Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Overview of the Conference

Fernando Cajas
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science

Current reform movements in technology education stress a notion of technological literacy that includes understanding some of the general principles of technology (e.g., design, control, and systems) and some key ideas in specific areas such as materials, energy, and communication. (See, for example, Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) by Project 2061 of AAAS and Standards for Technological Literacy (2000) by the International Technology Education Association [ITEA]).

Although in several countries technology education is being introduced as part of the education of all citizens, we have almost no idea of how children learn technological ideas and skills. We need a research program that can shed light on how children learn at least the principles of technology most relevant for literacy.

One of the problems with educational research is its fragmentation. Individuals make discrete contributions without really impacting the educational system as a whole. This conference provided opportunities to think about a common strategy for studying technology education and determining what kind of research would best support literacy goals.

Starting the Conversation

The roots of the conference can be traced back to the long interest of Project 2061/AAAS in developing students' understanding of specific technological ideas and skills that are relevant for literacy. For years individuals such as James Rutherford and Andrew Ahlgren have called for the introduction of powerful technological ideas and skills as part of the education of all. Science for All Americans (1989) by Project 2061 of AAAS made an important contribution to clarifying the nature of technology that would be relevant for literacy purposes. ("Science" being loosely construed as natural and social sciences, technology, mathematics, and their interconnections.) ITEA's Standards for Technological Literacy is a similar declaration of what is important in technological literacy. After clarifying a common ground of technological ideas and skills for literacy, we need to ask how children could really learn these ideas and skills.

The conference was the outcome of preliminary conversations among different individuals. The following scholars provided guidance as planning committee members: Gary Benenson, City College of New York; Franzie L. Loepp, Illinois State University; Dan Householder, Iowa State University; Theodore Lewis, National Science Foundation; Pam Newberry, International Technology Education Association; Brigitte Valesey, International Technology Education Association; and Kenneth Welty, University of Wisconsin-Stout. These individuals suggested several issues to be discussed at the conference. Three of these issues were identified to frame the conference: How Children Learn Technological Ideas, Research Methods, and Assessment.

An Overview of the Conference

Thirty-five participants from science education, technology education, and cognitive science convened to discuss the role of research in technology education. Technology was discussed from a wide range of perspectives, including its relationship with science and society, the notion of design, control mechanisms, materials, energy, and communication.

The conference was an important step towards establishing a wider conversation about the role of research in technology education and potential research areas. The salient view was that research should focus first on goals for what students should learn from technology education. The conference yielded a number of important ideas, including the following distilled from presentations and discussions:

  • Priorities need to be set for what to research, how to do research, and where and when to do research.
  • A productive research agenda should be planned around student learning of key technological ideas (concepts) and skills (processes) that are essential for literacy.
  • There is a need for research on how well curriculum materials and classroom instruction actually help students learn specific technological concepts and skills.
  • General research in science and mathematics education and cognitive research in general can be used as models, but it is important to recognize that the issues in technology are different from those in science and mathematics.
  • As research in technology education develops, researchers should look for ways to work on common issues with researchers in science and mathematics education.
  • It is important to study how teachers themselves understand—and come to understand—technology.
  • Research is needed to determine the most efficient and cost-effective ways to provide professional development for technology educators.
  • Educational research methods can vary greatly, e.g., from traditional surveys to design experiments, from multiple-choice questions to in-depth interviews. Case studies would be useful to create an adequate basis for later formal research.

A Brief Chronology

After the opening remarks of the organizers, participants began to discuss important factors that could shape the directions of research in technology education. Gary Benenson presented an upper-elementary technology activity of testing shopping bags and predicting which one of the bags is the strongest. Participants were encouraged to come up with ways of testing their bags, collect data, and describe their original predictions. The activity leads to an analysis of how the bags break and how they might be made stronger.

Using the shopping bags as a general context, Soren Wheeler (Project 2061/AAAS) discussed how technological ideas and skills might progress from K to 12. In doing so, Wheeler suggested the following set of learning goals that could be addressed in this activity (See Benchmarks, Chapter 3):

"Even a good design may fail. Sometimes steps can be taken ahead of time to reduce the likelihood of failure, but it cannot be entirely eliminated." 3B(3-5)#2.

"Systems fail because they have faulty or poorly matched parts, are used in ways that exceed what was intended by the design, or were poorly designed to begin with." 3B(6-8)#4.

"The most common ways to prevent failure are pretesting parts and procedures, overdesign, and redundancy." …3B(6-8)#4.

During Wheeler's presentation, participants discussed the difficulties of teaching system thinking. Some participants disagreed with the framing of these learning goals, which they saw as science-oriented, rather than technology-oriented. This can be explained by the fact that "systems" is not only a technological topic, but also a common theme shared by science and technology. Benchmarks has two chapters in which specific learning goals for technological literacy have been suggested (Chapters 3 and 8). The Standards for Technological Literacy document has clarified specific learning goals for technological literacy.

The conversation about systems turned into a discussion about the relationship between knowing and doing in technology education. Some participants took the position that technology education is only about doing, while others recognized the importance of both knowing and doing as it relates to technology. The knowing/doing theme was part of many other discussions in the conference and was linked to the need for research about effective ways to learn technology.

Using the context of mapping technological ideas, Wheeler called for developing a picture of the progress of understanding of technological ideas and skills from K to 12 and emphasized the need for cognitive research to explain how students develop this understanding. The discussion about the difficulties of teaching specific technological ideas and skills needs to be preceded by a clarification about the specific technology ideas and skills we want students to learn.

In his presentation, Robert McCormick (Open University, U.K.) discussed the importance of one’s conception of knowledge and how conceptions of knowledge are reflected in research and research agendas. He distinguished between both scientific and technological knowledge, and the roles of procedural and conceptual knowledge in technology education. His review of how children learn to solve problems shows that despite the research conducted on problem solving, we do not know how children learn specific technological ideas and skills. McCormick focused his presentation on "qualitative knowledge," an approach that responds to both the needs of the technological situation and the learning contexts. This is an area for future research. McCormick ended his presentation with a discussion about how research relates to changes in classrooms.

During the forum on "Research Methods" led by Dan Householder (Iowa State University), Theodore Lewis (Professor at the University of Minnesota and currently at NSF) and Karen Zuga (Ohio State University) called for methods in technology education research that depart from the traditional quantitative approach. Janet Kolodner (Georgia Tech) called for more attention to asking the right research questions and using "design experiments" to better understand students’ learning. Kolodner’s presentation connected the need to identify research areas with the concern over research methods. According to Kolodner, research methods should include clinical interviews, discourse analysis, and ethnographies of classrooms.

Assessment was addressed in nearly all of the presentations and discussions. Rowell presented her on-going research on how to assess students’ understanding of technological tasks and presented data from several case studies that showed knowledge gain. Edward Goldman, a high school teacher from Brooklyn Technical High School, NY, and Dorothy Bennett, an evaluator from Education Development Center, Inc., NY, reviewed the difficulties of assessing students’ understanding of specific technological ideas. For example, they discussed the problems of assessing students’ consideration of trade-offs in designing a chair. They used some samples of students’ work and discussed the limitations of focusing only on the final product.

Note: For a detailed description of the reflections presented by the participants please go to the Introduction to the Proceedings.

You can also view Abstracts of participants' papers.