Educational Engineers: The Missing Link in Innovation

By William H. Zaggle

It appears to me that educational engineering is still the missing element in the realization of many key innovations in education. The compulsion of educators to observe ritual is not yet balanced by those trained to employ a process for innovation and convert research into practical applications. Having taught basic engineering creativity and ingenuity as well as innovation skills early in my career at Texas A&M University, I quickly put the two together, leading to the creation of an educational software company in 1986 dedicated to building tools for teachers.

What I have learned after 23 years of experience is that trained educational engineers would have a welcomed place in our global quest for real innovation and real transformational opportunities.

This really is not a new idea. W.W. Charters wrote about it in “The Era of the Educational Engineer.”[1] Projecting forward from the last half century, Charters wrote that statistics had profoundly stimulated the measurement of objectives, making it possible to quantitatively review the impact of emerging ideas. For example, with statistics, we now have a base for the exploration of educational differences between and among individual learners, echoing John Dewey’s notion that learning is not about preparing for life — it “is” life.

Charters wrote about how educators today are conducting experiments in their areas of interest and inventing new methods for the application of theories to address specific issues. The problem in the past, according to Charters, was that extravagant claims made for new ideas could be neither substantiated nor refuted because proper measurement and research methods were not available.

“Educators are more conscious of their problems today than they have ever been before,” says Charters, as he speculates that the future promises substantial increases in the amount of research and investigation into solving educational issues. To Charters, “The well-trained educational engineer assembles pertinent facts wherever found, and uses the best techniques in solving his problems of construction.” He called current educational engineers “amateurs,” trying to build only for efficiency. To improve, he suggests more training in operational research, laboratory methods, and other core instructional engineering subjects.

Charters reminds us that the patent office is full of unused ideas and that ideas have to be perfected until they’re useful. He seems to point to the notion that educational engineering will help us sort through and assess all of the innovative ideas now available for teaching kids. They will apply fundamental problem solving strategies and utilize relevant ideas from many allied disciplines. They will be responsible specifically for improving methodology rather than just compiling and analyzing statistics.

In closing he states that “Men of engineering temperament, who wholeheartedly believe that construction of efficient programs, methods, and techniques has professional priority, may well congregate and organize themselves into an enthusiastic and potent group to strengthen the interest of the profession in these matters, to encourage each other, and to propose programs of action.” While his points are accurate, he totally underestimated the time required for schools to change, as this work was published in 1951.

Another more recent reference is Richard C. Anderson’s “The Role of Educational Engineer.”[2] At the time, Dr. Anderson was the research director at East Brunswick Public Schools in New Jersey. In this article, he questions the common practice of moving straight from research to classroom practice. For example, he points out that science and scientific theory are great for describing how a rocket might actually work, but do little to actually get a rocket off the ground and into space. He suggests that “there is a need for a new role in education, that of an educational engineer.” For Anderson, the critical missing component between theory and application is engineering. In his opinion, research is about the relationship among variables, and these theories are of little value to practitioners even when they are understood and efforts are made to apply them in the classroom.

Further exacerbating the problem of implementation is the law of effect. Anderson says there is no reason to believe that any human who depends solely on “on the spot” improvisation could properly apply behavioral principles. In other words, no matter how skilled or dedicated teachers may be, when asked to instruct 20-40 students for an hour, for up to 30 hours a week, they can’t possibly apply theoretically sound practices.

Anderson concludes that it is important to draw a line between the work of the scientist and the work of an engineer, and that if education continues to depend on teachers to try and bridge the gap between research and practice, the quality of the principles of learning is going to be significantly reduced. He found that there is a strong “compulsion to observe ritual in the area circumscribed by one’s professional identification.” Said another way, teachers just seem to always do what teachers have always done. He firmly states that there is a good chance educational engineering could lead to some very important innovations in educational practice and that this role be developed for use in schools. This, too, is as beautiful a concept today as it was when Dr. Anderson suggested it in 1961.

Certainly there are plenty of college professors who are engineers, teaching other would-be engineers. Yet there are very few trained engineers who have gone back to school to become trained primary and secondary classroom teachers. Certainly there are a lot of primary and secondary educators who have the qualifications to become engineers, but few if any have actually gone through formal engineering training. Educational technology vendors often struggle with instructional expertise as much as educators struggle with educational technology.

Without trained educational engineers, schools and solution providers are left with only two possibilities: train engineers to think like educators, or train educators to think like engineers. The problem is that when product engineers try to think like educators, they usually define the task as, first and foremost, building a product that will sell to schools; and next, doing it quickly to meet the needs of investors. The results are often a shortened product design process causing numerous problems with ergonomics, implementation, and overall quality.

When educators try to think like engineers, they most often fall victim to a syndrome identified by Dr. Anderson, that is, they approach the task from the perspective of their primary professional identification. This most often results in the same thought processes and understandings being applied over and over again. Thus, something “new” or “innovative” rarely emerges.

So what would educational engineers look like today if we had them? All engineers today start out with engineering fundamentals such as math and science, along with communication skills such as writing and public speaking. These are augmented with specific engineering skills such as drawing and thought communication, computer programming and process skills such as laboratory activity, innovative thought, and team based design. Other content, which is critical to the role of an engineer as a bridge between theory and application, is added as specific courses and also blended throughout the entire freshman and sophomore curricula.

The one thing every engineer learns in school is, first, you design, second, you engineer, and last, you build. If we could get these basic engineering skills married to the basic behavioral and pedagogical skills taught to educators, we might actually see new bridges and new roads constructed to comfortably transport and transform our current educational rituals into new places and new meanings.

