Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Cultivating Research in Technology Education

Mark Sanders
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia

I feel very fortunate to be a part of this conference. The opportunity to meet and talk with individuals from other disciplines who share our field's passion for technology education is very special. I had a similar experience a few months ago at a Standards Review panel. The conversations there caused me to think about old issues in new ways and left me with a greater sense of hope for our goal of technological literacy for all.

Following that August meeting, I began to wonder how the conversations of the relatively few people present could be expanded to encompass the broader audience represented by those around the table. The idea that bubbled up was that of a Web-based forum (an electronic journal of sorts) that would showcase all the differing perspectives of technology education. I imagined prominent and dedicated editors from each of the different disciplines who would acquire "best practice," research, and issues-related content for the Web-based forum. After I talked with several people, I began to transpose that idea into a related, but somewhat different project, which I'll get to in just a bit.

I'm here today to open (actually re-open) a conversation about the "culture of research" that exists in our field today. While I believe developing a research agenda is indeed critical to the "technological literacy for all" movement, I believe it will take more than a revised agenda to conduct the volume of research for which people are now calling. We just don't have the horses in the technology education community to get the job done. I realize there are others who are joining in on the effort, and I think we're very fortunate that they're interested in doing so. But one of my points today is that we will need to "grow" our research culture in technology education if we hope to contribute to the body of research that is likely to develop around the issue of technological literacy over the next quarter-century.

My paper is divided into four parts. First, I'd like to describe the research culture in technology education. Then, I'll identify some factors I think have contributed to our current research culture. I'll follow that with some strategies for growth, and close with a project proposal idea, with time at the end for discussion.

Current Status of the "Research Culture" in Technology Education

I'm using the phrase "research culture" to refer to the "climate" of research within the field of technology education. I'm talking about the research ideas, practices, and customs that have evolved in our field throughout this century.

As I think most of you would agree, research really hasn't been our main thing in technology education. With relatively few exceptions, our profession has historically been far more focused on teaching and service than it has been on research and scholarship. Though the field has been evolving for more than a century, technology education really didn't have a research journal we could call our own until 1989, when the Journal of Technology Education (JTE) was established (Sanders, 1989). The start-up plan for the JTE was to publish two issues/year, and expand to three or four issues per year as the need arose. While the JTE welcomes, encourages, and publishes authors from throughout the world and from other disciplines, it is still published just twice a year (because the supply of research-based manuscripts has not warranted more frequent publication).

I referred to this meeting as a re-opening of the discussion of our research culture, because sixteen years ago, the National Association of Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators (NAITTE)—to which most of the technology educators in the room belong—hosted a symposium for the purpose of "providing a research agenda aimed at the bull's eye--those research problems unique to industrial education" (Swanson, 1983, p. 3).

I know Dan Householder isn't surprised to hear of this, as he was one of the four invited presenters. They, too, were talking about the research culture of the field. In his introduction to the resulting NAITTE Monograph #1 (not Monograph #5 or #13, but rather, Monograph #1), Richard Swanson wrote: "The field of industrial education, in its generous embrace of the broad field of education, has at times found itself at a loss for it's own research agenda. The papers in this monograph are intended to provoke senior and neophyte industrial education researchers to more carefully aim their research rifles" (Swanson, 1984, p. 3).

The title of Paul DeVore's paper at that symposium captured the essence of the problem: "Research in Industrial Education: Searching for Direction." DeVore described one of the problems with our research culture this way: "Most of the research in [the field] has been done as a requirement for doctoral and masters degrees there seems to be no cumulative research base in the field. Each dissertation often stands alone, separate, and isolated" (DeVore, 1984, p. 15). Much of what Devore had to say about our research culture in 1983 is still timely and pertinent. For example, "There does not seem to be agreed-upon research agendas, central themes, or important problems. Nor does there seem to be an on-going identifiable network of researchers pursuing research on specific topics" (p. 16).

I think NAITTE's 1983 symposium on research was an excellent idea, as is this one. But hindsight being 20/20, the creation of a more focused research agenda didn't seem to fix the underlying problem. There were more horses then than there are now, and we still were not getting the job done. I think the underlying problem is with our research culture. Very few in our field have embraced research as their primary work. Unless something happens to alter our course in this regard, an important and timely new research agenda will not be sufficient alone to produce answers to the questions about formal technology education coursework that education decision-makers have been asking and will continue to ask.

