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Teaching engineering and technology:

Cognitive, knowledge and problem-
solving taxonomies

Article in Journal of Engineering Design and Technology October 2013

DOI: 10.1108/JEDT-04-2012-0020


5 79

1 author:

Moshe Barak
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev


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11,3 Teaching engineering and
technology: cognitive, knowledge
and problem-solving taxonomies
Moshe Barak
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheba, Israel
Received 23 April 2012
Revised 13 July 2012
Accepted 22 August 2012 Abstract
Purpose This paper aims to explore the objectives and methods of teaching engineering and
technology education (ETE) through the lens of three educational taxonomies in cognitive, knowledge
and problem-solving perspectives. This analysis is useful in light of todays increasing interest in
teaching engineering and technology in K-12 education, instead of crafts or manual skills.
Design/methodology/approach This is an exploratory study. Technology and engineering
education is a relatively new area in K-12 education, and little has been written about the use of general
educational taxonomies for analysing and designing the teaching and learning of this subject.
Findings The literature analysis teaches us that fostering students higher-order capabilities such
as design and problem solving in engineering and technology cannot take place in isolation from
specific knowledge. Instruction should be designed to: develop a certain degree of factual, procedural,
conceptual and meta-cognitive knowledge in relevant areas of technology, science and mathematics;
and engage learners in assignments of increasing cognitive levels, from simple to complex ones.
Originality/value This work is original and valuable in that it explores ETE through tools often
used in the educational literature and research, rather than regarding technology education as an
exceptional school subject. This could encourage making engineering and technology a core
component in the overall curriculum.
Keywords Knowledge, Conceptual, Engineering, Factual, Procedural, Taxonomy
Paper type General review
While engineering education at the university level has been a well-known and appreciated
field for decades, the idea of teaching engineering concepts to children in K-12 education is
relatively new. In the past, educators and policy-makers used to talk about teaching
technology education to children at primary and secondary school levels, and engineering
at the tertiary level. Recently, however, we are witnessing an increasing amount of public
and academic discussion and publication about teaching engineering in K-12 education,
often in combination with other subjects such as technology, science and mathematics
(STEM) (Bybee, 2010; Barak and Hacker, 2011; Katehi et al., 2009; Beatty, 2011).
In 2006, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council
Center for Education in the USA established the Committee on K-12 Engineering
Education, which addressed questions such as how engineering is taught in K-12
education, what types of instructional materials and curricula have been used, and how
engineering education interacts with other STEM subjects (Katehi et al., 2009, p. 2).
This committee set forth three general principles for K-12 engineering education:
Journal of Engineering, Design and
Technology (1) First, K-12 engineering education should emphasise engineering design, which is
Vol. 11 No. 3, 2013
pp. 316-333 the engineering approach to identifying and solving problems. This process is
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
highly iterative and open to the idea that a problem may have many possible
DOI 10.1108/JEDT-04-2012-0020 solutions.
(2) Second, K-12 engineering education should incorporate important and Teaching
developmentally appropriate mathematics, science and technology knowledge engineering and
and skills. Certain science concepts and scientific inquiry methods, as well as
mathematical concepts and computational methods, can support engineering technology
design, especially regarding analysis and modelling.
(3) Third, engineering education should promote engineering habits of mind, for
example, systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, communication, 317
and attention to ethical considerations.

The guiding principles for engineering education described above demonstrate that
teaching engineering to children, for example, in junior high school, is a challenging task
because the focus is placed on developing students higher-order capabilities such as
system thinking, problem solving and creativity in an interdisciplinary
scientific-technological context. Sherman et al. (2010) analysed 24 articles published
between 1995 and 2008 in four journals that the authors mark as being the primary
scholarly sources for technology education middle school teaching. All these papers
reported data-based investigations on different programs and courses related to
teaching technology in different countries worldwide. The studies sought to identify and
describe the teaching methods and content characterizing middle school technology
education pedagogy. These researchers found that while there has been considerable
effort to move the field from a craft/industry/skill approach to focus more on teaching
processes and technological content, the transformation is not complete. The authors
concluded that relatively little is known about contemporary middle school technology
education teaching, and suggest that practitioners and theorists will need to focus
efforts to investigate more completely the variables that can influence teachers to
conceptualize and implement new curricular ideas (p. 376).
In light of the gap between the declared objectives of technology and engineering
education on the one hand, and the reality in current schooling on the other, this paper
seeks to:
shed light on the rationale and objectives of introducing engineering and
technology education (ETE) into schools in different countries; and
examine the cognitive processes, types of knowledge and problem-solving
aspects in teaching and learning technology and engineering through the lens of
general educational taxonomies in these domains.
This is an exploratory study since technology and engineering education is relatively a
new area in K-12 education, and little has been written about using general educational
taxonomies of the types discussed in this paper for analysing and designing the
teaching and learning of this subject. It is hoped that this work will foster
further research on how to design, implement and evaluate ETE and reduce the
gap between the high intentions of the new programs and the current reality in our

