Engineering as a Stealth Language Art, Part 2

How it can actually happen

As we saw last time, the engineering design process can help build literacy skills in many dimensions. It puts students to work using written and spoken language to narrate, inquire, persuade, instruct, analyze, and reflect, among other modalities.

In theory, at least.

In practice, it’s not necessarily that easy.

  • Design-based learning is already a new subject for many teachers; attaching literacy goals to it can make it even more of a challenge.
  • The school day is already packed, and finding room for a new subject like engineering requires some creativity.
  • Standards and assessments drive choices in instruction and curriculum. Until engineering becomes widely tested, putting classroom time towards the subject is risky.

Real challenges, nobody would disagree. But they are not intractable, and herewith some ways to navigate them.

Design-based learning approaches center on students’ abilities to pose and answer questions of their own, with the teacher guiding them through a process meant to ensure that substantive thought and effort go into the work.

Design-based learning approaches center on students’ abilities to pose and answer questions of their own, with the teacher guiding them through a process meant to ensure that substantive thought and effort go into the work.

A design-based approach to literacy

The engineering design process, as should be clear, takes design as the basic principle of its implementation. Examples of how specifically to deploy design-based pedagogy to teach literacy are illuminating and fascinating, though not necessarily in wide circulation. In general, they put students at the center of both defining the writing “problem” and devising the answer, successful examples of which may vary in content and format. It’s typically a collaborative effort, an example of social constructivist pedagogy.

PictureSTEM is a Purdue University project to integrate engineering and literacy learning at early elementary-school levels.

PictureSTEM is a Purdue University project to integrate engineering and literacy learning at early elementary-school levels.

A literacy-first approach to teaching engineering

The approaches above, generally speaking, require steeping literacy in an engineering design brew. Other, clever people have taken the opposite approach: infusing engineering into literacy programs.

  • Out of Purdue University, PictureSTEM uses picture books and defined engineering challenges to ground engineering learning in reading and writing exercises. Using pictures and words, story and character, the K-2 program makes careful reading and clear communications into necessary ingredients for successful design solutions.
  • Tufts University’s Novel Engineering uses narrative texts as the raw material for open-ended engineering design problems that students devise and solve for “client” characters. For elementary and middle school levels, the program features books already in wide classroom use and familiar to teachers. The design exercises serve to enhance reading comprehension, engage all kinds of learners, and provide students with actual engineering experiences.
  • Through My Window stages engineering content in an online multimedia platform to tell a mystery story in which students can be interactive participants. For grades 4-8, the project puts students to work collaboratively on real-world engineering problems that surface during the reading experience. The website seamlessly extends the action in the story, making the literacy and engineering lessons two sides of the same learning experience. The project is a joint venture between Smith College and Springfield Technical Community College.
  • Though not primarily a literacy program, Engineering is Elementary, housed at the Boston Museum of Science, blends narrative and engineering content, as well, using the former more as a tool to introduce the latter. Stories provide context and detail for engineering problems, which then become the primary focus of classroom activities, rather than literacy skills per se. Even so, students must be active, engaged readers in the program, and the extensive body of research around the program catalogues varied impacts across multiple fields of learning.
Our elementary-level engineering book lends itself to various kinds of literacy exercises.

Our elementary-level engineering book lends itself to various kinds of literacy exercises.

How we've thought about literacy

Many programs have used our own elementary-level book, Dream, Invent, Create, to develop literacy skills, as well. The book presents language about engineering in varied registers: poetry, description, instruction, direct interrogation, and others. Teachers reference these different modalities to draw students’ attention to how sound and meaning in language combine in all kinds of ways to shape readers’ understanding.

Finally, testing

As everyone knows, state learning standards and assessments drive what gets taught in schools. In science learning, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are inexorably making their way into these measures, at the state and district level. Depending on how you read recently adopted standards, either 18 or 20 states, plus the District of Columbia and scores of local school districts, have adopted NGSS as their template for science learning and testing.

Why does this matter for connections between engineering and literacy? NGSS has three dimensions: subject matter content, ideas that cut across content areas, and eight practices common to science and engineering pursuits.

The three dimensions of NGSS learning are meant to give students an experience of what scientists and engineers actually do, rather than just reading about such things.

The three dimensions of NGSS learning are meant to give students an experience of what scientists and engineers actually do, rather than just reading about such things.

In these practices lie the vital links between literacy and engineering learning. Consider the practices from the perspective of language arts and see how many serve to teach literacy:

  1. Asking questions and defining problems
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using math and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communication information

I count, at a minimum, five: numbers 1, 3, 6, 7, and 8. And one could argue that numbers 2 and 4 would build literacy skills, too.

Indeed, the team of educators behind NGSS certify to this very fact. In explaining the thinking behind these practices, they say:

"Any education in science and engineering needs to develop students’ ability to read and produce domain-specific text. As such, every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson, particularly reading and producing the genres of texts that are intrinsic to science and engineering." (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 76)

With such a model of STEM learning installed, the impetus behind marrying literacy to science and engineering learning becomes forceful, indeed.

NGSS should serve to underwrite a broad shift to more integrative pedagogies, functioning to teach connections among disciplines rather than disciplines as areas of knowledge and practice unto themselves. Moreover, NGSS-based assessments require students to demonstrate or enact what they know, not just produce it on a test.

Students who can harness the power of advanced language skills to an engineer’s bent for understanding and solving problems in all their practical dimensions will do well in these assessments. And, by the way, they will also do well as citizens and workers in whatever domain of civil society they move into in their post-graduate lives.

Any thoughts?

That’s our story, if you will. Have you ever seen design-based learning put to use for literacy or other non-STEM topics? Does it seem like a useful model?

Let us know what you think. And please share among any interested colleagues or friends.


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 eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

Now available! A bilingual version of Dream, Invent, Create, for making engineering come alive in Spanish and English at the same time.

Our Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field. And for any outreach or education program, check out What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide. Our books can help deliver an accessible, engaging picture of engineering to all kinds of K-12 audiences.


Photos: Lacuna, courtesy of Museperk; Design-based literacy, courtesy of Heidi Rena; PictureSTEM, courtesy of PictureSTEM; NGSS dimensions, courtesy of The District Vault.