Engineering as a Stealth Language Art, Part 1

How many bars do you see in this picture, four or three?

How many bars do you see in this picture, four or three?

Once you see it …

As we learn from encounters with M. C. Escher, Rorschach, and that always-slightly-creepy picture of the old-woman-with-a-scarf/young-woman-in-a-hat, the nature of what we look at depends greatly on how we see it. And when you see something one way, it can be hard ever to un-see it that way.

So too, with engineering. Most views of engineering feature math and science front and center. With good reason, to be sure; following sound math and science principles gives the bridge the best chance to remain standing.

A new angle on engineering

Even so, engineering, especially as a topic of learning in schools, calls on students to put their language skills to heavy use. In fact, the language arts dimensions of engineering make it a powerful, if stealthy lever for building literacy.

A two-part post

This post is the first of two addressing connections between engineering and literacy.

In this first part, we will examine how the engineering design process necessarily involves students in a richly varied sequence of language arts exercises. Indeed, engineering amplifies students’ motivation to commit to and succeed in these exercises because doing well in them makes their engineering projects more likely to succeed.

We will also look at how the stealthy links between engineering and literacy can especially benefit the language development skills of English-learning students.

In the second part, coming in two weeks, we will look at some obstacles to educators putting engineering to work in K-12 environments and consider literacy-oriented approaches to engineering as a means to overcome them.

Engineering as a tool for building literacy

Engineering studies can enhance students’ abilities in many different registers of language, including exposition, persuasion, narration, analysis, and description, to name just some. Putting engineering design to work in class is like using a kind of Swiss army knife of literacy tools, useful in almost every kind of language arts exercise.

Brentwood Elementary in Raleigh, NC, is among many schools that use engineering design as a foundational pedagogy in multiple subject areas.

Brentwood Elementary in Raleigh, NC, is among many schools that use engineering design as a foundational pedagogy in multiple subject areas.

Engineering design as a language arts program

The engineering design process is the go-to intellectual technology for every engineer. It’s also a ready template for any problem-based, collaborative project students might undertake. Indeed, some schools have adopted engineering design as the pedagogical foundation for all the subjects their students study.

At nearly every stage of the engineering design process, language arts are vital.

  • Define and learn about the problem

    • First, students must understand the problem they are solving from as many angles as possible. This means research, reading all different kinds of texts to fill out the whole picture, including historical, sociological, technical, descriptive, and so on.
    • To further their research, students might interview people with knowledge of the problem or who might be users of the solution. Crafting questions, recording responses, and making meaning out of multiple examples of discursive speech all are literacy-building activities.
  • Brainstorm solutions and choose among options

    • With a research base to guide them, students then dream up with their teammates as many creative solutions as possible. The work to pick one among them requires team members to employ varied modes of language, such as conversation, persuasion, active listening, and analytical reasoning.
  • Build and test a prototype

    • Perhaps the least language-heavy phase of the design process, building still requires that students talk through their plans and coordinate tasks. Linear reasoning and clarity of expression serve them well here.
  • Test with users and gather data

    • Putting a solution into users’ hands and gathering feedback on it cast student engineers as both instructors and anthropologists.
    • First, they must provide clear guidance about a new task to people unfamiliar with their ideas, something all teachers will recognize as a language challenge.
    • Then, they have to elicit information both directly from users and by observation regarding the utility of their prototype. Both types of information are critical, as people are often unreliable reporters of their own actions and experiences. Often contradictory, then, these two types of linguistic feedback require reconciliation and sense-making in a collaborative environment.
  • Make improvements

    • Students will have to negotiate among themselves, through conversation, reflection, and arguing from available evidence, to arrive at a full picture of what worked with their solution, what did not, and how to improve it. This move from analyzing to judging to acting hones students’ abilities to process language from various angles for various purposes, weighing the degrees to which language can and should drive action or not. In this era of “fake news,” such a skill is not to be slighted.

A real workout

In all stages of the engineering design process, then, language arts come in for heavy use. The need to think and write clearly across all these different linguistic modalities makes this exercise into something like high-intensity cross-training for literacy.

