How Can Engineering Design Make Math More Accessible to All Students?

The research literature is clear: Integrating mathematics and science can lead to students’ increased enthusiasm, increased achievement in both disciplines, and an increase in relevant and authentic experiences. As part of a recent project to better understand the impact of disciplinary integration and how to support it, I had the opportunity to talk with secondary mathematics and science teachers about the links between the different disciplines they teach.

I assisted with coordinating and leading focus groups and interviews with in-service secondary mathematics and science teachers. One teacher told a story that encapsulated the excitement and potential benefits around interdisciplinary instruction, centered on something unexpected: a parking lot.

Calvin (pseudonym) is presently a high school science, computer science, and design engineering teacher in a suburban area of California. His small K–12 private school specifically serves students with mild-to-moderate learning differences such as ADHD, dyslexia/dysgraphia, language proficiency disorders, and who are on the Autism spectrum.

Two girls designing

During our interview, Calvin recounted a design engineering lesson where students were tasked with redesigning a parking lot that was known locally for contributing to bad traffic flow issues near the school:

  • Students started by identifying the problematic parking lot within walking distance from their school and used Google Maps to explore the layouts of other parking lots they knew. From there, students sketched their own parking lot and proposed three different designs.
  • After creating their designs, the class took a field trip to the problematic parking lot. Here, they took measurements of different kinds of parking spots (e.g., handicap spots, motorcycle parking, etc.), cement parking blocks, and any planters or other materials in the parking lot.
  • After taking these measurements, students needed to pick one of their three designs to create using a large piece of graph paper. On this paper, they needed to use their measurements to design a parking lot in detail, making sure to scale parking spots and items appropriately. They used small pieces of cardboard to help them measure to scale appropriately.

Speaking with Calvin about this lesson was such an exciting experience because the research team and I thought that it encapsulated many elements of integrated mathematics and science we have been reading about in the literature [1],[2].

First, Calvin described how students were able to see mathematics as useful when it was in the context of this engineering design challenge, saying this lesson “made the math so intensely applicable to students because they have been in and experienced parking lots, but it’s not something they probably think of.” He noted that his students of all different abilities had been in parking lots and because of this experience, they understood how they work and were able to manipulate factors easily.

Calvin described how students who were previously averse to mathematics were able to access mathematical discussions. He thought this was because “while the project was influenced by numbers, it was not necessarily about the numbers.” The focus of the students’ discussion was not just how to take accurate measurements but extended into understanding why accurate measurements were important and the challenges that come with designing a functional parking lot. He specifically remembered that there were two students who said they hated mathematics but he saw them engage in algebraic discussions with their peers about scale and measurement. He cautioned that while these two students did not necessarily leave his classroom loving mathematics, they left seeing mathematics as both accessible and useful.

Calvin explained how one student came to understand how one of their proposed designs did not account for how wide the parking lot passageways needed to be to allow for cars to drive through. While the design may have worked on paper, the student was pushed to think about the actual utility of the design. In this sense, the mathematics in this engineering design lesson did not stop at using a formula but extended into using mathematics to design real-world solutions.

Lastly, this lesson was illustrative of how to use other disciplines as the context for integrated mathematics and science education. Integrated instruction works most effectively when the integration comes naturally and using contexts like engineering, art, and/or technology for mathematics and science encourages students to think outside of disciplinary boundaries. These rich experiences provide students with learning opportunities that are authentic to real-life problems and issues. Calvin’s story highlights the value of using an engineering design problem based on a common experience shared by all students.

What do you think? How often do you integrate math in your science or engineering lessons?

Meghan Macias is a Research Associate in the Science and Engineering team at WestEd. Her research focuses on how to support teachers in drawing on students’ experiential knowledge to develop their epistemic agency.
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[1] Boakes, N. J. (2020). Cultivating design thinking of middle school girls through an Origami STEAM project. Journal for STEM Education Research, 3(2), 259–278.
[2] Valtorta, C. G., & Berland, L. K. (2015). Math, science, and engineering interaction in a high school engineering course: A qualitative study. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research, 5(1), 3.