Transition from technology to engineering and technology education

The terms technology and engineering
Although it is felt that the term technology is broader than the term engineering, it
is useless to seek exact explanations or interpretations of these terms or determine how
JEDT they differ from one another. Definitions of these terms in dictionaries, encyclopaedias
11,3 or professional books frequently overlap each other. For example, according to
Encyclopaedia Britannica (2012):
Technology is the:
Application of knowledge to the practical aims of human life or to changing and
manipulating the human environment. Technology includes the use of materials, tools,
318 techniques, and sources of power to make life easier or more pleasant and work more
Engineering is the Professional art of applying science (and mathematics) to the
optimum conversion of the resources of nature to the uses of humankind.
De Vries (2011) writes that engineering can differ from technology in that engineering
only comprises the profession of developing and producing technology, while the
broader concept of technology also relates to the user dimension. Technologists, more
than engineers, deal with human needs as well as economic, social, cultural or
environmental aspects in problem solving and new product development. To indicate
both the engineering and technology aspects in the new approach, it became common
to use the term ETE, as it also appears in this paper.

Transformation in technology and engineering education in different countries

In the past, technology education was often identified with teaching crafts and skills
oriented at working in traditional industry or providing a vocational education to
low-achieving students. Since the late 1980s, technology education has developed in
several forms in different countries. In the USA, for example, technology education in the
distant past was merely about teaching crafts. Later, the term changed several times to
industrial arts, industrial technology and technology education. The most common
document describing technology education in the USA is the Standards for
Technological Literacy (STL), which was developed by the International Technology
Education Association (ITEA) in the year 2000. This comprehensive document includes
chapters on subjects such as the nature of technology, technology and society,
design, and abilities for a technological world. In recent years, however, there has
been a strong movement in the USA to introduce the learning of engineering in K-12
education. For example, in 2011, ITEA changed its name to the International
Association for Technology and Engineering Education (ITEEA); the American Society
of Engineering Education (ASEE) recently established the K-12 Division, which rapidly
became one of the largest and most active divisions in this association.
In France, technology education has undergone five periods, as described by
Leabeaume (2011): arts and crafts and home economics (1942-1962); technology
(1962-1975); the distinction between science and technology education (1975-1985); the
coexistence between science education and technology education (1985-2000); and
engineering science and experimental science (2000-2009). Currently, according to this
author, official speeches encourage this fundamental change and define technology
education as a smaller version of engineering education.
In Israel, technology is studied in primary and junior high schools as part of an
integrated science and technology program. In senior high school, the roots of
technology education lie in vocational education, which was offered in schools about
three decades ago. This system changed gradually, and currently the country has a
strong framework for teaching engineering-related subjects such as electricity, Teaching
electronics, control systems and robotics in junior and senior high schools. engineering and
Concepts and contexts in ETE: outcomes of an international Delphi study
Rossouw et al. (2011) conducted an international Delphi study aimed at identifying
overarching, unifying core concepts in engineering and technology that could form the
basis of a curriculum generalizable over a wide range of ETE domains, as well as 319
contexts that could be used for teaching and learning these concepts. The participants
were 34 ETE experts and teachers from nine countries (Australia, Germany,
Hong Kong, India, Israel, The Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK, the USA), who took
part in three rounds of data collection and analysis.
The final results of this study identified 34 concepts to be addressed in ETE,
including, for instance, design as a verb, system, modelling, social interaction,
optimisation, design as a noun, sustainability and energy. The researchers also
identified 35 contexts in which ETE could take place, including energy and society,
biotechnology, sustainable technology, transportation, medical technologies, food,
industrial production, water resources management, construction and communication.
These results are consequential because they shed light on how todays experts around
the globe perceive ETE in terms of concepts that should be addressed and the preferred
context for teaching them.

