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Volume 38, Number 2
Winter 2001


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How Children Think and Feel About Design and Technology: Two Case Studies

Patrick N. Foster
Central Connecticut State University
Michael D. Wright
Central Missouri State University

Since its origins in the early 20th century, elementary school technology education (ESTE) has held much promise for improving the lives of children. Unfortunately, this promise has rarely been substantiated by formal research. Thus, after 75 years of presuming an inherent value of technology education for children, educators remain at a disadvantage in communicating the benefits of ESTE to children.

Throughout the 1990s, researchers in technology education criticized their field for its lack of meaningful research. Johnson (1993) said he was "embarrassed to admit that most of the research in our field is trivial and methodologically flawed" (p. 29). Citing several recent and historical sources, he demonstrated that this was "not an original observation" (p. 29).

A careful look at the profession's literature in the past decade reveals a substantial yearly increase in ESTE literature. But there has been no concurrent increase in research in ESTE. Zuga (1996) found that only 2% of studies in technology education conducted from 1987 to 1995 focused on the elementary-school level. Zuga also identified areas of needed ESTE research, including the identification of the distinct contributions of technology education to the education of schoolchildren. She stated that "research is needed to explore just what students gain from exposure to technology education" (1997, p. 324). This study sought to address part of this goal: to identify the benefits of ESTE to children in terms of technological knowledge, capabilities, and attitudes.

The Study

The purpose of this study1 was to identify unique benefits of elementary-school technology education (ESTE) to elementary-aged children. Specifically, it sought to address the following questions:

In what identifiable ways do elementary schoolchildren benefit from systematic exposure to technology education in terms of

  1. technological capability?
  2. technological knowledge?
  3. attitudes toward technology?2

In an effort to address the research questions, two elementary classrooms were studied. During the study period, the teacher in each classroom was consciously and systematically implementing ESTE for the first time. Each teacher received a small amount of assistance from the researchers in selecting activities. Therefore, the classroom sessions observed for this study were influenced by a small but conscious intervention.

This was a qualitative study. Thus, although it attempted to generate internally consistent findings in an area of needed research, its results are of limited generalizabilty. Efforts were made to select typical cases for study, but the number of classrooms studied was very small. The schools were necessarily selected on the basis of the interest of teachers and administrators and their willingness to participate. Furthermore, the teachers involved in this study were assumed to be qualified to deliver the learning episodes.

It became clear early on in this study that few meaningful comparisons could be made between the two classrooms. This was due to several reasons. The most obvious was that the children were at different grade levels, in different school settings, with different teachers. More importantly, technology education was implemented differently by the two teachers, as will be described later in this paper.

It bears mention that no observer can hope to leave a classroom of children without having affected it or having been affected by it. As Sleeter (1998) wrote, "perhaps a tension between activism and ethnography is inevitable, if one is concentrated about being fair" (p. 56).

Background

As early as the sixteenth century, Western philosophers advocated cultural industrial education for children (Anderson, 1926). And for nearly as long, prominent educational theoreticians such as Pestalozzi and Herbart promoted a system of object teaching (Mossman, 1924) in which children learned through the manipulation of objects.

In the twentieth century, object teaching and cultural industrial education converged to form the educational program of industrial arts. At the elementary school level, Bonser and Mossman (1923) referred to "a body of experience and knowledge relative to the industrial arts which is of common value to all, regardless of sex or occupation" (p. 20). Except for a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, elementary-school industrial arts received little attention in the literature until the 1990s, by which time the term technology education had replaced industrial arts in common usage. (See Foster [1999] for a historical treatment of ESTE in the United States throughout the twentieth century.)

Contemporary literature indicates three broad outcomes of technology education: attitude, capability, and knowledge. An example of this structure can be found in Technology for All Americans: A Rationale and Structure for the Study of Technology (International Technology Education Association, 1996):

Throughout the elementary years, technology education should be designed to…develop the students' perceptions and knowledge of technology, psychomotor skills, and provide a basis for informed attitudes about the interrelationship of technology, society, and the environment [emphases added]. (p. 36)

The literature suggests that children engaged in ESTE activities acquire important capabilities and knowledge that are not included in traditional academic areas. These capabilities and knowledge relate to technology education. For example, Todd (1994) and Thomson (1999) described how children learned to operate technological devices and increased their understanding of technological systems through ESTE activities. Brusic, Dunlap, Dugger, LaPorte, and Wells (1990) wrote that children who were engaged in these activities increased their awareness of the role of technology in society and began to understand the assets and liabilities of technology. Greenwood's (1998) students experienced some aspects of this first-hand. According to Conte and Weber (1999), students experiencing ESTE "exhibited a higher level of motivation and had authentic opportunities to apply mathematics and science principles" (p. 22).

