NOE knowledge and teaching practices of participants in a research project aimed at supporting science and engineering instruction in grades 3-5. The project formed teaching triads of elementary student teachers, their cooperating teachers, and engineering graduate students. The engineers served as content area experts in science and engineering, areas which elementary teachers often have little preparation. Together with the teaching expertise of the student teachers and cooperating teachers, these triads incorporated engineering into their science instruction over the course of a semester.

The first part of this dissertation is an assessment of the NOE knowledge of study participants before and after their participation in the project. This work focused on a dimension of the NOE that has received considerable attention: the scope of engineering, or what does and does not fall under the umbrella of engineering work. Psychometric evaluation was used to refine a pre-existing survey so that it could adequately assess the scope of engineering. This refined survey was then administered to n=117 project participants as a pretest and a posttest. Using a mixed between/within-subject ANOVA model, this study found that participant knowledge of the scope of engineering increased significantly from pretest to posttest [F(1,133) = 48.116, p < 0.001, partial η2 = 0.266], and that this increase did not depend on the participant group (student teacher, cooperating teacher, engineering) in question [F(2,133) = 0.853, p = 0.429, partial η2 = 0.013]. Unexpectedly, the engineers did not show significantly higher scope of engineering knowledge than the teachers in the study [F(2,133) = 1.036, p = 0.358, partial η2 = 0.015]; while expert in certain aspects of engineering, the engineers in the present study were not necessarily experts in the NOE.

The second study in this dissertation examined the engineering learning outcomes that were emphasized by project participants during the semester. All project participants completed semi-structured interviews at the end of their participation and were asked to describe what their students learned about engineering. Using qualitative content analysis on n = 138 interviews, participants’ responses were categorized according to whether they discussed students’ learning in terms of engineering concepts, practices, the NOE, or affective outcomes (e.g., attitudes toward engineering). The study found that project participants rarely discussed their students’ learning of engineering concepts or of affective outcomes. Instead, participants discussed their students’ learning of engineering practices and the NOE with great frequency. The frequent mention of NOE learning outcomes indicated that most participants valued the NOE as a learning goal in their classrooms.

The final part of the dissertation is an examination of how project participants communicated the NOE to students during instruction. A multiple case study approach was used to examine the engineering instruction of four triads over a semester, with a focus on how the NOE was conveyed during instruction. The study found that all four triads explicitly taught the NOE to students during the semester, although this occurred infrequently for all but one triad. All four triads also implicitly communicated many NOE messages to students via the engineering design activities they implemented in their classrooms. The implicit messages were generally less accurate than the explicit ones communicated by the triads, and often did not align with the NOE messages that the triads intended to communicate during instruction.

Copyright Owner

Jacob Pleasants



File Format


File Size

163 pages