EiE Blog: Reading and Engineering--the Perfect Pair

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Stories set a context for engineering activities . . . while helping kids build literacy skills.
Monday, August 25, 2014 - 09:00

Reading is a clear priority in elementary classrooms across the nation. The average K- 3 elementary student gets less than 20 minutes of science instruction a day but nearly an hour and a half of reading/language arts instruction, according to the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education.

Engineering instruction, which supports science learning, is a new—and also small—part of the routine in most elementary classrooms. But with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards, priorities are changing. On first blush, it may not seem like engineering is a subject that integrates with or supports reading instruction. But here at EiE, we’ve found that reading and engineering are natural partners. (A Tufts University project, Novel Engineering, draws the same conclusion.)

How does it work? Storytelling is a great way to set a real-world context for learning, especially for young students. Each EiE engineering design challenge starts with a storybook that shows how a child solves a problem through engineering. Each story presents a real problem that young children can identify with, like building a wall to keep hungry bunnies out of a garden, designing a safe and sturdy bridge to reach an island play fort, or making an alarm system that reminds you when it’s time to do an afterschool chore. These scenarios help young children see how engineering relates to their own day-to-day experiences—and also how it’s a “helping” profession that makes a difference in the world.

At the same time, stories about engineering are ideal for building reading and language skills. We pack our stories with age-appropriate vocabulary words, and supply questions teachers can pose to their students before during, and after reading the story. These questions prompt students to discuss, write, think, and make connections. Students can also create their own journal to explore the story topic, or write a creative essay tied to story content.

The connections between reading and engineering aren’t limited to the introductory storybook. For every EiE unit, there’s a curated list of literacy resources—age-appropriate books and articles we’ve identified that can help kids explore the subject of the story in more depth. We also have literacy extension lessons for each unit.

Not only does engineering integrate well with reading, it can actually can motivate children to work on their reading skills. “Students have a real incentive to learn to read when NOT being able to read prevents them from doing something engaging,” notes Dr. Gerhard Salinger, the retired program director of the National Science Foundation’s Discovery Research K-12 program. “Engineering programs like EiE that involve engaging hands-on activities can increase students' desire to learn to read." 

We hear constantly from teachers who are thinking up new and creative ways to use the EiE storybooks in English Language Artss instruction. To make sure the stories would be accessible for all students, educators at Mesa Public Schools engaged a professional storyteller to tell three EiE stories and videotaped her performance. They’ve generously made these videos available for other schools to view. Check out Javier Builds a Bridge, Michele's MVP Award, and Ya Min's Great Wall.

Meanwhile, fifth-graders at Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering in Raleigh, North Carolina, have created "talking books" by reading and recording EiE storybooks. Teachers at Brentwood say the initiative has boosted literacy skills both for the kids doing the reading and recording AND for the kids who listen to the books. Browse the library to hear 10 different storybooks, all read by students!

Engineering is Elementary is a project of the National Center for Technological Literacy® at the Museum of Science, Boston.