Other authors focused on the technological capabilities gained by students in ESTE activities. Kirkwood (1992a, 1992b) described the abilities of first-graders to use tools such as hammers and saws. He also noted an increase in students' ability to communicate technical information to others. Ortega and Ortega (1995) and Braukmann (1993) were among many authors who identified increases in students' motor skills and coordination, implying that the traditional elementary-school curriculum may not always take advantage of the physical readiness of children to practice these skills.

A few studies discussed elementary students' attitudes toward technology, although generally such studies have been inconclusive (see Zuga, 1996, 1997). Dunlap (1990) did not find a significant difference in attitude toward technology between students who had experienced ESTE and those who had not. But the literature is replete with authors noting the ability of some ESTE activities to increase student attitudes toward school in general (see Foster, 1997).

Methodology and Procedure

At the top of Krathwohl's (1993) list of problems appropriate for qualitative research are those where "research is lacking in an area and must emphasize discovery rather than validation or confirmation" (p. 352). As mentioned earlier, only about 2% of recent research in technology education was focused on ESTE, and this research has not been conclusive (Zuga, 1996). Thus, qualitative methods were appropriate for this study.

Cases Studied

Two classrooms were selected for this study. Both were led by teachers with more than 20 years of elementary-school teaching experience. Both were Caucasian teachers teaching predominantly Caucasian students. Both teachers had spent a majority of their careers in the same school district and had taught various grade levels. Table 1 contains specific information about each case.

Table 1
Selected Characteristics of Cases A and B

 Case ACase B

Grade levelFourthSecond
Students26 total; 11 girls, 15 boys23 total; 11 girls, 12 boys
School460 students in grades K-5440 students in grades K-4
CommunityCity of 72,000Town of 1,250

Each classroom was visited an average of twice per week over a period of nine weeks. In total, Cases A and B were studied for more than 40 hours. Observations were augmented with electronic means such as video- and audio-taping. Tables 2 lists the technology and technology-related activities carried out in the classrooms during the observation period. Most of the activities had been planned and integrated into the curriculum by the teacher before the beginning of the year. The remaining activities were chosen to complement the existing activities. Full descriptions of these activities are available in Foster (1997).

Data Collection

To address their research questions, qualitative researchers typically use several research methods, which in turn yield several types of data (see Weller & Romney, 1988). In this study, several data-collection methods were employed, including participant observation and interviewing. Additional methods were used where appropriate, such as the administration of an instrument to assess fourth-graders' attitudes towards technology. But ultimately, "the researcher is the primary tool for collecting primary data" (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999).

The researchers interviewed all available children during scheduled interview periods, and whose parents returned an interview permission form. Twenty-eight students were formally interviewed, 16 fourth-graders and 12 second-graders.3 Dozens of informal discussions and interviews were also recorded.

Table 2
Activities at Case A and Case B

Activities at Case AActivities at Case B

MISSOURI HISTORY
  1. Boat design and testing
  2. Mass-produced paddleboats
  3. Famous Missourians
  4. Missouri visuals

KNIGHTS AND DRAGONS
  1. The Knight Who Was Afraid of the Dark
  2. Fairytale plays
DESERTS
  1. Classroom cactus project
  2. Desert-science experiments
CLASSROOM CASTLE
  1. Research and planning
  2. Group drafting exercise
  3. Castle construction

COMMUNITY CONNECTION
  1. Holiday ornaments
  2. VA hospital visit
  3. Partners in Education mentor

PILGRIMS/THANKSGIVING
  1. Soap carving
  2. Pilgrim toys
  3. Carving/quilting demonstrations
SCIENCE/ART
  1. Erosion project
  2. Adobe houses
HOLIDAY
  1. Applesauce ornaments

The teachers at Cases A and B were each formally interviewed at the conclusion of the observation period. These interviews were each approximately two hours in length. In addition, informal discussions with each teacher occurred at least once per week. These discussions ranged in length from ten to fifty minutes.

