Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Introduction to the Proceedings

Fernando Cajas
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science

As a follow-up to the conference, participants were invited to reflect on the issues discussed at the conference. The reflections focused on whether or not the conference changed or inspired the participants’ thinking about research in technology education and what specific next steps need to be taken to focus a potential research agenda for technology education.

The participants recognized the incredible amount of research that is needed to improve technology education and they actually identified general research areas, particularly:

1) How students learn the ideas and skills recommended for technological literacy.

2) How to shape instruction to promote student learning of those specific ideas and skills.

3) How to help teachers to use effective instruction.

It was understood that these areas of research should be placed in the context of the ideas and skills identified in the Standards for Technological Literacy and Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Elaboration of research areas follows. They are based on the papers that form the proceedings.

How Students Learn

Several participants point to specific topics in student learning. McCormick calls attention to problems in learning about systems: how and when children can learn specific ideas about systems. There is an almost complete lack of research on how students learn about system thinking.

McCormick also reviews the status of research on problem solving in England where he and his colleagues have found that students follow rigid algorithms reminiscent of the fictional ritual of the scientific method. Rowell suggests that future directions for research should build on critical scrutiny of assumptions underlying technology education and on cognitive and manipulative demands of technological problem solving. Despite the research on design and problem solving, we still do not know how children learn specific ideas about design, trade-offs, constraints, redundancy, etc. The work from England and Canada can illuminate what we are trying to do in America, but this research needs to be adapted and new research needs to be initiated.

Karen Zuga and Tad Foster provide a detailed description of prior research in technology education implying the need for cognitive research on how students learn specific technological ideas and skills. These studies will require not just paying attention to research on particular technology topics, but also, as Senta Raizen, David Crismond, and Pat Hutchinson suggest, they will require taking a closer look at the other research fields, particularly science and mathematics education, and general cognitive research.


Bennett and Benenson, among others, call for a stronger connection between research and instruction. Kolodner also places emphasis on the research method of "design experiments," where research is based on work in classrooms instead of in the laboratory. By engineering the classroom environment and studying its effects, then refining and further analyzing it, one can learn about teaching and learning.

Research on instruction raises critical questions for the future of technology education research. Science and mathematics education researchers have spent decades dealing with problems of student learning. Progress in these fields started only when researchers began asking what science and math ideas and skills students really understand. Then, they moved to developing—on a very modest scale—instructional activities that strongly connect instruction and content. Instructional design was followed by classroom trials which were revised and tried again until students showed successful learning of what was intended. So, the model is to have basic research on student learning and then use it as part of research on instruction. Without having basic research on how students learn specific technology ideas and skills, doing research on instruction may be premature.

Teacher Development

The reflections also bring out the need for research on how teachers themselves understand—and learn to teach—specific technology ideas and skills. Franzie Loepp (Illinois State University) calls for research on professional development, curriculum development and implementation, and evaluation in technology education. He then adds observations related to research capacity in technology education and ways to promote a higher level of shared research activity. This also raises the critical question of the viability of doing research around curriculum and professional development without having basic research on how students learn technology concepts and skills.

Concluding Comments

In his reflections about the conference Kenneth Welty (University of Wisconsin-Stout) points out that a common practice in technology education is to engage students in rich activities that are grounded in time-honored practices. He suggests that one new focus for a research agenda would be studies of what students are learning from those activities. He also states that instead of studying current teaching practices in hopes of uncovering content worth learning, our research agenda should focus on how students learn the deep understandings and essential skills for technological literacy. This idea is simple but revolutionary. The change of perspective that Welty suggests will require more careful study of how activities help students to learn ideas and skills identified for literacy.

During Benenson’s shopping bag activity he suggested a list of ideas and skills that the activity could address such as data collection, prediction, fair test, different kinds of forces, properties of materials and structures, and design and failure. The participants also gave their own ideas about the kind of concepts that could be addressed by the activity.

The idea of having an activity to talk about research was part of an overall plan of providing a context where participants could discuss the relationship between the ideas and skills students should learn and the kind of research that can help us to understand how they might achieve literacy. For example, one may say that in the bag activity students are learning about failure. If this is the case, the question is how children learn ideas about failure. This is part of the general question of how children learn about technology (ideas and skills or concepts and processes).

Good research is useful to explain how students understand specific technological ideas and skills. This research will help to identify where students have problems and what kind of instructional approaches can help teachers and students to overcome these difficulties. The context of the bag activity provided an opportunity to think about the kind of research that can improve our understanding of teaching and learning about the nature of design and failure. For example, how do students explain why their bags fail? Although the phenomenon of "failure" may look observable, it may not be evident to students. Here research can make an important contribution in unpacking the ideas about failure students have.

I have used the example of design in part because design was presented by several participants and because there is some research about design and problem solving. But design is only a small part of technology. There are similar questions in the context of other technology ideas and skills identified for literacy. How do students learn about other technology ideas and skills that have been identified for literacy? What do teachers need to know to teach these concepts and processes? How can we design learning environments and curriculum materials that support students’ understanding of key technological ideas?

The conference and the reflection papers represent a step in the direction of enabling individuals to begin serious dialogues on making progress in research on technology education. However, there are important issues that were not discussed at the conference. In his article, Tad Foster (Indiana State University) presents a general discussion about the limits of time, personnel, and funding available, which demand collaborative focus on a small number of high-priority topics. The training of researchers, for example, may need to be modified and collaboration among research teams could be arranged. In fact, there are many issues to be taken into account in thinking about research directions for technology education. To make progress it will be crucial to set some priorities.