There is a growing demand for engineering education in the pre-college classroom, particularly in ways that work with other aspects of curricula. Integrating Engineering and Literacy (IEL) projects use children’s texts as contexts for students’ initiation and early progress in practices of engineering. In particular, we focus on students’ (1) recognizing and scoping problems, with attention to the “client’s” situation, (2) conceptualizing and planning possible solutions, and (3) fabricating, testing, and revising their ideas. Time limitations generally do not permit students to dive deeply into all three respects, but we intend that any particular experience involves the first and second or the second and third, with opportunities for all three over the year. What is important throughout is that students get to come up with their own ideas, and one indication of success is the diversity of ideas the class considers—such as regarding clients’ needs, ideas for solutions, or possibilities for improving on prototypes.
We are studying how students understand and how teachers facilitate activities of identifying and defining problems to solve, conceptualizing possible solutions, and building and testing prototypes. We are in our third year of five, having worked in 19 classrooms across four schools.
In the broadest terms, data from these integrated engineering and literacy projects show that students are capable of identifying and scoping problems, of considering the client in their design, and of acting on these plans to create working prototypes that they then present to their classmates. That is, we find children have ample intellectual resources for engaging in these activities as nascent engineers. We have also seen evidence of synergy with literacy; during their engineering experiences, students formed insights into the characters and turned back to the text to envision the characters’ situations.
The data also suggest differences among texts in providing contexts for student engineering. The most difficult are anthologies, which provide only a few pages from any particular story. With little development of plot and characters, we have not seen the depth of consideration about nature of the engineering problems and the characters as clients that we have in full-length books. Fantasy books also pose a challenge in that it is easy to have “magic” solve problems, and we find students walking a fine line of the real and the fantastical worlds. For example, some students have read The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary: A mouse drives a motorcycle into a trashcan and now must escape using what is available in the trash. Interesting questions and discussion arise around what to suppose a motorcycle-riding mouse can do, and some solutions have involved fantasy to the point of being impossible to test.
In contrast, The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, is about two children whose problems center on the challenge of living undetected in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It does not involve fantasy (over the natural world), and it has been fairly consistent in producing good results, such as students arguing about what materials the two protagonists would have had access to along with how they would most likely use their limited funds (a feature of the story) to buy materials. We have also seen students return to the text to check details, as they scope the problem and assess the viability of their solutions. Shiloh, by Phyllis R. Naylor has shown similar results through a “real” natural world with sympathetic protagonists.
Finally, our data suggest the importance of teacher perceptions and decisions. Teachers who have a preconceived notion of what solutions are “the right ones” may redirect student ideas, and in some cases reduce student enthusiasm as the project goes from students’ building their own ideas to building the teacher’s idea. More effective practices involve teachers’ willingness to let students have and pursue their own ideas, recognizing those ideas and responding substantively and constructively.
IEL projects can be taken up in any class that reads books! We plan to leverage the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to promote these approaches and to work with our long-time partner, LEGO Education.
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