Dunlap's (1990) Students' Attitude Toward Technology (SATT) instrument was used to supplement interviews and observations in this study. The SATT was adapted from the PATT-USA instrument (Bame & Dugger, 1990) to measure third- and fourth-graders' attitudes toward technology. The SATT is based on an instrument with a reliability greater than .70 (de Klerk Wolters, 1989a, 1989b).

Data Analysis and Interpretation

In this study, primary data analysis began with transcribing and notating videotapes of observations and interviews. Information from hand-written site notes was also included in this analysis. These results were then synthesized based on their category (technological capability, knowledge, or attitude).

The prescriptive literature in the ethnography field is replete with recommendations to continually review collected data throughout the data collection process. Fontana and Frey (1994) recommended "analy[zing] one's notes frequently" (p. 368), while Adler and Adler (1994) suggest that exploratory analysis of data be started as early in the data-collection process as possible. The advice of Adler and Adler was heeded in this study.

Replication of the study was not possible, but because many of the episodes being observed were to be videotaped (as were all formal interviews), it made sense to assemble an external review board that would watch selected videotaped episodes and provide their impressions, which would be compared to the researchers' findings. Indeed, Adler and Adler (1994) mentioned "videotaping the data…to subject them to re-scrutiny by multiple observers" (p. 383).

Six independent reviewers comprised the board, which met for a four-hour period during the analysis phase of this project. Three members of this panel had professional teaching backgrounds in elementary education; three had professional backgrounds in technology education or in industry. Several weeks before the meeting, each review-board member was mailed a copy of two video clips, one containing footage from an activity in Case A, and one containing footage from Case B. Transcripts were provided as well. Review board members confirmed the analysis and offered additional interpretations as well.

Episodes

This section contains specific observed episodes that will serve as examples to support the generalizations related to each research question.

Episode 1: Second-graders' orthographic-projection capabilities

Todd (1991) wrote of "an ultimate goal of technological capability," which he said "includes creativity and criticism and their corollary competencies of technological invention and judgment" (p. 25). Given their developmental stages, the second-grade students at Case B labored toward at least three-fourths of Todd's goal of technological capability. In a unit in which they built a castle in their classroom, they approached problems creatively and successfully, then took a step back and were able to critique their work and the work of their classmates. Furthermore, several of them could be quite inventive when the situation demanded. They proved themselves capable of researching and designing a castle and, with direction from their teacher, of organizing themselves to construct the castle.

As was the case with each constructional activity at both case-study sites, the children demonstrated technology-specific, age-appropriate physical and perceptual skills during actual construction. These ranged from using scissors and tape to making cardboard joints to provide the castle's structure to using a glue gun to adhere the milk cartons, which were the castle's "bricks," to each other.

Other tools were handled capably by the second-graders. They used spoons as carving implements in the soap carving activity, and used sandpaper, adult-sized backsaws, and cordless drills in making their Pilgrim toys. Even for the purposes of this study, it almost seemed unnecessary to demonstrate that constructional ESTE activities benefit children in terms of their abilities to use technological tools. But as Todd and other have suggested, technological capability is tool skills and more. At both Case A and Case B, the teachers employed ESTE activities to engage students in technological abilities often regarded as too advanced for elementary students.

The Castle Activities

Episode 1 focuses primarily on one of the three activities that made up the second-grade castle unit. The teacher was able to employ this activity to get many of her seven- and eight-year-olds sufficiently motivated to begin acquiring the relatively advanced technological capability of orthographic projection.

Before the children began drawing, the teacher described what she wanted from each group of students. Because the castle was going to be built to scale, she said, they needed more than just a nice picture of what the castle would look like; they would need a drawing that communicated the proportions of the castle. In other words, they needed a technical drawing.

Specifically, she said, they would need to draw what the castle would look like from the front, the back, and the sides, so they could figure out the number of milk cartons they would need. But, she added,

It's not only how our castle is going to look from the front, or from the back. We want to think about how our castle's going to look if you were a bird flying over.