Karen Zuga (1996) analyzed the research in our professional journals from 1987-1995 and found that 61% of the research dealt with curriculum, and 80% consisted of quantitative-descriptive studies. Her findings led her to conclude: "it appears as though technology education researchers are stuck on first base in the hypothetical-deductive research loop that quantitative researchers use to describe the evolution and maturity of research in the field" (p. 3). So the real question is, how do we get to second base, and beyond? We might get there by working to enhance our research culture.

Another indicator of our current research culture is the number of people who pursue doctoral study in our field. While there has been a keen awareness of the dire shortage of technology teachers, no one seems to be talking about the critical lack of doctoral students. The numbers speak volumes about our current culture of research. This year's Industrial Teacher Education (ITE) Directory (Bell, 1999) reported only eight doctoral graduates from our field, graduating from only five institutions (University of Georgia, North Carolina State, Ohio State University, Utah State University, and Virginia Tech). I followed up on those 8 doctoral graduates, and found that only two of them were employed in technology teacher education, and one of those was only working half-time in our field. Let's be sure that both of these young scholars get a copy of the research agenda that develops from our meeting here this week!

For comparative purposes, I dug out a copy my 1978-79 ITE Directory (Dennis, 1978). I discovered that 20 years ago, there were 55 doctoral graduates, or about seven times as many in our field as there were last year. The reality underscored by these numbers is that there are far fewer potential researchers today than there were twenty years ago.

Here, briefly, are several other indicators of the current status of our research culture:

  1. The Technology for All Americans Project decided not to include a chapter on research in the Rationale and Structure for the Study of Technology, in part, I think, because the research was so sparse (ITEA, 1996).
  2. Rod Custer's keynote presentation at last year's Pupils' Attitudes Toward Technology (PATT) Conference was on Research in Technology Education. A considerable portion of his talk dealt with the critical shortage of research in our field.
  3. Last year, the National Academy of Engineering initiated a study intended to make the case for technology education, presumably because they felt our research had not sufficiently made the case.

Factors Contributing to the Limited Research Culture

A number of factors have contributed to our current research climate, beginning with the enculturation process of our graduate students. If we expect the next generation of graduate students to be productive researchers, they need to go through a different process than did most of their predecessors. Most of those who have pursued graduate study in our field have not done so with the primary intent of becoming researchers, but with the goal of teaching at the university level. Most were employed as graduate teaching assistants, rather than graduate research assistants. Faculty with whom they studied were more likely engaged in teaching than research. When graduate students did work on research projects, they were generally curriculum development projects, rather than empirical investigations. In most cases, the dissertation was the first--and too often the last--serious research these graduate students conducted. DeVore said it succinctly at the NAITTE research symposium: "research in the field has not been helpful in contributing answers to questions, primarily because most research has been conducted to fulfill degree requirements. After individuals attain degrees in the field and assume professional employment, few continue research" (1983, p. 16).

Even if the enculturation process had favored research, the numbers have worked against our ability to develop a critical mass of researchers. In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all of the teacher education programs in our field shifted their resources and emphasis to industrial technology--preparing industry personnel rather than educators. Those faculty who might have conducted research in technology education, instead shifted their efforts to industry-related projects. Fewer technology teachers graduated meant fewer to pursue graduate study in technology education later on, which is the very situation we face today.

Shifting program goals and declining numbers of graduate students led to the closing of some of the major doctoral degree granting programs in our field, including those at the University of Maryland, Iowa State University, Texas A & M, the University of Missouri, and Oregon State University.

Limited support for research in the field could have contributed to the relative lack thereof, but this might be a "chicken-or-egg" phenomenon. Most--if not all--of the large projects in the field have been developmental or service-related projects. Typically, they have dealt with curriculum, in-service, or standards development rather than experimental research. Many faculty in the field have received funding for scaled down versions of the same from their state departments of education. Funding for empirical research has been limited. But perhaps if faculty had pursued such opportunities with the same fervor with which they had pursued developmental and service projects, the support would have surfaced.

Perhaps another factor at play is the type of students who have traditionally entered our profession. Those attracted to industrial arts were more likely "doers" rather than inquirers. They preferred building solutions to problems to the process of investigation. Wicklein and Rojewski (1995) found that teachers categorized as "industrial arts educators" preferred to solve problems in concrete ways relying upon past experiences. In contrast, those who they categorized as "technology educators" were more likely to have preferred solving problems conceptually through structured investigation and inquiry. This might help to explain the shortage of researchers during the industrial arts era.