STEM science, technology, engineering and mathematics

Recently, the term STEM science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)
has caught the attention of educational researchers and policy-makers as a framework
for fostering scientific literacy learning in schools. See, for example, a discussion about
STEM education in the USA (Brown et al., 2011), the STEM programme report in
England (DFES and DTE, 2006), the Australian Council of State School Organizations
(ACSSO, 2010), Digits and the OECD (2011) workshop summary. According to Bybee
(2010), STEM literacy includes the conceptual understandings and procedural skills
and abilities for individuals to address STEM-related personal, social and global issues.
Yet, it is important to note here that the notion of linking or integrating the teaching and
learning of STEM should be seen as general orientation rather than a structured
programme. Actually, STEM cannot be implemented in a specific curriculum but in a
range of programmes and instructional methods that students will experience during
learning in school. Teaching engineering and technology, which is discussed more
specifically in this paper, could serve as an important ingredient in putting STEM into
practice. On the other hand, some educators (Barlex, 2011; Williams, 2011) suggest that
technological design should be learned in schools as a separate subject, because
engineering or STEM orientation might narrow or marginalise the learning of general
design concepts or restrict the development of students problem-solving and creative
thinking competences.
The above review of the background for introducing technology and engineering
education into schools in different countries shows that this is a relatively new educational
area, and no agreed upon curriculum or examples of success could be presented. Yet,
a common objective of most programs under discussion is the desire to teach broad
concepts of engineering design and problem solving to school students of different ages.
The question is how this end could be accomplished while taking into account students
JEDT limited learning competences and prior knowledge in related subjects such as
11,3 mathematics and science, for instance, algebra, geometry, materials, mechanics or
electrical circuits. The use of educational taxonomies, as discussed in the sections that
follow, is proposed as one of the helpful tools for designing the new curriculum.

Rationale for examining ETE through the lens of educational taxonomies

320 One of the advantages of placing engineering at the centre of technology education is
breaking down the virtual walls between teaching technology and other school subjects
such as science and mathematics. No one will deny that the term engineering is highly
appreciated today, and decision-makers, parents and the general public are likely to
better understand it than the term technology. Therefore, the transition from
technology education to ETE could serve as a leverage to reinforce the status of this field
and make it one of the core subjects in K-12 education for all students. To reach this end,
there is room for analysing the objectives and methods of ETE using the same tools or
methods frequently used in examining other school subjects and that are well known in
the educational literature.
Taxonomy is often presented as the theoretical study of classifying or dividing
something into groups or categories using principles, procedure and rules. This term is
derived from the Greek language whereby taxis means classification or arrangement,
and nomos relates to a law or a method. We create a taxonomy to present and study
parts of a subject that is too large, complicated or diffused to be studied as a whole.
Taxonomies that are commonly, but not necessarily, hierarchical in structure have
been used in areas such as biology (Simpson, 1961), cognitive science (Tarricone, 2011;
Rasmussen et al., 1990), education (Bloom and Krathwohl, 1956; Gagne and Briggs,
1974) and engineering (Plants et al., 1980). In the following parts of this paper, the
objectives and methods of ETE will be discussed in light of three different taxonomies
in terms of cognitive, knowledge and engineering problem-solving perspectives.

The cognitive dimension

The term cognition refers to the action or faculty of knowing, including, for instance,
consciousness, acquaintance with a subject, sensation, perception and conception, as
distinguished from a feeling and volition. In the context of learning ETE, cognition
refers, for example, to the process of learning facts, understanding broad concepts,
investigating, and dealing with problem solving and design. One can see that cognition
in ETE is associated with a wide spectrum of mental activities, from memorising
simple facts to solving complex problems. Let us look at ETE from the perspective of
blooms taxonomy of educational objectives in the cognitive domain.

Blooms taxonomy of educational objectives in the cognitive domain

Blooms taxonomy in the cognitive domain is one of the most famous taxonomies in the
educational literature. It has been translated into dozens of languages and is used in
many countries worldwide. However, as shown later in this paper, this taxonomy has
some limits, especially in the context of teaching science and technology.
The taxonomy of educational objectives was published in 1956 after years of hard
work by bloom and some 30 other people (Bloom and Krathwohl, 1956). It classified
educational objectives into six major categories: knowledge, comprehension,
application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. This taxonomy has been used in
many studies related to curriculum design and evaluation in engineering education, for Teaching
example, in the context of a course in power engineering (Chowdhury, 2004; Swart, engineering and
2010), civil engineering (Kalkani et al., 2004), and environmental and chemical
engineering (Glavic et al., 2009). This literature, however, refers merely to teaching technology
engineering at a college or university level. With respect to K-12 education, a great deal
of literature is available about using blooms taxonomy for teaching subjects such as
mathematics (Kastberg, 2003) or science (Bissell and Lemons, 2006; Bennett, 2001), but 321
much less has been written about using this scale for teaching engineering and
technology in K-12 education. This has partially to do with two facts: the traditional
technology education curriculum and the work of scholars in this area relate only little to
general tools for instructional design and evaluation; and the engineering-oriented
curriculum is a relatively new area in K-12 education.