The teacher was challenging her second-graders to draw in orthographic projection, the method of drawing in which independent front, back, side, top, and bottom views are drawn, such as an architect's floor plan and elevations. Drawing an orthographic projection of an object that doesn't physically exist -- such as a design for a castle yet to be made -- requires the drafter to visualize the object in three dimensions, and to be able to mentally rotate the object to construct each two-dimensional view.

As many of the students discovered, drawing a view of the castle as it would look from the front was not very difficult. But drawing the other views, especially the top, was going to require spatial abilities not all of these second-graders possessed. Ilott and Ilott (1988) regard spatial concepts as "among the more difficult for children to develop" (p. 5).

Figure 1
Penny's first drawing


Penny and Alice4 collaborated on this project. At first, Penny merged the notions of a pictorial illustration and an orthographic plan. In Figure 1, her first drawing, Penny had labeled several of the views she heard her teacher talking about: the front, back, top, and side. She had begun to grasp the notion of orthographic projection, as evinced by the four shrubs in the front of the castle. They appear to be drawn flat on the front surface of the castle, instead of out in front of the castle, as they should appear in a pictorial illustration. She had also depicted the dome above the drawbridge as a full circle, as it would appear in a "top" orthographic view.

Compare this drawing to Figure 2. Here Penny successfully executed a "front" orthographic view that was clearly representative of the castle she drew earlier in Figure 1. Some of the details may have been different -- perhaps the design was a work-in-progress as these plans were being made -- but it was the same castle.

Figure 2
Penny's front view


Next, she drew the top view (Figure 3) and the sides (Figure 4). For Figure 3, Penny counted the correct number of squares to draw on the sides of the castle -- four on each side, as dictated by Figure 2.

Figure 3
Penny's top view


She chose to make the top view symmetrical, and due to the symmetry in the front view (Figure 2) the side views (Figure 4) should have been identical -- and they were. Thus Figures 2, 3, and 4 were very consistent.

Figure 4
Penny's side views (left and right)


Figure 5 is Alice's site plan showing the location of Penny's castle. The school, of course, is at the center of the plan.

Figure 5
Alice's site plan


It should be noted that Alice and Penny were among the best drafters in their class, although other children produced plans of similar and even superior quality. However, they are not presented here as representative of second-graders in general. Rather, this is an exposition of what many second-graders may be capable of. Foster (1997) includes a complete discussion of the drawings of Penny and Alice, as well as Brant and Bruce, Wendy and Eloise, and Davey. Few of the groups and individual students ever fully completed their plans, but it was nonetheless clear that at least some of the students had achieved the capability of drawing in orthographic projection.

Most of these examples of students beginning to grasp the skill of orthographic projection contained counterexamples. Stuart, Davey's partner in castle design, probably wasn't ready for orthographic projection, although he carefully watched Davey's work and occasionally contributed to the drawings. Similarly, Wendy, Bruce, and Alice each worked with a partner who was able to mentally rotate his or her castle in imaginary space. But these three children did not begin to execute orthographic projections themselves.

Episode 2: Second-graders' views of connections among pieces of technological knowledge

Not surprisingly, students at both case-study sites had increased their technological knowledge after participating in ESTE and related activities. Certain learning episodes were designed with technological or technology-related knowledge as their primary goals.

Most of the ESTE and technology-related activities were focused primarily on either physical construction, on the presentation of knowledge, or on both. The children clearly increased their technological knowledge in these activities as well. Mick, for example, found this out about making adobe houses: "It's easier to make them out of clay than out of paper, because the paper would fall down, and you couldn't make doors in it." In the Missouri visuals project, Ellen found out that it usually is better to use a saw than a pair of pliers when cutting popsicle sticks, "because if you clip them, they'll sliver…but when they're really little, you have to use pliers."

The fourth-grade teacher had shown her students how to use their fingers as a squeegee to draw the water out of the paper maché before applying it to the cacti they were making in their classroom. Independently and after trials and errors, Andrew and Mary devised another method of preventing wet paper maché from sliding off the cactus.

The fourth-graders had clearly obtained technological knowledge from these activities. In the technology education literature, "technological knowledge" means "broad knowledge of information" about technology (Al-Hassan, 1995, p. 9). In this study, the technological knowledge of elementary-school children included procedural knowledge as well as the factual knowledge described by Al-Hassan.