Growth Strategies

All of this suggests we have some obstacles to overcome if we hope to be more productive in the research arena. But documenting the problem is always the easy part; finding solutions is more difficult. So, in addition to establishing a pertinent research agenda, I think we should really think about taking some steps to "grow" the research culture of technology education.

One step in this direction is taking place here today. As far as I know, this is the first meeting that brings together scientists, engineers, and technology teacher educators from around the US to talk about a common research agenda. To my way of thinking, nothing but good can come of such meetings. The research initiated by the engineering, science, Science, Technology & Society (STS), and other communities will cause technology education professionals to become more engaged in the technological literacy research agenda. Technology educators will continue to find opportunities to work with the various communities of scholars here today, as we pursue similar goals. We have much to learn from our colleagues in other disciplines, and much to offer as well.

In that spirit, I wonder if we might not recruit more science and engineering students into our doctoral programs. STS programs have attracted those students, but their focus generally has not been on education. Given that technology has been relatively high on the science education agenda since the publication of Science for All Americans in 1989, there should be a growing number of science educators who are interested in technology education research issues and problems. The study of our technological world is, after all, a prominent theme in recent Project 2061 (and other science education reform) publications. An influx of graduate students with science backgrounds would help to "grow" the research culture.

Another step we might take is to encourage those now entering the field to begin thinking about and conducting research much earlier than is now the case. Wicklein and Rojewski's findings hint at the possibility that technology education programs might increasingly attract a different kind of student--one more interested in structured inquiry and investigation. Might we capitalize on this by engaging students in research sooner rather than later? How soon? How about elementary school? We know young children can be remarkably inquisitive. I suspect there is a developmentally appropriate way to approach research with young children. After all, Standard #11 of the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics calls for children to begin learning about statistics and probability in grades K-4 (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989, p. 54).

The point is, we could begin engaging children in the process of research as soon as it makes sense to begin doing so. Recall that in the 1960s, Don Maley successfully developed and field tested the "Research and Experimentation" course for 9th grade students. Lord knows our field wasn't ready for it then.... Are we ready for it now?

Currently, we operate at the other end of the spectrum. Most of our doctoral students have had no undergraduate research experience and perhaps only a single introductory research methods course at the master's level. Regrettably, these graduate research courses oftentimes cultivate or solidify their distaste for the conduct of research. In most cases, no one has mentored them through a master's thesis.

If we want our graduate students to develop sound research skills we will have to provide them with more opportunities and constructive research experiences. This suggests the reinstatement of the masters thesis requirement and/or offering (or requiring) undergraduate research courses and experiences, a practice common across other colleges and disciplines in my university. Undergraduate research could be encouraged throughout the field by incorporating language to that effect in the NCATE guidelines (Council on Technology Teacher Education, 1997).

We might look for ways to engage doctoral students in more substantive research during their first and second years of their doctoral programs of study. The comprehensive exam could be more focused upon preliminary research of this sort. We might also do a better job of encouraging graduate students to present and publish more research-based papers.

It all adds up to a different enculturation process if we hope to encourage more and better research. It is logical to assume that students introduced to research at an early age and mentored through a series of research activities would be more likely to embrace research when they complete their doctoral degree than has historically been the case in technology education.

Even if the aforementioned suggestions were put in place tomorrow, the shortage of graduate students, and active researchers, would remain a primary challenge for the profession. Developing and encouraging sufficient numbers of researchers to conduct a significant body of research in technology education will require an entirely new approach. As I read through the "homework" [readings] we were provided yesterday, I noticed that Gary Benenson concluded his brief essay titled "How Children Learn Technology" by stating, "A major task, therefore, is to identify some of these [K-12 Technology Education] teachers and involve them in collaborations with university faculty and students." And Ted Lewis made a similar statement during the afternoon session yesterday.

It was timely to hear this from Gary and Ted, because the final part of my paper is a project/idea "sketch" that would attempt to do precisely what Gary and Ted were talking about. Such a project might help to address the two concerns I've raised: (1) the need to "grow" our research culture and (2) the shortage of prospective technology education researchers. Moreover, a project of this sort might provide a practical way for the communities of science, engineering, STS, technology education, and others to continue the conversation we've just begun about technology education.

