January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Reading and Engineering: The Perfect Pair

Posted: Monday, October 19th, 2015

By Cynthia Berger

Reading is a clear priority in elementary classrooms across the nation. According to the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, the average K-3 elementary student gets nearly an hour and a half of instruction in reading and language arts each day. Meanwhile, that same student averages less than 20 minutes of science instruction per day. And until recently, engineering instruction was not even a part of the curriculum in most elementary classrooms.

But engineering IS becoming a routine part of elementary instruction, especially in states that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards or updated their own science standards based on NGSS. It’s easy to see how hands-on engineering activities can support science and math learning: for example, kids who are engineering a bridge must call on what they’ve learned in science lessons about forces, and about the properties of materials; they also need to apply their math skills, measuring as they build or calculating as they conduct tests and analyze data. But engineering can also support reading instruction, in significant ways.

Two curricula serve as good examples. Both Engineering is Elementary (EiE), developed by the Museum of Science, Boston and Novel Engineering, developed at Tufts University, use storytelling through works of fiction to set a real-world context for learning. This approach is especially effective for young students.

Each EiE curriculum unit starts with students reading a storybook about a young child who solves a problem through engineering. After they read the storybook, students engineer their own solutions to the same problem. With Novel Engineering, students use the books they’re already reading for English Language Arts as inspiration for their own engineering projects.

The EiE storybooks intentionally present engineering challenges that young children can readily identify with, like building a wall to keep hungry rabbits out of a garden, designing a safe and sturdy bridge to reach an island play fort, or making an alarm system that reminds you when it’s time to do an after school chore. These scenarios help young children see how engineering relates to their own day-to-day experiences—and also how it’s a “helping” profession that makes a difference in the world.

Novel Engineering gives teachers lots of examples of how a children’s classic can spark ideas for engineering projects. For instance, first graders who read The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, might engineer an “insulated snowball saver” to keep Peter’s snowball from melting in his pocket; fourth graders who read James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl, might engineer a model crane to lift the peach after it gets stuck on a skyscraper.

Whatever work of fiction the students read, the key thing is that not only are they absorbing the context for their engineering work, they are also exercising some key skills. They have to read the text closely, identify a problem that needs to be solved, and be able to cite the evidence in the text that led them to that conclusion. Both curricula call for student engineers to work collaboratively, in small groups, which means they have to express their ideas clearly and persuasively to their teammates. These small-group conversations call on students to use science and engineering vocabulary words, to draw inferences and make connections.

Engineering engages students in writing as well as reading. Students who are learning with Novel Engineering may present their engineering solutions to the class by, for example, writing their own story (with a plot that calls on the solution they’ve devised) or by creating an advertisement for their solution. Students who are learning with EiE keep an engineering journal; many lessons also engage students in writing persuasive or business-style letters. Students can also create their own personal journal to explore the story topic, or write a creative essay tied to story content.

Not only does engineering integrate well with reading, it can actually can motivate children to work on their reading skills. “Students have a real incentive to learn to read when NOT being able to read prevents them from doing something engaging,” notes Dr. Gerhard Salinger, the retired program director of the National Science Foundation’s Discovery Research K-12 program. “Engineering programs that involve engaging hands-on activities can increase students’ desire to learn to read.”


Cynthia Berger is the Project Manager of Communications and Outreach for Engineering is Elementary, Museum of Science, Boston, MA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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