Surprisingly, second-graders Scotty, Bruce, and Karl didn't identify the connections between the carving/quilting demonstration, Pilgrim toys, and soap carving, even when prompted with seemingly telltale hints. These three activities comprised a large proportion of the Pilgrims theme in the second grade. In the soap carving activity, the teacher asked the children to bring in a spoon and a bar of soap from home, then to identify a simple three-dimensional shape they wished to create before they began carving. The second activity of the Pilgrims/Thanksgiving theme was Pilgrim toys, in which the children mass-produced a "jump-a-tee" game board that allowed them to play several games identified in a book as having been played by the Pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts in 1642.

The teacher got a surprise the morning the class started the Pilgrim toys activity. All of the second-grade classes were invited to attend two demonstrations: one given by the school's superintendent on Pilgrim woodcarving, and one concerning Pilgrim quilt-making. Because her room was not clustered with the other second-grade classrooms, she never got the word and had scheduled Pilgrim toys for the same day. But she decided to start the production line at the very beginning of the school day, and pause it in time for her students to attend the carving/quilting demonstration.

Scotty, Bruce and Karl were asked about the carving/quilting demonstration. The following interview excerpt suggests that even though they did soap carving shortly before they saw the demonstration on woodcarving, and despite their recall of many details about both activities, they didn't identify many connections between the two.

Researcher: So you went to an assembly after you made these [Pilgrim toys]?
Scotty: No.
Karl: We saw a carpenter, and…
Scotty: He wasn't a carpenter!
Karl: …a carver…
Scotty: He carved some bowls, and a spoon, and a duck, fish; he made a box, he made a magic lighthouse.
Bruce: And two people won [carvings to take home].
Scotty: Yeah -- but it wasn't anybody from our class.
Researcher: You guys also did some carving of your own.
Bruce: No.
Karl: I carved a boat.
Bruce: Oh yeah, we did. I carved a duck.
Researcher: What did you use to carve it?
Bruce: A spoon…and some soap.
Researcher: What did [the superintendent] carve it with?
Bruce: Some special tools.
Researcher: [Were they] knives?
Scotty: Nah, those things that are curved.

The superintendent had shown them six carving tools: a chisel, a bent spoon, a bowl adze, a whittling knife, a drawknife, a bent-blade knife. He referred to these tools collectively as "special tools." The bent spoon, adze, and bent-blade knife are all curved, although only the adze is noticeably curved from a distance. Thus the teacher's choice in soap carving to have them use a spoon was well-informed.

Researcher: He used special tools; you just used a spoon -- is what you did kind of like what he did…kind of similar?
Scotty: No, he made a head out of wood.
Bruce: Yeah. He made a bowl out of some kind of wood.
Scotty: Oh, and he made a hitchhiker with a backpack.
Bruce: Yeah.
Karl [remembering]: Oh!

Additional discussion revealed that the boys did not have an explanation for why they attended the demonstration. It was fairly certain that their reason for not mentioning any connection among the carving demonstration, soap carving, and Pilgrim toys was not that they assumed that the interviewer was already aware of such a connection. Each of the boys was able to remember specific details about the activities, but none offered evidence that they had built associations between any two activities, despite similarities in tools (the spoon in soap carving and "those things that are curved," including the bent spoon, in the demonstration), materials (wood was the material in both the demonstration and in Pilgrim toys), and terminology ("carve" was used repeatedly in soap carving and in the carving demonstration). Furthermore, their teacher had told them that carving was an important skill among the Pilgrims, and told them that was the reason they were doing soap carving.

Scotty was able to name a number of the carved items the superintendent had shown them; yet when prompted, he hadn't recalled what the class had done after the Pilgrim toys, and he didn't see their soap carving as particularly similar to what the superintendent demonstrated, perhaps because the products were so different. Karl, on the other hand, immediately remembered that the demonstration followed the Pilgrim toys. So technological knowledge not expressly taught is likely to be uniquely learned and interpreted by children.

Since these boys were able to build upon each other's ideas, the interviewer expected to see them prompt each other until they saw a connection. But if they ever did see a connection, they had forgotten it by the time of the interview, or for whatever reason didn't want to talk about it at that time.