Action Research--Best Practice in Technology Education
A Project/Idea Proposal

Purposes/Objectives of this Proposed Project/Idea

  1. Begin to encourage (mostly new/young) students/teachers/scholars to engage in research relating to technology education in non-threatening ways, so they might begin to develop a lifelong interest in research;
  2. Facilitate research in technology education settings relating to "best practice" and the research agenda promoted by the profession (e.g., the research agenda growing out of this conference);
  3. Begin to document current "best practice" in technology education throughout the US and across the globe; and
  4. Provide global access to "best practice" and other research findings for further review, synthesis, and analysis.

Enabling Strategies of this Proposed Project/Idea

  1. Develop and deliver a "distance education" course, tentatively titled "Technology Education Assessment" or "Best Practices in Technology Education" for graduate engineering, science, STS, and technology education students. Some of the students/scholars would be teachers, others full-time students. Selected undergraduate students might also be encouraged to enroll.
  2. Students/scholars enrolled in the course would be expected to:
    1. Review related literature and become familiar with basic research methods in education;
    2. Identify "exemplary" technology education programs in their immediate geographic region;
    3. Assess and document "best practice" in these technology education programs by using survey instruments developed or supported by the project, and/or self-developed instruments;
    4. Assess and document "best practice" in these technology education programs with qualitative methods such as observation, teacher/student interviews, digital photography, and video;
    5. Submit "best practice" data (in numeric, written, photographic, and video formats) for review, editing, and publication on the project Web site;
    6. Design and conduct a preliminary "action research" study relating to the research agenda promoted by the profession; and
    7. Begin to analyze and synthesize the collective body of data generated by the project.
  3. Students/scholars would be encouraged to repeat the course for subsequent credit.
  4. Some students/scholars might enroll via independent study through a local university (a faculty member in those institutions would be encouraged to join in the research effort).
  5. A project Web site, Listserv, etc. would be established and used to deliver the proposed course, promote communication among participating student/scholars and other interested parties, disseminate project data and findings, and encourage others to publish related research on the project Web site.

Global Collaboration

This project/idea is well-suited to develop into a global initiative, and collaborative arrangements with other institutions and faculty throughout the world would be explored. The course component of the project could certainly be "team-taught" by faculty in different countries, or it could be taught from semester to semester by different faculty around the world. The intent would be to emulate the model used by the Pupils' Attitudes Toward Technology Project (PATT), in which researchers in different countries administered the PATT instrument to collect similar data globally. That is, survey instruments and research procedures might be centrally developed by the project staff, and locally administered by students/researchers/scholars enrolled in the course.

Point of Clarification

I'd like to emphasize that this proposed project/idea is not a proposal for a "distance education" course. If viewed as such, the real intent of the project is almost certainly overlooked. The goal of the proposed project is to encourage and mobilize a new cadre of technology education researchers. It just so happens that the most viable way to accomplish that goal is to "reach out" to prospective researchers/scholars via the Web. Practicing technology teachers and graduate students in technology education, science, STS, and engineering provide the most likely pool of candidates for tomorrow's technology education researchers/scholars. We must significantly expand the pool of researchers in this way if we hope to conceptualize and conduct the research that many within and beyond the field believe is sorely needed.


Bell, T. P. (1999). Industrial teacher education directory, 1999-2000. Council on Technology Teacher Education and the National Association of Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators.

Benenson, G. (1999, September). How children learn. Essay contributed to the planning meeting for the Technology Education Research Conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.

Council on Technology Teacher Education. (1997). NCATE-approved curriculum guidelines: Initial programs in technology education. Reston, VA. Author.

Dennis, E. A. (1978). Industrial teacher education directory, 1978-79. American Council on Industrial Arts Teacher Education and the National Association of Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators.

DeVore, P. W. (1984). Research in industrial education: Searching for direction. In R. A. Swanson (Ed.), Research Problems Unique to Industrial Education (pp. 13-20). National Association of Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators.

International Technology Education Association. (1996). Technology for all Americans: Rationale and structure for the study of technology. Reston, VA: Author.

Sanders, M. E. (Ed.). (1989). Welcome to the JTE! Journal of technology education. Blacksburg, VA: Council on Technology Teacher Education and the International Technology Education Association.

Swanson, R. A. (Ed.). (1984). Research Problems Unique to Industrial Education (Monograph #1). National Association of Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators.

Wicklein, R. and Rojewski, J. (1995). Relationship between psychological type and professional orientation among technology education teachers. Journal of Technology Education, 7 (1), 57-74.

Zuga, K. F. (1996, June). Review of technology education research. Paper presented at the Technology Education Issues Symposium, Maui, Hawaii.