April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Engineering, Inspired by Kid Lit


A student works on a Novel Engineering technical challenge.

Conventional wisdom says that students tend to either be drawn to math and problem solving or to reading and language arts. But a program for STEM learning developed at Tufts University has been proving that assumption wrong since 2010.

Novel Engineering provides a unique way to get students excited about both reading and problem solving.

Through the program, elementary and middle school students read a book, identify what problems the characters face, and work in teams to design prototypes to solve it. The students test the prototypes and receive feedback from their teacher and peers before presenting their creations to their classmates.

So far about 700 educators from around the country have been trained in the program, enabled by a National Science Foundation grant, with teachers and librarians working together to implement it in some schools. The selected books present a variety of challenges for different ages. For instance, third graders reading Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) honed in on the problem that Hugo spends too much time winding the clock; he also has to figure out how to break into a dresser. The protagonist in Ezra Jack Keats’s Peter’s Chair doesn’t like having his stuff painted pink and has grown too big for his chair; first graders devise solutions. In Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, the peach gets stuck on the Empire State Building.


Above: Students’ notes about problems a main character faces in Linda Sue Park’s ‘A Long Walk to Water.’ Below: devising a solution.

long_walkElissa Milto, director of outreach at the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach and project director for Novel Engineering, says that in the past, when she approached educators about engineering projects they could bring to their students, their eyes would often glaze over at the mention of the word “engineering.” This approach, however, is more in teachers’ and school librarians’ wheelhouse.

“We’re using books they already know,” Milto says. “We’re not asking them to do an entirely new curriculum. They already have expertise in reading. They already know the conversations to have with kids. They feel so confident in teaching literacy and can just add this on.”

For example, a fourth-grade class may read Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, in which protagonist Fudge goes into Peter’s room and messes with his turtle. Students then work together to build something to keep Fudge away from the turtle, and then test their design to make sure it actually works.

These types of projects draw in all kinds of kids, Milto says. “We’ve seen kids who are more readers really get into it, because they feel that there are so many elements from the book that they’re including in their design,” she notes.

novel_5Maggie Jackson was one of the first teachers to use Novel Engineering with her students when it was a pilot program, six years ago. The fifth grade teacher at Vinson-Owen Elementary School in Winchester, MA, says that one of the things she likes most about the program is its ability to reach students at all levels.

“No matter the student’s ability as a reader, scientist, or mathematician, all of them seem to be engaged,” Jackson says. “The fact that everyone is participating, everyone is excited for Novel Engineering time—that’s probably the biggest thing.”

These activities are also a big help when it comes to getting students to think critically, Jackson adds. “A lot of that is because they’re not finding connections between different subjects, and I like that Novel Engineering gives them the opportunity to make connections,” she says. “They may critically think about a character without even realizing it because they’re trying to solve a problem through engineering.”

She often starts her students off with a short book like Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming (Atheneum, 2002). In the book, Mr. McGreely is having trouble keeping rabbits out of his garden. While he tries several strategies to thwart them, none work—allowing students to learn from his mistakes while engineering an outcome that works. Once Jackson’s students have the hang of brainstorming in this way, she introduces more complex books, such as the The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (Yearling, 2004).

novel_3Marty Daignault teaches fourth grade at Winthrop Elementary School in Ipswich, MA. He just started using Novel Engineering with his students this year to tackle challenges presented in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Rising (Candlewick, 2011).

“The kids loved it—all of my kids,” Daignault says. “Even the kids who are special needs for reading did a fabulous job really thinking deeply.”

He also had his students use the program in reading a book in the “I Survived” series by Lauren Tarshis. After reading I Survived the Joplin Tornado 2011 (Scholastic, 2015), his students went to work building tornado-proof structures.

“At first they wanted to make dioramas to show cute little house scenes and models of rescue bunkers,” Daignault said in an email. “That all changes, though, when I tell them they should try to crush their tornado-reinforced shelter to see how strong it is….before I try to crush it to replicate the twister’s path of destruction.” Students who had initially built plastic structures moved on to wood, and then rock. “When the whole thing doesn’t collapse under eight or even sixteen pounds of weight, they [feel] proud and accomplished,” Daignault noted.

Meanwhile, the team at Tufts is continuing to refine the program. Right now they’re determining the most effective assessment for it and identifying the books that work best. They also want to bring the initiative to more teachers and school librarians.

Debra Mayer, a librarian working with Pre-K to eighth grade students at Saint Luke School in McLean, VA, hopes to start using Novel Engineering with her middle school students. “This provides us a way to extend the classroom reading,” she says. “In middle school, their interest in reading is waning because [they have] a lot of required reading—a lot of reading that they don’t want to do, and their opportunities to free read are very limited,” Mayer adds. “This gives them something interesting to do with text” and “start asking, ‘what if?’”

Those wanting to learn more about Novel Engineering should contact Milto at the school’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.

marva_head_shotMarva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, a show that features interviews with authors including Nicola Yoon and Daniel José Older.

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  1. Beverly McBrayer says:

    Novel engineering! Our students love survival stories and those where characters work through seemingly impossible challenges. Eager to learn more and use with students. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for this article! I am a technology education teacher writing a book that has the characters use their STEM knowledge to solve the problems, and the book will include STEM extension activities the reader can engage in to better understand the STEM concepts. A coworker showed me this article which ties exactly into what I am trying to do, get students to engage in STEM from/with literature. Now I will research Novel Engineering. Do you know other resources for connecting literature with STEM?