How to Protect Your Students from Job-Eating Robots

We come in peace ...

It’s not that smart, job-destroying robots are coming. They’re already here. Cashiers, security guards, bank tellers, sure.

But next up, driver-less trucks, surgery without doctors, legal advice from lawyer-bots, robo-journalism, and more.

What in the name of human intelligence are we to do? In a crisis, falling back on what you’re really good at doing can be the best approach.

Our best response?

To create pathways of learning and work leading to activities of reliable economic value for homo sapiens, a time-tested, thoroughly delightful, and – dare we say – uniquely human undertaking has come recently and insistently to the fore: story-telling.

Paintings in the caves of Lascaux in southwestern France are over 17,000 years old.

Paintings in the caves of Lascaux in southwestern France are over 17,000 years old.

Making, consuming, and learning from stories has been a centerpiece of human learning and culture since the time of the Lascaux cave paintings. A vehicle for building community and shared understanding of the world, for nourishing communication skills and social sensitivities, story-based learning has become increasingly popular across many professional and technical fields.

Soft skills

Among engineers, these “soft” skills have long been reputed to be, well, under-developed. Stories can provide a rich context for learning and modeling soft skills through discussion, analytical and creative writing, and collaborative work.

Lev Fruchter, a pioneer in using story to cross back and forth between literary and technical fields, reports hearing from engineers themselves that “engineers are lousy communicators because their education includes no training in fiction.”



Engineering learning from stories

Perhaps more interesting, though, are approaches coming from the opposite direction: using literature to teach engineering. Stories, it turns out, can be an exciting way to give K-12 students a rich, open-ended, fun experience in something that can feel a lot like real-world engineering.

The general idea is as follows: use the rich detail of narrative and emotional pull of character to engage students in engineering challenges embedded in or extrapolated from the context of the story.

Story, after all, packs a multi-modal punch. In Things that Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, Donald Norman observes that stories, “encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion” (129).

What stories can do

Approaches to using story in teaching K-12 engineering illustrate a bounty of benefits.

  • Engineering problems in stories are open-ended, empowering students to be as creative as they want to be in devising their answers.
  • They lend themselves to collaboration and iterative design, as students learn from and teach each other what better or worse answers are.
  • The exercises prompt both individual and shared reflection and discussion, at all levels of K-12 instruction.

Research has also shown that story-based learning conveys meaningful motivational benefits, including advances in “self-efficacy, presence, interest, and perception of control.” These attributes suggest, in fact, that a story-based approach to engineering would serve especially well to introduce engineering among students from under-represented groups.

How it works

So, what exactly do story-based engineering programs look like?

Two programs focusing on younger learners are Novel Engineering and PictureSTEM.

Novel Engineering

Novel Engineering builds engineering lessons into language arts.

Novel Engineering builds engineering lessons into language arts.

Novel Engineering is another element in the collection of cool stuff coming out of the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. A method more than a curriculum or set of modules, Novel Engineering stages characters as clients and students as engineers devising solutions for problems characters face in their stories. Students must “pull from the text to scope problems and set constraints as they engage in engineering design.”

The program builds on reading assignments already in place. By leveraging existing language arts curriculum to integrate science, math, and engineering learning, Novel Engineering creates conditions for widely appealing, multi-disciplinary learning that hits multiple learning standards at the same time. For teachers seeking fuller guidance, sample books, lesson plans, and professional development resources are available.


PictureSTEM, a Purdue University effort, aims to provide sequenced instructional modules from K-5 that integrate STEM learning and literacy skills. The modules “use picture books and an engineering design challenge to provide students with authentic, contextual activities that engage learners in specific science and mathematics content while integrating across traditional disciplinary boundaries.”

The Kindergarten unit, for example, lays out a challenge to design a basket for a character named Liam to use in carrying rocks from a local stream back to his house. The activity calls for students to design and build actual baskets out of various kinds of paper in various modes of assembly to arrive at a solution that will both transport heavy, wet rocks and keep Liam’s clothes dry.

Units for older students involve building hamster habitats, a toy box organizer, and water-cleaning solutions. They include an overview, lesson plans, and guidance on materials required.

Our experiences

As it happens, users of our own elementary school books, What’s Engineering? and Dream, Invent, Create, have reported benefits to students’ literacy skills. The association of words with pictures and use of rhyming language both serve to impart general understanding of what engineering is to children as well as to promote reading skills.

For older students

Older students are the focus of Through My Window and StoryCode.

Through My Window

The website for Through My Window is a portal for further "learning adventures" in engineering.

The website for Through My Window is a portal for further "learning adventures" in engineering.

Late elementary school and middle school students are the audience for Through My Window, a collaboration between faculty members at Smith College and Springfield Technical Community College. A blended online/print undertaking, Through My Window is built around a young-adult mystery novel called Talk to Me. The story centers on a 14-year-old girl, Sadina Reyes, who must solve a crime to keep her mother out of jail. Once they read the novel, students explore an interactive online environment where characters from the book pursue extended “learning adventures” that expand upon engineering concepts introduced in the novel.

The first “learning adventure” explores artificial intelligence from technological, practical, ethical, and other angles. Students engage in open-ended questioning and writing activities, both on their own and in collaboration, to experience deep, multi-disciplinary learning relevant to real-world issues.

Further “learning adventures” and a second novel are in development. The activity suits both formal and informal education environments, offers robust teacher support, and presupposes no prior experience with engineering. As a project supported by National Science Foundation funding, it is free of charge.


Lev Fruchter’s StoryCode proceeds from the premise that, “exciting fiction has as much to do with computer programming as mathematical functions.” The program instructs teachers in using short stories, novels, and film to “teach the fundamentals of computer programming to diverse learners.”

With an eye towards high school and advanced middle school students, Fruchter developed the StoryCode approach by using the details and storylines of narrative arts to illustrate abstract math and computer science ideas.

In an interview with Bay Area public radio station KQED, Fruchter describes how the 19th-century short story, “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, embodies fundamental concepts in computer programming. Depicting a life-or-death choice forced on a character, the story offers Fruchter an avenue to explore the rapidly ramifying dimensions of binary code, as decision options increase in number.

The curriculum makes exhilarating vaults across disciplines and media. Ursula LeGuin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Neil Gaiman are featured on the website, and the program also evokes the ethos of authors like Neal Stephenson and Richard Powers.

What happens with stories

All these approaches share some notable benefits.

  • They build on literacy curricula already in place rather than require subtraction from time already committed to other lessons.
  • Teachers, especially elementary school teachers, are playing to their strengths in reading and math instead of grappling with engineering as a new, foreign subject matter.
  • And they’re multi-disciplinary, hitting learning standards across different areas, whether Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, or state-based.

21st-century readiness

The greater benefits lie in the learning experiences students can have.

Finding connections across disciplines, working collaboratively on open-ended challenges, adapting to changing circumstances and new information, accommodating diverse perspectives on nuanced, complex textual materials – all these distinctly human skills are regularly called out in discussions of 21st-century competencies.

And, perhaps, these traits will prove to be just the things that keep them occupied in stimulating, rewarding careers later in life, inoculating them against the incursions robots end up making on what now might seem like human-only enterprises.

Please feel free to share with any interested friends or colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering outreach books, What's Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering.

Photos courtesy of: JosepPAL, used by permission; Prof saxx, used by permission.