The revised blooms taxonomy

Blooms taxonomy was subject to criticism by educators because it relates only little to
how people learn and solve problems or to the nature of the subjects that learners deal
with. In the 1990s, blooms student Anderson initiated a revision meeting in which
cognitive psychologists and curriculum and instruction experts worked to improve the
classifications of educational objectives in the cognitive domain. In 2001, a new version
of cognitive classification was published (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001) in the hope to
strengthen the link between curriculum design, instructional activities and assessment.
The revised version of blooms taxonomy includes the following six categories
(Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001, pp. 67-68):
(1) Remembering. Retrieving, recognising, and recalling relevant knowledge from
long-term memory.
(2) Understanding. Constructing meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages
through interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarising, inferring,
comparing, and explaining.
(3) Applying. Carrying out or using a procedure through executing or
(4) Analysing. Breaking material into constituent parts, determining how the parts
relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose through
differentiating, organising, and attributing.
(5) Evaluating. Making judgments based on criteria and standards through
checking and critiquing.
(6) Creating. Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole;
reorganising elements into a new pattern or structure through generating,
planning or producing.

The revised version of the taxonomy is more relevant and helpful for ETE for two
reasons: first, the use of verbs such as applying or analysing has to do directly with
the nature of learning ETE; second, creating, which lies at the heart of engineering and
technology, appears as the highest cognitive level in the revised scale. In addition to the
changes described above, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) added a new scale to the
taxonomy, the knowledge dimension, which is discussed later in this paper.
JEDT Let us examine an example of using blooms taxonomy for teaching the concepts of
11,3 feedback and control in engineering and technology: the flushing cistern shown in
Figure 1. In this system, the ball-cock measures the actual level of the water in the
cistern and gradually closes the input valve as the level approaches the desired value.
The flushing cistern is a good example for teaching concepts of feedback control
systems. In this case, remembering relates to knowing the name of the components in this
322 device; understanding has to do with grasping how the system works; applying means the
ability to suggest other uses for this system, for instance, an automatically filling container
for birds or animals to drink from; analysing can relate, for example, to understanding that
the filling rate of the tank decreases gradually, similar to an exponential function;
evaluating can include comparing this system to other water level control methods, for
example, in a washing machine or dishwasher; and creating can refer to suggesting ideas
for an alternative design of this system, for example, by electronic control.
However, ranking the different questions or assignments presented to students
according to blooms scale is not defined precisely. The level of a question in the scale
depends greatly on the context of teaching the subject, as well as on students age or prior
knowledge. For this reason, many educators and researchers find it more effective to divide
blooms scale into two main categories: lower-order objectives, including remembering,
understanding and applying; and higher-order objectives including analysing, evaluating
and creating. Swart (2010), for example, used the terms higher-order questions (Hoq) and
lower-order questions (Loq) to evaluate final examination papers in teaching electronics
courses. From this viewpoint, this author found that academics in electronics use
lower-order questions more than higher-order questions in their final examination papers.

The knowledge dimension

The scholars who developed the revised version of blooms taxonomy (Anderson and
Krathwohl, 2001) also proposed a second dimension to the original cognitive scale, the
knowledge dimension, comprised of four categories: factual (declarative) knowledge,
procedure knowledge, concept knowledge and metacognition knowledge. However,
unlike the six levels of the cognitive scale, the four categories in the knowledge
taxonomy are not hierarchical (Blumberg, 2009). Later, several authors used this
taxonomy or close versions of it separately from the original scale in the cognitive
domain for analysing teaching and learning subjects such as mathematics (Voutsina,
2012), science (Leppavirta et al., 2011) and technology (McCormick, 1997, 2004). Let us
closely examine the definitions of the four categories in the knowledge taxonomy and
how they apply to teaching engineering and technology.


