When I was growing up, we were told that if you were an engineer, you had to eschew reading and language arts. We were told that engineers focused more upon problem solving and logic. I didn’t fit into those clearly defined boundaries; I love reading and love logic! I actually saw from early on that there is a correlation between reading and problem solving. Imagine my excitement years later when I was teaching in New York City and discovered word problems. I was ecstatic about combining my love for literature and logic for my students. Students could see that life wasn’t strictly 2-D, it has various edges and it was fun!
Recently I read about a program in the United States called “Novel Engineering” which 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. This blew my mind away! Imagine sparking the imaginations of children all across the nation like I was years ago as a child when I turned stories in my head to active prototypes for play with my siblings and playmates.
When I didn’t allow the constraints of the expectations of what engineers ought to be or not be to hold me back. According to the findings I made, about 700 educators in the US 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 presented 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.
The director of outreach, Elissa Milto, at the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach and project director for Novel Engineering, said previously when she approached educators about engineering projects they could bring to their students, they would become cold due to the mention of the word “engineering.” This approach, has been received with more warmth. “We’re using books they already know,” Milto said. “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 children. They feel so confident in teaching literacy and can just add this on.”