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CU Boulder faculty reach millions with website of engineering lesson plans

TeachEngineering is a resource for K-12 teachers


Fifteen years ago, Jacquelyn Sullivan and her team at the University of Colorado Boulder started a digital library of engineering lesson plans for teachers at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Last year, TeachEngineering got an upgrade and is growing at a rapid rate and helping teachers across the country — for free.

“We are thinking of the rural teacher, of the low-income teacher,” said Sullivan, co-director of the engineering plus program at CU Boulder and project director of the site. She hopes to reach four million teachers by November, up from a total of about 3 million unique visitors so far.

While there are other digital STEM lesson libraries, accessing their materials often come with a cost or a flurry of monetized ads. That’s not an issue with TeachEngineering, whose $500,000 annual budget is mostly funded by the National Science Foundation. CU Boulder funds the rest. Sullivan’s team includes a project engineer, two editors and some research experts. STEM is an acronym for science, technology engineering and math.

The site aims to provide “engineering on a shoestring,” where all the lessons are free and most of the project materials can be bought at the grocery store, Sullivan said.

At least 35 lessons are added to the site each year, now totaling just under 1,700 lessons. About 70 colleges have partnered with the site to provide lesson ideas, which are peer-reviewed and tested before they’re made live. About two years ago, a group of CU Boulder students started creating videos to go along with the lessons.

Courtney Van der Linden, a high school science teacher at Monarch High School in Louisville, said she uses TeachEngineering as a springboard for ideas.

“Engineering is a great way to do stuff hands-on,” Van der Linden said, later adding that the website is an important resource, because hands-on lessons don’t always go well the first few times, she said, so this gives teachers ideas that are “tried and tested.”

Van der Linden received her master’s degree at CU Boulder, where she was taught how to teach engineering in the classroom by one of her professors. This inspired her to bring engineering projects to her students.

She realized the projects are fun, applicable to science and help students get engaged with learning.

“Engineering is essentially problem solving,” she said. “It’s a good way to help kids not only find their own careers, but also learn how to solve problems.”

The students love the projects, Van der Linden said. While students don’t usually take advantage of teacher office hours, their popularity rises whenever her class is working on a project like building a bridge.

Sullivan said that children can see television shows about police or doctors and have some understanding of what they do, but “engineering is a secret and they think they need to be brilliant to do it.”

The goal of the project was to make engineering, and the way of thinking behind it, accessible in an equitable way. Engineering teaches students how to learn through failure, Sullivan said, while helping them become aware of ethics and environmental issues.

While other disciplines, such as physics, make people focus on getting the right answer, Sullivan said that engineering is about considering all of the factors.

“Engineering is about making things for humanity and the planet,” she said.

Sullivan said the project lets them impact more children than their jobs at CU Boulder otherwise would. Each teacher who uses the site impacts 25 to 125 children each day, and so far millions of unique users from across the world have accessed the site.

To ensure it’s useful to teachers, Sullivan said they strive to align lessons with general science requirements and also consider feedback they get from teachers on that aspect and others.

TeachEngineering is also the only STEM library trying out a “show more courses like this” algorithm, akin to streaming websites. Researchers at the College of Business at Oregon State University helps the site with user research. Their newest algorithm is 14% more accurate.

Sullivan said the next steps are to continue working on their reach, to partner with organizations to market the site and to continue analyzing user feedback to improve the site.

“We’re very motivated by equity and social justice,” she said.

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