Figure 1.
Feedback control in a
flushing cistern
Factual knowledge Teaching
Factual knowledge (also called declarative knowledge, descriptive knowledge or engineering and
propositional knowledge) is the part of knowledge that describes information such as
names of people, places, dates and events. In the context of science and technology, technology
factual knowledge includes knowledge of terminology, names or symbols of
components, technical vocabulary or names of processes. Although factual
knowledge appears as surface level knowledge, it is the foundation upon which all 323
other types of knowledge are built. The educators who articulated this taxonomy
emphasised the necessity of instructors to help students use factual knowledge in
constructing or enhancing their conceptual and procedural knowledge (Anderson and
Krathwohl, 2001).

Procedural knowledge
Procedural knowledge is the discipline-specific knowledge of skills, algorithms,
techniques or methods. It often involves a series of logical steps and also includes
knowledge of the criteria used to determine when to use various procedures. According
to Hiebert and Lefevre (1986), procedural knowledge includes both formal language and
symbol representation systems, as well as the algorithms and rules involved in doing
something. In mathematics, engineering and technology, this type of knowledge
includes, for instance, techniques, procedures, routines, protocols and given courses of
action. For example, there are common methods and procedures of how to calculate the
current in an electric circuit, how to choose a motor for an electro-mechanical system or
how to write a computer programme in a specific programming environment.
Procedural knowledge also includes the methods of comparing different solutions to a
problem and choosing the optimal one.

Conceptual knowledge
Conceptual knowledge is the knowledge of classifications and categories, principles,
generalisations, theories, models and structures. It is more complex and more
organised than factual knowledge, and reflects a deep understanding of content.
Rittle-Johnson and Koedinger (2005) articulate that properly structured knowledge
requires people to integrate their contextual, conceptual and procedural knowledge
within a domain. While conceptual knowledge provides an abstract understanding of
the principles and relations between pieces of knowledge in a certain domain, procedural
knowledge is about how to do something, enabling us to quickly and efficiently solve
problems. According to Kilpatrick et al. (2001), procedural knowledge in mathematics is
the knowledge of when and how to use a procedure; conceptual knowledge is about
understanding concepts, operations and connections between interrelated constructs.
Conceptual understanding within the area of mathematical functions, for example,
involves the ability to translate the different representations, tables, graphs, symbols or
real-world situations of a function (Davis, 2005). Hiebert and Lefevre (1986, p. 3)
described conceptual knowledge as rich in relationships, a connected web of
knowledge, a network in which both the links and clusters of knowledge are important.
McCormick (1997) as well as Groth and Bergner (2006) point out that conceptual
knowledge is needed to understand problems, adapt known strategies to solve original
problems or generate new strategies. In science, technology and engineering, the term
conceptual knowledge relates to understanding broad concepts such as energy
JEDT conversion, system, feedback, amplification, noise or oscillations, and how these
11,3 concepts or phenomena appear in different fields such as mechanics, electronics or
Let us examine an example of students acquire conceptual knowledge through
project work in technology. Plate 1(a) shows a robotic car constructed by two students
in an Israeli high school. The car was designed to follow a light source by means of four
324 light sensors located on the cars roof.
In a conversation with the students at school, they said that they were frustrated
because the car worked well when it was held in the air but would not move on the floor.
They understood that the motors were too weak to propel the car but had no idea how to
choose other motors. These students had studied courses in analogue and digital
electronics, and managed well with the construction and troubleshooting of the
electronic circuit. Yet, although a robotic car is an electro-mechanical system, the
students knew very little about the mechanical side of the car, for example, about
variables such as linear speed, rotational speed, force, torque and power, or the role of a
gearbox in a mechanical system. Later, the students learned these concepts on their own
and also included the drawings and formulae shown in Figure 2 in the portfolio they
prepared on their project. They came to understand why geared motors are needed in
their car, and replaced the original motors with geared motors, as seen in Plate 1(c).
These students gained good procedural knowledge in electronics, partial procedural
knowledge in mechanics, and considerable conceptual knowledge about designing
electro-mechanical systems.
To summarise the discussion of the knowledge perspective in ETE, it is important
to note that all three knowledge types factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and

Plate 1.
High school students
project: a car that
follows a light source
Notes: (a) Electronic circuit and sensors; (b) small motors, no gear; (c) geared motors