Several other children in the class identified the connection between the Pilgrim toys and the two carving activities. Barb, for example, transferred the term "carve" from the carving demonstration to the making of the Pilgrim toys. Several others seemed to view the connection between the soap carving and carving demonstration as being pretty obvious.

Episode 3: Fourth-graders' differing attitudes toward technology

The Student's Attitudes Toward Technology (SATT) instrument (Dunlap, 1990) was used to collect data about the attitudes of the fourth-graders toward technology. These results were used to identify students who, when compared to classmates, were "typical" or "outlying" in terms of their attitudes toward technology.

The SATT is intended to allow researchers to assign individual students a numerical score representing their attitude toward technology. Third- or fourth-graders are prompted for their gender, age, and grade level and asked to respond "yes" or "no" to such items as "People need technology" and "I think machines are boring." They are also asked to free-write a definition of the term "technology." A higher SATT score indicates a more positive attitude toward technology.

In all, 23 of the fourth-graders completed the instrument in both October and December. Three other students completed only the pretest, and thus were not included in the quantitative analysis. Of the students completing both the pretest and the posttest, ten were girls and thirteen were boys.

The average girl's posttest SATT was 89.2%, while the average boy's was 85.5%. Almost all of the students' scores increased or stayed the same from the pretest to the posttest. Ellen's result, however, dropped to 63%. Ellen was the only student whose score on the posttest was substantially lower than her pretest result.

Having replied positively to all of the pretest items, Ellen was very consistent in the type of responses she answered negatively in the posttest. She reported that she would "rather study something else instead of technology," did not "like to read about technology" or "to learn about technology at school," and did not "want to learn more about technology." She also changed her mind about whether she "should be able to take technology as a school subject," which she had marked positively in October. In December she did not respond to this item.

Ellen was typically on task and in a good mood in class. She did not offer unsolicited complaints about ESTE activities, but when asked about things that went wrong during these episodes, she indicated that many technology activities had not been positive experiences for her. When working as a saw operator on the mass-produced boats project, for example, she said that she "got a really big sliver in my thumb, and when I came back to saw… it really hurt."

She also discussed several other problems she had in the mass-produced boats activity, including suggestions from other children that her group was not cutting the pieces to the correct length. She was not personally accused of any errors, and she contended that the problems were the fault of another group. But she said she was always anxious that she would make a mistake.

In general, Ellen's occasional rough spots in ESTE activities did not seem to be very different from or more frequent than those of her classmates. She did, however, react to them differently than did many of the other children. For example, her sawing partners acknowledged that there had been problems at their station, but didn't seem very bothered by them. And whereas several other fourth-graders who talked about the classroom cactus project seemed to delight in working with the paper maché (which Katie laughingly called "icky" and "smelly"), Ellen remarked that:

You had to get your hands all gooey, and I had a bunch of cuts on my fingers, and so that really stung. And then, like when you're putting the newspaper on, there'll be too much of that gunk -- paper maché -- stuff on it, and it'll be running down…

Ellen specifically said she liked designing and planning, but she continually ran into problems during hands-on projects. It seems clear that her lower posttest SATT result was the more accurate. Once she understood what the term "technology" meant, she was better able to communicate her less-than-positive attitude toward the types of activities in which she participated.

In contrast to Ellen, Armand had SATT results that mirrored those of the typical student. Armand's pretest definition of technology was "the future of human exsastense through out the world." On the pretest, many of his classmates also indicated that technology was some vague, futuristic concept. After a few months of ESTE, Armand's posttest definition was very different from his October offering: "I believe it as high technology as in computers, and the internet, and new big stronger and Better machines" -- certainly a more focused definition.

Armand's attitude toward ESTE activities in general improved during the boat design and testing activity, and seemed to remain positive for the rest of the term. He and Lindy began the boat activity at odds. They both had ideas for how to make their boat, but the group decided to go with Lindy's design, which was probably the more workable.

