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 Tufts’ 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.
“When we ask industry professionals what skills our engineering graduates are missing, they say it’s the social, communication and interpersonal skills,” said Hynes.
The earlier that students are exposed to the human, problem-solving piece of engineering, Hynes argues, the more motivated they’ll be for the technical preparation later. But, elementary school teachers aren’t typically trained or accountable for engineering lessons, and wedging them into a packed school day can be tough.
Teachers at Linden STEAM Academy, which began a partnership with CEEO this year, are fortunate in this regard. Massachusetts is one of only four states with “comprehensive” K-12 engineering learning standards, according to a 2015 report by Purdue researchers. Plus, STEAM Academy teachers get blocks of time for “project-based units” of science and engineering.
“Engineering is embraced at our school,” said Deborah Smith, who teaches the third graders working to safeguard the turtle. “It’s just become part of our day.”
She said Novel Engineering has also spurred writing practice, because students must write and revise descriptions of the problem they’re working on and the design ideas they have to address it. There’s more writing at the end, when students are often asked to write a letter to their character explaining the invention, or to rewrite a scene from the book that incorporates their new idea.
Smith’s class read Tornado weeks before building their prototypes, as part of a larger unit on extreme weather. In a subsequent class, the students jotted down the characters’ challenges and brainstormed solutions. They settled on the turtle problem and then spent another class sketching, writing, and revising their engineering ideas.
Finally, they were ready to prototype—bridges, revolving doors, even retractable covers for the turtle’s home operated by motors linked to sensors to detect the reptile’s approach. From their reading, the students knew the dog was clever, curious and determined, but they also knew he obeyed his master, so one group rigged a dog-level sensor to the turtle habitat that triggered a loud recorded scold, “Stop! Go Away!”
Interestingly, Novel Engineering just started mixing technologies, such as Lego robotics and littleBits circuits, into their approach about 18 months ago. Initially, and still today, they focused on low-tech projects using recyclables, found objects, and craft supplies readily available in most schools. However, students kept dreaming up engineering solutions with motors, sensors, sounds, and other functionality that lent themselves to technology tools CEEO had used in other initiatives. So, the Novel Engineering team has been piloting a high-tech version at the STEAM Academy, while putting together a book of worksheets and sample projects.
Portsmore stresses that Novel Engineering is adaptable to high- and low-tech classrooms. Some schools have a lot of technology in place, or can afford to buy it, but many can’t. Even at the Linden STEAM Academy, Tufts researchers co-teaching the pilot classes come bearing totes full of sensors and other electronics, plus a few extra laptops, because the classrooms have only a handful of computers.
“The big thing in our professional development is to make sure teachers understand the engineering process, and how to help students scope problems and critique each other’s ideas,” Portsmore said. “They can scale that process in different ways, depending on what resources they have. It can be cardboard, recyclables, and duct tape, or these new technologies.”
Going high-tech does change what stories that will work in the curriculum, she said, because solutions should make sense for the book’s setting. Infrared sensors and robots can’t help characters in ancient Egypt or colonial America, for instance.
And the details of setting and characters really matter to students in the engineering process, said Smith. They will often refer back to the text to ensure their solution is appropriate. “It’s student-run,” Smith said. “They come up with the ideas. They’re in charge of the outcome. And that drives engagement.”