V, f w1, T1
Figure 2. N2
w2, T2
Force (f) and torque (T),
linear velocity (v) and
angular velocity (v),
T = f r [N m]
and gear ratio (K) in a K = N2 = T2 = w1
mechanical system w = rv [rad/s] N1 T1 w2
conceptual knowledge are important in teaching and learning. Yet, the focus or Teaching
weight devoted to developing each type of knowledge among students depends on the
context of teaching a course and the learners background. Figure 3 shows that factual
engineering and
knowledge is the base for any learning. To treat significantly developing systems and technology
artefacts such as an electronic circuit, mechanical device, home tools or furniture,
developers should learn basic terms, materials, components, variables or tools related
to the field they are dealing with. 325
The thick arrow between conceptual and procedural knowledge in Figure 3 shows
that the interplay between these two types of knowledge lies at the heart of engineering
and technology. Procedural knowledge includes, for instance, the processes, rules and
methods of designing a system and is frequently based on mathematics and science.
Conceptual knowledge refers, for example, to understanding relationships between
phenomena, sub-systems and components in a system. While procedural knowledge
can be gained through systematic learning and practice, conceptual knowledge is
gradually constructed by rich and reflective learning, and cannot be learned by rote.
Procedural and conceptual knowledge interact and support each other. Engineers and
technologists, as well as young students learning engineering and technology in school,
must acquire a certain amount of procedural knowledge in order to create a conceptual
understanding of broad phenomena and design processes or problem-solving approaches
because specific examples are required to understand general concepts in a specific
domain. On the other hand, some degree of conceptual understanding is essential for
learning procedural knowledge because this helps learners and problem-solvers choose
the right method to address a problem, or evaluate the merit or usefulness of a solution
they find. Figure 3 also shows that acquiring factual knowledge in a specific subject is the
base for any learning. As noted above, individuals cannot learn procedural or conceptual
knowledge in a scientific-technological subject without learning the names, symbols or
classifications of components and phenomena in the system.
In summary, it is important that ETE curriculum developers consider the amount of
factual, procedural and conceptual knowledge included in the curriculum, and how to
develop these types of knowledge among the students. Factual, procedural and
conceptual knowledge in fields such as materials, mechanics, electricity or computing
should be developed as a spiral and interactive process rather than as a linear sequence.

Metacognitive knowledge
The fourth category included in the knowledge dimension part of blooms revised
taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001) is metacognitive knowledge.

Figure 3.
Types of knowledge
in engineering
and technology
JEDT This term relates to cognition and to oneself as a learner, including goal setting,
11,3 planning, implementing strategies, monitoring, reflection on learning and learning by
gaining experience in how to learn (Flavell, 1979). Metacognitive knowledge also
includes strategic knowledge, task knowledge, and self-knowledge of ones own
strengths and weaknesses in relation to cognition and learning.
The inclusion of metacognitive knowledge as a category in blooms revised
326 taxonomy reflected the change education has undergone over the past few decades,
towards a greater focus on developing students learning skills rather than delivering
specific subject matter. In the context of teaching engineering and technology, Vos and
de Graaff (2004) show that developing metacognition is a basis for active learning in
engineering, for example, engaging students in open-ended design tasks and projects.
To achieve this goal, these authors suggest a few instructional methods, for example, to
include cognitive conflicts intentionally in the subject matter and students assignments,
or let the students formulate their own objectives within the scope of a course. Barak
(2010) proposed a model for fostering self-regulated learning (Zimmerman and Schunk,
1989) in the technological class, consisting of the integration of cognition, metacognition
and motivation. Chowdhury (2004) specifically discusses the role of metacognition in a
power engineering course, and demonstrates that metacognitive behaviour in this
context includes clarifying task requirements, stating a plan, reviewing progress,
recognising error and detecting new development. Hargrove (2012) investigated the
long-term impact of a metacognitive-based instructional intervention on students
creativity. These are just a few examples reflecting the increasing interest in the role of
metacognition in ETE and how the development of this capacity could be promoted
among students in either K-12 or higher education.

