What is an Engineer? Implications of Elementary School Student Conceptions for Engineering Education


Department of Curriculum and In-struction, and School of Engineering Education (courtesy) at Purdue University, College of Education, 100 North University Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2098; bcapo@pur-due.edu.

School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, 701 West Stadium Drive, West Lafayette, IN USA 47907-2045; hdiefes@purdue.edu.

School of Engineering Education at Pur-due University, 701 West Stadium Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47907–2045; imena@pur-due.edu.

Science Education at Purdue University, Col-lege of Science, Brown Building of Chemistry, Box 815, 560 Oval Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47907; wellerj@purdue.edu.



Research in engineering education tends to focus on students' factual knowledge about engineering, their interests and attitudes, and on students' conceptions of the engineer and the relation to curriculum development. Thus, it is essential to expand our understanding of students' conceptions about the engineer phenomenon as the foundation for informing STEM education standards and curriculum.


The purpose of this study was to investigate students' conceptions about engineers specifically: (1) What are elementary school students' conceptions of an engineer? (2) How might students' conceptions vary by grade level, gender, and community setting? (3) What are implications of students' conceptions for engineering education?


This study was descriptive in nature and reflected a cross-age design involving the collection of qualitative data from about 400 Grade 1 through 5 students from urban and suburban schools located in the Midwest, United States. Data were analyzed using content analysis and statistical testing.


Students conceptualized an engineer as a mechanic, laborer, and technician. Students' conceptions entailed the engineer fixing, building, or making and using vehicles, engines, and tools. Students' conceptions were relatively consistent across urban and suburban school communities with the exceptions that laborer was more common among urban students and technician was more common among suburban students. More than half of the students who drew a person drew male engineers.


A framework for organizing and interpreting students' conceptions is presented. Curricular recommendations and implications are made that build on students' conceptions and reinforce connections between national standards and the engineer concept.