College of Education > News and Publications > 2019: 07-09 news > Cunningham named professor of practice in education and engineering

Cunningham named professor of practice in education and engineering

The objective of the new position of professor of practice in education and engineering is for Penn State to be thought leaders in preK-12 engineering education by creating research-based and classroom-tested resources for students and teachers that enable high-quality engineering experiences.

Already having an end goal just might help Christine Cunningham begin the challenging tasks of her new position of professor of practice in education and engineering.

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Christine Cunningham has been named professor of practice in education and engineering.
And that objective, she said, is for the College of Education to be a thought leader in preK-12 engineering education by creating research-based and classroom-tested resources for students and teachers that enable high-quality engineering experiences.

Her recent appointment, according to College of Education Dean David Monk, is part of a partnership that involves the College of Education, College of Engineering and the Office of the Provost at Penn State. Next Generation Science Standards have moved engineering into the foreground of science education given the affinity young learners have with the practical dimensions of engineering, Monk said.

Cunningham's work has three interconnected pillars: she will produce a set of curricular materials; create and offer professional development for teachers; and conduct educational research. Together, these pillars will support educators as they engage students in engineering design activity. 

"We’ll be developing educational materials that are designed to reach allchildren," she said. Her work is rooted in her passion for making educational settings accessible and inclusive for students from diverse populations, particularly those who are currently underrepresented and underserved in science and engineering fields.

"Girls, students from different races and ethnicities, English Learners and students with physical or cognitive disabilities. We need to tap and develop the potential of all students. My work focuses on how we can produce materials that reach all kids," Cunningham said. 

"What excites me about being at Penn State is the array of resources we can bring to the task," Cunningham said. "We have a number of faculty here who are studying English learners or researching how to reach diverse populations or studying science education or math education or computational thinking. The work that they do and the connections that they have can inform the resources we produce.

"Likewise," she said, "the College of Engineering has a lot of the disciplinary knowledge … engineers from all different fields. Bringing those people in as we design resources for young children will help us represent the content of engineering accurately and produce materials that are age-appropriate for children."

Cunningham said Penn State has the faculty resources and larger resources such as connections to corporations and alumni and teachers who can help her team create a set of resources that can lead the nation in thinking about how young children are introduced to the designed world.

Cunningham, whose doctorate in science education (curriculum and instruction) is from Cornell and whose bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees in biology are from Yale, previously worked at the Museum of Science in Boston as vice president. There, she founded the Engineering Is Elementary Program, which she directed for 16 years.

"I was one of the first people to think about how we could do engineering with very young children," she said. "I like to say every young child is an engineer. Watch them at play and they build bridges and forts and sand castles. They have a natural inclination to build things and solve problems but traditionally schools have not supported those sorts of inclinations.

"Ninety-eight percent of what we interact with has been designed and produced by engineers –the shoes we wear and the building we sit in and the coffee mug we drink out of – yet in school we weren't introducing kids to the engineered (or human-made) world, only to the natural world. My challenge has been to think about how to engage young children in engineering design thinking."

The essence of engineering is problem solving, Cunningham said. 

"My aim is to create a next generation of problem solvers and innovators. We want to help children to learn to use structured methods for solving problems," she said. "We also want them to think about themselves as capable of tackling new problems they might encounter later in life. As students learn more about engineering, science and mathematics, they might also develop interest in these fields as careers. But the most powerful thing to me is that engineering develops kids' abilities to solve problems," she said.

The education/engineering partnership is still developing, Cunningham said, but she'll be working with engineering administration and deans to help them support some of the work they do, particularly related to outreach and diversity. "We are hoping that the resources we develop and our work with schools and teachers across the country will encourage high school students who are interested in engineering to consider Penn State," she said. 

"The resources we create will be designed to be scalable so they can be used nationwide in school classrooms as well as in after-school and summer camp settings. "There could a part of the endeavor that spins off to become entrepreneurial. We'll offer resources for sale eventually once they're stable because we need to create something that's self-sustaining."

Adapting the "start-little-and-then-grow" philosophy, Cunningham said that in her last job in Boston she reached 20 million children with her engineering materials.

"In 2001 my first task was to convince the educational system that engineering belonged at the preschool and elementary school levels and that children these ages could engage in engineering thinking," she said. "We did that and in the 2014 when engineering made its debut in the national science Frameworks, it was included all the way to the elementary grades. The next task is to think about how we can continue to convince schools and teachers to dedicate precious time to meaningful engineering experiences. 

"K-12 engineering is still a field that's very much in development," Cunningham said. "There are many rich opportunities and resources that can make Penn State and the Colleges of Education and Engineering a national leader in preK-12 engineering education­­­."

Jim Carlson (July 2019)