How to Season Lessons in Engineering with Infusions of Story

Adding salt to a recipe has wide-ranging impacts …

Adding salt to a recipe has wide-ranging impacts …

Making it savory

In cooking, the addition of salt to a dish works to improve the flavors of other ingredients, intensifying agreeable tastes and diminishing disagreeable ones. Elements of story can do much the same to lessons in engineering, often an unfamiliar item on the K-12 menu. Seasoning students’ first taste of engineering with lessons they have already learned in language arts classes can train their educational palates to appreciate the foreign flavors of this new classroom subject.

The STEM integration mix

One recipe, if you will, for STEM integration includes engineering as a base for students to use science and math content knowledge to produce systems, tools, or objects — i.e., technologies — that help people do work. This formula derives from a larger vision of engineering in which, as the National Academy of Engineering explains, “Engineers use systematic processes, mathematical tools and scientific knowledge to develop, model, analyze and improve solutions to problems.”

From “what” to “how”

Such an approach answers the “what” of STEM integration, but it leaves us still with a big “how”: how exactly does engineering work to organize and direct what students might know of science and math topics towards a specific purpose?

To answer this question requires looking at both the content and process sides of the engineering coin. Engineers master a great diversity of knowledge in their fields to practice their craft, on one side of the coin. On the other side of the coin is the method or process they use to arrive at their solutions, specifically the design process.

Designing a foundation

In fact, in K-12 education, design is the anchoring concept for engineering learning. It has primacy in the learning standards, the definitional starting point for engineering in the Next Generation Science Standards that increasingly underpin science learning across the country. Three component ideas inform “engineering design” within NGSS:

  • Defining and delimiting the engineering problem, with constraints and criteria for success clearly stated.

  • Designing multiple solutions based on past attempts and evaluated through the filter of constraints and criteria for success.

  • Testing and optimizing solutions, giving priority to those that satisfy the greatest number or most important of criteria.

This design process is iterative and variable, as problem-solvers can revisit the initial problem or pursue newly glimpsed solutions at any point in the process.

The more time you spend defining the problem, the better the prospects for solving it turn out to be.

The more time you spend defining the problem, the better the prospects for solving it turn out to be.

The crucial, vital, all-important beginning

The most important step in the design process is the first one. “A problem well put,” noted John Dewey, “is a problem half-solved” (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, p. 108). That is to say, in a design exercise, posing a fully formed, concretely detailed, but still open-ended challenge at the start has everything to do with the ultimate success of the enterprise.

Brass tacks

Yet formulating a good design challenge is hard. It should identify a user of the solution, the user’s need, and guidance on what success might look like, all without being too prescriptive as to shut down creativity or too general to frame a solve-able problem. Approaches to developing design challenges invoke tools like “user empathy,” “ideation,” “how might we” questions, “point of view” exercises, and often elaborate tactics to loosen imagination from the moorings of familiarity and routine. Very quickly, a whole new program of required learning seems to interpose itself between interest in engineering and putting it to work as a vehicle for STEM integration and actual student learning.

The salt in the mix

For educators, though, an alternative pathway to devising, not to mention teaching, effective design challenges is readily available. The elementary building blocks of story, accessible and familiar to teachers at any level, can serve as a template for effective engineering design challenges.

Conflict, as found in stories, can start the design process off on a fruitful direction.

Conflict, as found in stories, can start the design process off on a fruitful direction.

Story structures

Four basic frameworks have long served to introduce students to the fundamental elements of story:

  • Individual v. self

  • Individual v. individual

  • Individual v. society

  • Individual v. nature

Organized as conflicts (or problems) to solve, these frameworks cast a character (or user) confronting a problem (or with a need), presented in great detail (constraints) with twists and turns (iteration), that is eventually resolved (an optimized solution) in ways that we might or might not have seen at the (open-ended) outset.

Which is to say, story or narrative is, in essence, a problem-solving technology.

To wit

Say an orphaned young man on a remote planet needs to discover his identity and find his place in the galaxy because he has undeveloped, supernatural abilities inherited from a father whom he believes to be dead. The solution to this “individual v. self” problem might end up looking something like, well, Star Wars.

Or, say, a girl swept into the sky by a tornado needs to find her way to a mysteriously powerful magician in a far-off city because she wants to get herself and her dog back home. What better technology would solve this “individual v. nature” conflict than a yellow-brick road to lead us to The Wizard of Oz?

The benefits

The practical power of the engineering design process derives from grounding a problem in the specific needs of a fully imagined user embedded in detailed, concrete circumstances. Starting to develop a design challenge inside the register of story, applying the foundational conflicts that generate drama, uncertainty, and challenges for characters, can spark students’ imagination in way that “ideation” might not quite manage.

Each of the four scenarios can serve to frame an exercise in crafting engineering design challenges. A fill-in-the-blank approach to design challenges might look something like:

  • An [individual character] needs to [accomplish something] but [opposing force stands in the way]; our solution will [describe end-state of resolved conflict].

  • Or work backwards and start with imagining the general outlines of the conflict, sprinkle in details that flesh it out, and invent characters with traits that emerge from the imagined scenario.

In any event, starting within a language arts framework might be more welcoming than leading with the foreign notion of “engineering design” for students and teachers alike. Moreover, help is likely available within the building from any friendly English teachers; and collaboration across disciplines can lead to all kinds of unanticipated benefits and outcomes.

Points of contact between engineering and language arts have commanded attention from many quarters: Engineering is Elementary, Tufts University, our own selves here, and even state learning standards in New Jersey. Common to all these angles of approach is a conviction that students both learn and enjoy more fully from the kind of interdisciplinary, open-ended, and collaborative exercises that can ensue from combining flavors from these two different realms of schooling.

And, finally

What do you think? Does this make any sense? Is anything you’ve heard of along these lines … working or not working? We’d love to hear any stories you might have. And please 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 @StartEnginNow.

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