At one point Armand was sitting alone at his group's area. He said the group was doing fine, but that he wasn't sure what he could do to help. When the rest of the group returned, they had a problem. Their paddle was hitting the sides of the boat. Worse still, one of the two rubber bands driving the paddle wasn't winding correctly. Lindy could see what these problems were, but only Armand seemed to be able to fix them. As the other three looked on, he added a few pieces of material to separate the paddle from the part of the boat it was hitting. Then he showed Lindy another way to wind up the rubber band. Although the group wasn't shunning Armand up to this point, it embraced him thereafter.

Lindy almost single-handedly devised the best solution to the boat-design challenge. But it would not have worked in practice without Armand's troubleshooting, and Armand knew it. He displayed much more confidence in later activities.

Generalizations

This section synthesizes the benefits of ESTE to the second- and fourth-graders into three categories: technological capability, technological knowledge, and attitudes toward technology.

Technological Capability

ESTE activities increased children's technological capabilities. Many of the technological capabilities the children practiced were psychomotor and perceptual skills (including design and related abilities) which were developmentally appropriate for children their age, yet which are not usually taught to students until they are older, and usually then only in unintegrated, specialized settings. When they are taught, many of these skills may be part of a vocational curriculum that is not accessible to all students. For example, fourth-graders performed psychomotor tasks such as stenciling, stitching, and drilling, and second-graders practiced skills such as mixing ingredients, sawing, drilling, sanding wood, and using a glue gun. Design tasks included three-dimensional visualization, sketching, modeling, and brainstorming.

Many students said they had never used tools that were part of these activities -- tools such as cordless drills, hammers, saws, pliers, and sandpaper. Students also used measurement tools such as rulers and drill-bit gauges in more realistic situations than they might have before experiencing the activities. In some cases, students practiced using tools that many had already used such as glue guns, scissors, stencils, magic markers, and paintbrushes.

The second-grade students were capable of research and design and, with some direction from their teacher, of organizing themselves for construction. They demonstrated technology-specific physical and perceptual skills such as tool use and basic drafting.

ESTE activities may do as much to identify student ability and deficiencies in technological capabilities as they do to promote those capabilities -- which is to say that ESTE may be very useful as a tool for assessing technological capability. For instance, most examples of second-grade students beginning to grasp the skill of orthographic projection contained built-in counterexamples. Many of the students who were successful in orthographic projection worked with partners who were unable to execute orthographic drawings.

Technological Knowledge

Students gained technological knowledge via ESTE. Some of this knowledge was concurrent and associated with learning tool skills, such as when some fourth-graders learned how to drill a pilot hole before hammering a nail. Beyond knowing that they should first drill the hole instead of simply hammering the nail, they understood the purpose of the pilot hole. Other technological knowledge concerned the histories of technologies, as when the fourth-graders learned about how paddleboats changed from their initial development to the twentieth century, or when second-graders learned about changes in castle architecture over time. In general, ESTE was used efficiently by the teachers to help the children become more technologically capable and knowledgeable.

Specifically, ESTE activities increased children's technological knowledge in three distinct ways. First, some technological content was presented directly as part of ESTE activities. This content was retained by the children as long as, or longer than, other content presented to them in the same way. Second, the teachers "planted" some content in the activities to be discovered by the children, such as when the second-grade teacher had her students plan and design a castle in their classroom. In order to be successful in this activity, students had to discover such principles of planning and construction as estimation, division of labor, and how to best glue milk cartons together. Third, some technological knowledge was acquired and retained by students without the teachers' planning or intent. For instance, several second-graders reported being "experts" on specific phases of classroom castle-building, such as making a catapult, a church, or a banner. This third form of knowledge acquisition was not predictable, and it varied from child to child. But few second-graders demonstrated technological knowledge beyond the comprehension level, and few fourth-graders demonstrated technological knowledge above the application level.

Some second-graders did not identify the connections between closely related activities, even though all three activities were part of the same theme. They were able to remember specific details about the activities, but none offered evidence that they had built associations between any two activities, despite similarities in tools, materials, and terminology.

Attitudes Toward Technology

The activities observed for this study tended to increase students' technological knowledge and capabilities. Students also tended to have more positive attitudes toward technology after having completed ESTE and related activities, although it was difficult to ascertain whether these more positive attitudes were the result of the activities.