Emphasizing the literacy-building aspects of engineering design projects exercises students' language arts skills in all kinds of dynamic, complementary ways.

Emphasizing the literacy-building aspects of engineering design projects exercises students' language arts skills in all kinds of dynamic, complementary ways.

Intrinsically motivating

Also powering the efficacy of engineering in building literacy skills is the student-centered nature of the work. Students work on projects of their own devising and bring extra motivation to their tasks because they want to see their ideas succeed. Language arts are a crucial ingredient of this success, the prospect of which gives students organic incentives to exercise literacy skills as vigorously as possible. As a result, in stealthy fashion, the engineering design process works to improve students’ language and reasoning skills without them necessarily even realizing it.

Turbocharged for English-learning students

For Spanish-speaking ELL's, our bilingual elementary engineering book can be a great way to start bridging gaps in comprehension and achievement. It features engaging illustrations and side-by-side English-Spanish text to help language learners build their English vocabulary.

For Spanish-speaking ELL's, our bilingual elementary engineering book can be a great way to start bridging gaps in comprehension and achievement. It features engaging illustrations and side-by-side English-Spanish text to help language learners build their English vocabulary.

All the reasons that engineering design projects work to build literacy skills among general student populations make it perhaps even more beneficial for English-language learners, or ELL’s.

A January report from The Education Trust-West brings together the threads of this argument, with volumes of research cited to flesh out the picture. “Unlocking Learning: Science as a Lever for English Learner Equity” profiles six California school districts where science and engineering programs are embedded in larger, strategic efforts to boost literacy levels among ELL’s.

Wedding science and engineering learning to literacy efforts, the report finds, can yield mutually reinforcing cycles of improvement in both areas. In almost all these districts, ELL’s score as proficient or above in state science tests at two-to-three times the level of their ELL peers across the state, with scores in reading generally higher as well.

Yet another achievement gap to close

Measures to raise English-learners’ achievement in engineering are clearly needed. ELL’s score well below native English speakers in engineering and technological literacy, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress Technology and Engineering Literacy results.

The test was scored on a 0-300 scale, with a score of 158 representing proficiency.

  • Among public-school ELL’s, five percent scored proficient or above, with an average score of 108.
  • Among public-school native English speakers, 43 percent scored proficient or above, with an average score of 151.

How it helps with language development

Research cited in the Unlocking Science report suggests inquiry-based content like engineering could catalyze advances in language development skills, as well.

  • Project-based learning activities, such as engineering design work, provide students with language practice in conversation and writing within an inherently motivating context.
  • Engineering design projects are accretive, building stage by stage towards an end-result subsuming all previous work. This kind of effort calls on students to activate earlier learning to solve new problems, mostly through deploying varied forms of language skills.
  • Many key engineering words are cognates in Spanish, making the content more accessible to Spanish-speaking ELL’s.
  • Data often lend themselves to visual or symbolic representation, allowing ELL’s to build and demonstrate cognitive skills in a way independent of their command of English.
  • The non-linguistic nature of much engineering work, using numbers, graphs, and other visual media, allows ELL’s to show teachers a fuller range of their abilities. Research shows that teachers’ appraisals of their ELL students often rise under these circumstances.

The integration payoff

In effects that are both similar to those on native speakers as well as unique to ELL’s, engineering would support language development skills in various, intersecting ways. These benefits also help frame K-12 engineering, not as just pre-professional or vocational training, but as an integral part of the basic curriculum. Grounding learning in relevant, purposeful contexts, engineering can boost students' achievement not only in language arts but across multiple disciplines.

Next up, specific ways to get started

So, as noted above, next will come discussion of obstacles and solutions to K-12 engineering, as seen through the lens of literacy.

What do you think? Is this model of engineering as a tool for literacy persuasive and/or viable? What do you think the obstacles and solutions might be?

Let us know your thoughts. And please share with 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: Brentwood logo, courtesy of Brentwood Elementary School; Unlocking Learning cover, courtesy of The Education Trust-West.