A Novel Way of Teaching Engineering

[In this Slate article based on a Hechinger Report elementary students are solving a real world problem based on an issue from a novel they read. This is an exciting way of combining literature and engineering. The tools can be recyclables with Littlebits or Hummingbird kits.]

LEGO enginineering elemetery school.

At Linden STEAM Academy in Malden, Massachusetts, third graders build a Lego prototype as part of the Novel Engineering initiative, which mixes engineering with literacy in elementary school classrooms. Photo by Chris Berdik

One recent morning, at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts, north of Boston, teams of third graders rushed around programming sensors on computers, wiring them to motors, digging into bins of Legos and gears, and rummaging through boxes of paper towel rolls, egg cartons, and pipe cleaners. Their mission was to protect a baby turtle from a dog—a beloved, mischievous black Lab named Tornado, the title character of a novel they had read for class.

The fictional dog is named after a twister that flung him into the life of a young farm boy. During one of their adventures, the thirsty pup drinks from a pet turtle’s watery home and slurps up the creature in the process. Hence the turtle-rescue project for these third graders at the Linden STEAM Academy (STEM plus Art). It’s part of an initiative called Novel Engineering led by researchers at nearby Tufts University, in which engineering challenges are plucked from the plots of assigned books. The elementary school lesson plan, developed at Tuft’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, is backed by the National Science Foundation.

In America’s push for STEAM education, engineering is at the heart of the acronym, but it’s largely missing from elementary school classrooms. The goal of Novel Engineering is to bolster reading comprehension through hands-on projects while teaching students the engineering process and linking it to the human (or at least canine) problems it helps fix.

In the five years since Novel Engineering began, the CEEO team and partner universities have taught the approach to about 150 teachers around the country. They have also stocked an online repository with sample projects and a list of books, by grade level, that have mixed well with engineering in the past, including Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Roald Dahl’s  James and the Giant Peach.

CEEO’s director, Merredith Portsmore, said they work with teachers to choose a good fit from the year’s assigned reading. Some books fit the initiative better than others. For instance, Portsmore noted, “engineering doesn’t really work in fantasy books, like Harry Potter. Because, if you have a magic wand, why would you need engineering?”

“Our goal is to make it easy for teachers, who are sometimes under a lot of pressure,” said Portsmore.

Rather than reducing books to engineering “design briefs,” Portsmore said, Novel Engineering teachers discuss all the challenges characters face, as they normally would, “and then ask which of these problems can we solve with engineering and which ones won’t work for that.”

The scarcity of engineering in grade schools not only slows the supply of home-grown engineers, it hurts their skills, according to Morgan Hynes, an engineering professor who helped lead Novel Engineering before leaving Tufts for Purdue in 2013. That’s because the crucial human pieces of engineering—learning the end-users’ needs and tendencies and working collaboratively to solve problems—can get lost in the shuffle when “real engineering” is postponed until students have mastered advanced math and physics.

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