The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

Life STEM A Case Study of Life Science Learning Through Engineering Design

Partners' Institution
DHBW – Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University
Year of publication
Educational stage
University Level
Journal name
Int. Journal of Science and Mathematic Education
Thematic Area
STEAM intervention (teaching strategies, evaluation...)
The goal of this study was to document one teacher’s implementation of three different engineering design-based science units and his students’ learning and interest development after engaging in these units. The analysis of student content test data demonstrated that at the end of each unit the students gained science and engineering knowledge. However, there were only statistical differences in student learning between the first year and the third year. Students who participated in the study in year 3 demonstrated larger knowledge gains compared to students in year 1. In addition, students developed an interest in science and engineering as the result of engaging in engineering instruction as reflected in the pre-test to post-test change. In other words, student participation in engineering-focused science units had an impact on their interest development. This finding supports research indicating that engineering activities enhance student interest in STEM (High, Thomas & Redmond, 2010; Lachapelle & Cunningham, 2014). However, there was no statistical difference in interest development between the students in years 1, 2, and 3. One possible explanation for this finding is that each unit and enactment has the same degree of influence on student interest. Research has shown that when students are exposed to engineering they are more likely to become interested in this topic, though not all students respond the same way to engineering interventions (NAE & NRC, 2009). For example, our results showed an increase in interest among female and male students, but female students’ interest rose more. An investigation of why the participation in the third year unit, explicit integration, did not show a greater increase in interest among students would be informative. The analysis of videotaped instruction demonstrated some differences between the implementation of the three units that could be linked to the differences in student learning. First, the sequence of science and engineering activities fell into three patterns: (a) add-on in year 1, (b) implicit integration in year 2, and (c) explicit integration in year 3. In year 1, science and engineering concepts were not closely connected as Mr. Smith tended to separate the science and engineering activities. However, science and engineering activities were interwoven in year 3. Second, Mr. Smith’s talk introducing science and engineering fell into two patterns: (a) focusing on distinct or unique characteristics of science and engineering in brief and isolated discussions in years 1 and 2, but richer and more scaffolded discussions in year 3; and (b) identifying students as “engineers,” the client as the “decision-maker,” and himself as the “mediator” in between the two in years 1–3. Looking across the practices of Mr. Smith, when and to what extent students engaged in engineering practices and discourse in science classes seemed to result in knowledge gain differences between the three groups of students.
It is important to note that the presence of Mr. Smith in each of the classrooms in this study likely means that some student scores on the post-tests were correlated, which could distort the statistical results to some degree. Although the findings of this study are confined by the limitations of a single teacher, the analysis finely illustrates the ways Mr. Smith integrated engineering and life science content and the ways he talked about engineering. The study also shows what effects these strategies had on student learning and interest development. Naturally, the results of this study cannot be generalized to all middle school science classrooms; however, the results provide evidence of ways engineering can be integrated in science classrooms similar to those in the study. The use of qualitative and quantitative data helped to better understand differences and similarities of engineering integration each year and the influences of those strategies on student learning. However, the study design and a single teacher participant do not support making casual connections between teacher practices and student learning. Finally, our results suggest the need for additional research on engineering integration in science. This includes exploring the engineering challenges students are tasked with in other science content areas, engineering discourse students engage in, and the effects this discourse has on students’ learning and interest. A comparison study can shed new light on the differences in the science and engineering learning and discourse in different science content areas.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Engineering integration can vary in when and how engineering concepts are infused in science instruction and these variations produce differences in student learning. It could be argued that most explicit integration of engineering concepts into science teaching occurs when teachers sequence science and engineering activities meaningfully, which focuses on development of particular science concepts through engineering design. In explicit engineering integration, students learn science concepts and apply what they have learned from science lessons to the engineering challenge. Specifically, the teacher helps students see the connections between the science lessons and the engineering challenge, thus the engineering challenge is connected to science concepts. A disconnect between the engineering challenge and science concepts is typical in the addon approach and fails to support science learning through engineering design. As found in previous studies, if science and engineering concepts are not strongly connected to each other, students simply focus on construction of their engineering design solutions and tend to leave out science content. However, engineering integration cannot be simply characterized as explicit or add-on. Instead, the more connections made between science and engineering, the more explicit the integration; the more separate science and engineering activities, the more add-on the integration approach is. It is important to note that in today’s science classrooms students rarely engage in engineering activities that strongly require them to apply focal science and mathematics concepts. Not surprisingly, teachers who do not have sufficient knowledge and experiences with engineering tend to fail to place engineering design into science instruction effectively. The finding that explicit integration provides opportunities for students to learn science through engineering design suggests students need these opportunities to enhance depth of science learning.
Point of Strength
see above
Engineering integration, Interdisciplinary science, Student interest, Student learning