The problem-solving dimension

Problem solving, which unquestionably lies at the heart of engineering and technology,
is considered to be one of the most complex intellectual functions. Although the nature of
human problem solving has been studied by psychologists over the past century, the
term has remained rather ambiguous. Some questions often discussed regarding
problem solving are: what characterises a good problem-solver? To what extent can
people learn problem-solving methods and improve their competencies in this regard?
How can we distinguish between simple or easy problems versus complex or
difficult problems? In this paper, this topic is described by presenting the
problem-solving taxonomy (PST) proposed by Plants and his colleagues more than
30 ago in a book on teaching engineering (Plants et al., 1980). This taxonomy was
mentioned or used in several studies on engineering education (Yokomoto and Rizkalla,
2002; Waks and Barak, 1988; Waks and Sabag, 2004; Wankat and Oreovicz, 1993). It
includes five complexity levels of assignments or activates in learning engineering and
technology, as shown in Figure 4.
Following are definitions of the five levels in the PST and examples of related
(1) Routines. Problems at this level are those that afford only little opportunity
for decision but proceed by simple or complex steps to a unique solution. For
example, solving a quadric equation, finding the current in an electrical circuit
or calculating the energy required to heat an iron mass from one temperature to
another are ordinarily routine problems for learners who learned these subjects.
Solving routine problems often requires the use of factual and procedural Teaching
knowledge mentioned earlier in this paper. engineering and
(2) Diagnosis. Problems at this level often require selecting the correct routine technology
or routines to solve a particular problem. Learners need to identify the type or
characteristics of the problem and the solution method. In mechanics, for
example, deciding on the flexure formula to determine stress at a given point in
a beam is diagnosis. In electronics, designing the parameters of a high-pass 327
filter for a given frequency range can be considered a diagnosis problem. In
both cases, there is a reasonable solution that designers are likely to suggest,
and they have to find it.
(3) Strategy. This level necessitates the problem-solver to choose a particular
routine or routines to solve a problem that may be treated in many ways, all of
which are known to the learner. It has to do with optimising either the
problem-solving method or the final result, for example, choosing between a
light, sound or mechanical sensor for a robot designed to bypass obstacles.
(4) Interpretation. Solving real-world, open-ended problems. For example,
designing a garden for a large house requires considering many aspects such
as the type of plants to be placed in different areas of the garden, choosing an
irrigation system or designing a lighting system for the garden. The conceptual
design is reduced to specific routines, such as preparing and fertilising the
ground or planning the electrical system. It involves making appropriate
assumptions and interpretation of the results. Solving problems at this level
often involves using factual, procedural and conceptual knowledge, as
discussed in the previous section.
(5) Generation. Solving problems that require the development of routines or
methods that are new to the problem-solver; bringing together previously
unrelated ideas to spark a new attack on a problem in a way that that has never
been learned before. This description of problem solving is in line with the
definition of creative thinking as the ability to produce work that is both novel
(original, unexpected, imaginative) and appropriate (useful, adaptive regarding
task constraints) (Guilford, 1967; Sternberg and Lubart, 1996; Simonton, 2000).

Plants et al. (1980, p. 23) wrote:

By focusing on groups of behaviours leading to a particular outcome, rather than on
individual behaviours, the PST cuts across Blooms taxonomy and groups behaviours as they

Figure 4.
PST in engineering
and technology
JEDT occur in the solution of problem. For instance, Diagnosis, an activity in PST, may combine
knowledge, comprehension, and application as identified by Bloom.
In addition, already noted, each activity may also combine factual knowledge,
procedural knowledge or conceptual knowledge, as described earlier in this paper.

328 Discussion
This paper sought to explore the objectives and methodologies of teaching engineering
and technology in K-12 education as a platform for fostering students intellectual
development and preparing school graduates to integrate into modern society and the
economy. In the past, technology education had been frequently associated with
teaching crafts and manual skills. The transition to teaching engineering concepts in
schools is providing educators with the opportunity to position the learning of
technology as a core subject in K-12 education, having strong links to learning science
and mathematics. Yet, as mentioned in the Introduction section to this paper, a gap
exists between the objectives of todays programs for ETE and the reality in schools. As
noted by Sherman et al. (2010), the transformation from teaching crafts and manual
skills to teaching processes and fostering higher-order capabilities in middle schools is
facing many difficulties. These authors write, for example, that Most of the curriculum
transformation programs appear very ambitious, intending to induce major conceptual
and practical changes relatively quickly (p. 366). These difficulties exist particularly in
efforts to replace technology education with engineering and technology education,
and put the STEM orientation into practice, which involves linking the learning of
STEM. To close this gap, ETE content, instructional methods and evaluation should be
designed more carefully than in the past, taking into account the cognitive aspects of
learning, the types of knowledge we want to teach the students, and how to develop
gradually learners aptitudes to tackle sophisticated scientific-technological problems.
The three taxonomies we have discussed in this paper could serve educators in
achieving this goal, as shown in Figure 5.
We have seen that blooms famous taxonomy, either in its original or revised version
(Bloom and Krathwohl, 1956; Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001), focuses on the cognitive
operations individuals activate in learning a specific subject. The limitation of this
taxonomy is that it relates only little to the nature of the knowledge a learner deals with.
The knowledge taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001), which distinguishes
between factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognitive knowledge, might help