1. Educational Research Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 9 (Dec. 12, 1951), 230-237+246.
2. Journal of Educational Sociology (Apr. 1961), 377-381.

8 Responses

  1. William,

    If one looks carefully at the last 60 years of educational history , isn’t it possible to conclude that the ideology of education as a science and engineering as the development of the tools to implement the findings of educational science and measure its results have indeed found their way into mainstream practice: that Charters and Anderson were successful as prophets and preachers?

    Schools and colleges have instructional “designers.” They insist on teaching faculty to begin such “design” by listing their “measurable objectives”: ( “objectives” have to be “measurable.”)

    “Assessment” is now a commonplace of educational jargon. And “assessment ” often–usually–means such “objective” techniques as multiple choice questions.

    Is it possible to argue that the attempt to create a science and engineering approach to education have done little good and much harm?


    • I do see some attempts at engineering education in the past 60 years, but still feel stuck in the amateur stage of invention more than the more refined stages of engineering. This could simply be my perspective as both engineer and inventor, and invention is often seen as just prior attempts at engineering. Engineering also implies innovation, which must include success at application, where invention does not. There seems to be a lot of work towards “what works” in schools today, yet I am not sure we have yet to enter the new industrial age of education. We may be at a new exciting beginning however, with on-line instruction actually moving the craftsman to behind the automation.

      If there was to be a society of educational engineers today, what would it be? Ed-Net might be close as a group of vendors who meet to talk about technology construction and its application. I suppose isolated discussions around the application of technology qualify in part as engineering, to the degree that new applications are often found for technology actually engineered to solve a different problem. How could either Charters or Anderson have perceived the world of technology we live in today? To say that no amount of educational engineering has occurred in the last 60 years would be impossible. However, I would continue to argue that a specific place for the engineering process in converting research into practice is only recently being established, and agree to the argument that past amateur attempts to “engineer” education in the past have done little to improve education beyond the classroom to the individual, assessment beyond the multiple choice test into self assessment skills, and objectives beyond the nice to know into more defined pathways for learning.

      Hopefully new efforts to move innovation of education into a defined process have at least intensified the educational engineering organization suggested by earlier prophets. They argued that education was too much theory straight to practice. Comments like “that can’t happen because we have never done it that way” don’t fit in an engineering environment. Statements more like “In theory this is totally possible, in the lab it seems to work, so how do we make it possible for every day users” are instead common. Users don’t worry about the science, they worry about the application. Scientists don’t worry about the application; they only confirm the theory is sound. Engineers step up to bridge the two, possibly questioning the theory and possibly questioning the application and scale the lab into the hands of the many.

      This may also be the role of what we know today as Ed Tech companies and I just didn’t realize it. If so, I would hope the job would become more defined and clearer in scope such that its innovation efficiency could be improved.


    • Here is an example that works. Until the content is mastered by more educators, this kind of Project Based Initiative, and after school projects , summer camps are what works.

      Water Works
      The Texas Girls Collaborative Project partnered with Girlstart and the Women in Engineering Program at The University of Texas at Austin to host Water Works, a week-long underwater robotics summer camp for 9th and 10th grade girls. Equipped with LEGO Mindstorms kits, pool noodles, and the engineering design process, teams of girls designed and programmed their own robots to participate in four separate missions in an above ground swimming pool. The robots were able to skim the surface in figure-eight patterns, dive underwater to investigate a “sunken ship”, and maneuver around the bottom of the pool collecting objects into bins. Each day the girls had lunch with real women engineers and scientists from the local community. The Water Works camp was based on curriculum developed by a project of theStevens Institute of Technology’s Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) entitled WaterBotics, funded by the National Science Foundation.

      The Dept of Education and NSF may not see eye to eye.

      Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. It has been a while since I read any if his work so I will need to refresh some, but in general the programmed learning reminds me a bit of the kiddie cars in the amusement parks where you can pretend to drive but can’t get off the track. It has a place in teaching that is different from developing independent learning. I can teach someone to build a bridge with no theory as to how it works. Somehow for many if us, positive feedback is the very simple reward of knowing. This should be the goal of teaching someone to love learning. From this point forward their thirst for knowledge will never end. I have never needed a prize at the end of my maze. Being at the end was the prize. Answering from my iphone in Japan, so hopefully I have not confused his work with someone else.


    • William, can the educational engineer help reach “the goal of teaching someone to love learning”?

      Isn’t the engineer by training and commitment committed to ideas of “efficiency”?

      Isn’t the large group lecture more “efficient” than the tutorial?

      (I don’t yet see what special competences the engineer brings to the educational design team.)


      • I depends on what you consider to be efficiency. If efficiency means the amount that the teacher gets covered; then the lecture works. If it means the amount that the students actually learn then the tutorial is more “efficient.” The engineer can find a way to make the lecture more efficient in terms of the latter definition.

  3. I suppose I would have to blame educational engineering attempts at creating our “efficient” form of education that we are now trying to change. Many feel that cheap lightweight and durable are the ultimate engineering challenge. Yet innovation is their real skill. I hope the future will see more minds creating innovative transformational opportunities as opposed to just more efficiency in current methods. Schools keep trying to get outside their box when as turtles this could be fatal.

    I wish I could engineer a way to teach a love of learning! Who would think a stream of failures that lead to a success could be so addictive. Yet the artists we call teachers manage to teach this every day. As the f2f classroom transforms , there will be major engineering problems solved. Either formally or informally.


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