Fourth-graders' self-reported attitudes toward technology increased after a nine-week period in which ESTE was integrated into their classroom environment. But this may have been due to an increase in students' ability to correctly report their attitudes due to a better understanding of the term technology after this time period. Another explanation for this increase may be a lack of precision inherent in any instrument measuring attitudes. Little corroborating evidence was found to verify that ESTE activities had a substantial impact on fourth-graders' attitudes toward technology.5

The results of a quantitative analysis validated teacher and researcher perceptions about the attitudes of several students toward ESTE activities in school. One fourth-grader, for example, indicated that many technology activities had not been positive experiences for her. In one activity she got a splinter, and her ideas were not used by her group in another. In general, her occasional rough spots in ESTE activities did not seem to be very different from or more frequent than those of her classmates, but she reacted to them less positively than did many of the other children. Accordingly, her reported attitude toward technology dropped significantly during the study period.

Conversely, several students who reported average attitudes toward technology at the beginning of the study were ambivalent toward ESTE activities at first. But after they were successful and more confident in these activities, they reported more positive attitudes.

Summary

The findings of this study may be summarized as follows:

  • In this study, children benefited from ESTE insofar as ESTE activities increased their technological knowledge.
  • In this study, children benefited from ESTE insofar as they practiced perceptual and psychomotor skills that are not usually part of the elementary-school curriculum.
  • In this study, children were more accurately able to report their understandings of and attitudes toward technology after engaging in ESTE activities.

Implications

In addition to addressing the research questions, the findings of the study have several implications for the field of technology education.

Inservicing

The findings of this study suggest that the minor intervention which resulted in the introduction of ESTE activities into the Case A and Case B classrooms had benefits which outweighed the time spent in effecting the intervention. Because both teachers were veterans, the assistance they received in brainstorming and designing the activities may be considered a form of inservice education. This indicates a role for technology education professionals to provide inservice training for elementary teachers that goes beyond simply identifying the technology education present in their teaching plans. By working with (or "coaching") elementary teachers to expand their existing repertoire of teaching methods and delivery systems to include design and constructional activities, technology education professionals may help teachers effect benefits of ESTE for their students.

Student and Teacher Roles

The teachers at both case-study sites were observed working together with their students as members of a team -- the teacher and class worked together on the problem. This seemed to communicate to the students the notion that their teacher did not always have the answer. Thus, ESTE may have considerable potential in delivering on the challenge, set forth in recent literature, for elementary teachers to become "facilitators" of learning rather than deliverers of content. This is partly made possible by the potential of ESTE to be a process and not simply a content area. The notion of the elementary teacher as a facilitator of learning is probably more acceptable to the average classroom teacher than the notion that students must emerge from their elementary education with standardized, detailed technological knowledge.

Final Thoughts

Qualitative researchers are often criticized for subjectivity and advocacy relations with their co-participants, as if the only legitimate subject of study is someone or something that is far removed from the researcher's experience. (Herzog, 1998, p. 158)

Although objectivity was valued and attempted, this study nonetheless reflects the biases of the researchers. And while some "scores" were collected and compared, no statistical hypotheses were tested. In short, this study does not prove anything. It may, however, serve as confirmation of beliefs that educators have developed in their interactions with children. This study presents some evidence that ESTE is of value in educating children.

We must consider the possibility that elementary educators would not doubt the value of ESTE, and thus that laboring to produce a statistical proof may be less beneficial than working with educators in other fields to incorporate the beneficial segments of ESTE into the existing elementary curriculum. The challenge, then, would be not to prove anything about ESTE, but to increase awareness of ESTE and its benefits to teachers, parents, and administrators.

Notes

1 For a complete report of this doctoral dissertation, see Foster (1997).

2 The capability-knowledge-attitude framework is an admittedly arbitrary means of organizing the information in this study, yet it has proved useful in presenting the results.

3 At Case B, the teacher grouped interviewees into four gender-segregated triads. At Case A, the students were called for interviews in a random order. Four of these interviews were conducted as mixed-gender triads; the remaining two were same-gender dyads.

4 All names are pseudonymous.

5 The SATT was designed for 3rd- and 4th-graders; thus it was not used at Case B, the second-grade classroom.

Author

Foster is an Associate Professor, Technology Education, at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT.

Wright is Coordinator of Technology and Occupational Education at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, MO.

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