Cognitive taxonomy

Design of the content, instruction and

Figure 5. evaluation in engineering and
Using taxonomies technology education
for instructional
design in ETE
educators in considering what they are intending to teach students in school, university Teaching
or other educational frameworks. Sidawi (2009), who reviews broadly the literature engineering and
about teaching science through technological design, writes that in order to be able to
design a technological artefact, the students should be taught the conceptual and technology
procedural knowledge involved in producing that design. Scientific concepts constitute
part of the conceptual knowledge needed for designing technology. Technological
concepts are, for example, the principles of control systems or even empirical 329
generalisation. The third scale discussed in this paper is the PST in engineering,
consisting of five levels: routine, diagnosis, strategy, interpretation, and generation
(Plants et al., 1980). According to this taxonomy, the complexity degree of a task
presented to learners is determined both by the nature of the task and the learners
previous experience in handling similar tasks or problems. From this perspective, the
same task can be ranked as routine for one learner and generation for another.
Wankat and Oreovicz (1993), in their book on teaching engineering, commented that
although this taxonomy has not been as widely distributed or adopted as the other
taxonomies, it could be useful because of the importance of problem solving in
engineering education. Waks and Sabag (2004), for example, used this taxonomy for
comparing technology projects learning versus lab experimentation in learning digital
electronics in a technological college.
Although the three taxonomies addressed in this paper overlap each other to some
extent and are not fully independent or orthogonal, each one focuses on a different aspect
of cognition, learning and problem solving. Educators can use these taxonomies flexibly
or combine parts of different taxonomies to design class instruction, lab work or
project-based learning. For example, in Israel we have developed the physics
problem-solving taxonomy (PPST), which combines terms from the knowledge
taxonomy and the PST mentioned above, and comprises the following five levels:
knowledge retrieval, diagnosis, strategy, conceptual argumentation, and metacognition.
This taxonomy was used successfully to analyse the content of 44 items in the 2009
physics matriculation exam (Bagrut), and it is being presented now as a useful
instructional tool to teachers in in-service training programmes country-wide.

Concluding remarks
Educators have always been interested in developing students higher order thinking
capabilities such as critical thinking, creative thinking and problem solving. In ETE, the
focus is frequently placed on teaching the design process. But, the different taxonomies
we have discussed in this paper reveal that individuals cannot learn complex concepts
or deal with complicated tasks related to engineering design and problem solving
without mastering some elementary knowledge in relevant fields. Booker (2007) uses the
expression a roof without walls to highlight that the intensive expectation from
schools to develop students high-level thinking aptitudes has resulted in devaluing the
need to impart basic knowledge and skills to the students in various school subjects.
This author criticizes the extensive use of blooms taxonomy because this fuels the
belief that higher-order thinking can exist in isolation from specific knowledge (p. 352).
For example, robotics is becoming an increasingly popular subject in engineering and
technology classes. In terms of the types of knowledge taxonomy discussed earlier in
this paper, dealing with robotics might include learning the names of components such
as the motor or the gearbox (factual knowledge), the basic programming method
JEDT (procedural knowledge) and the principles of feedback control (conceptual knowledge).
11,3 To foster learning design and problem-solving skills in robotics, students must acquire
some basic knowledge in subjects such as electronics, mechanics or mathematical
representation of movement in a two or three-dimensional space using a coordinates
system. Students may learn these subjects either prior to being engaged in robotics or
within the context of learning this subject. Letting students just program a ready-made
330 robot without addressing pertinent aspects in technology, science and mathematics such
as those mentioned above can hardly be considered teaching design and problem
solving in engineering and technology.
In summary, this paper points out the gap that exits between the ambitious
objectives of many programs aimed at teaching engineering and technology concepts
to young children, on the one hand, and learners limited background knowledge and
learning capabilities, on the other. Using educational taxonomies in the cognitive,
knowledge and problem-solving domains could help educators designing instruction,
gradually develop a certain degree of factual, procedural, conceptual and
meta-cognitive knowledge in relevant areas of technology, science and mathematics,
and engage learners in assignments of increasing cognitive levels, from simple to
complex ones.

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Further reading
Sidwai, M.M. (2009), Teaching science through designing technology, International Journal of
Technology and Design Education, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 269-287.

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Moshe Barak can be contacted at:

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