Engineering…It’s Everywhere!

Elementary Engineering

As an elementary teacher, you might be intimidated by incorporating engineering into your classroom. Engineering feels so exotic, different, and overwhelming. But, if you know how to recognize when people are trying to solve a problem, then you are ready to start a conversation about engineering.

I think that high-quality children’s literature provides great opportunities to spot engineering in action. Just consider this passage from chapter 1 in The Cricket in Times Square:

The cash register had one drawer, which was always open. It had gotten stuck once, with all the money the Bellinis had in the world inside it, so Papa decided it would be safer never to shut it again. When the stand was closed for the night, the money that was left there to start off the new day was perfectly safe, because Papa had also made a big wooden cover, with a lock, that fitted over the whole thing.

Here, Papa Bellini needs to solve a problem: the cash register drawer is stuck and he wants to keep the money safe. Any time you see a moment like this in literature, tell yourself that the characters are needing to solve an engineering problem. All of a sudden, engineering is everywhere!

Elementary educators are constantly pulling in fantastic works of literature to engage and excite their students. Literature doesn’t have much of a plot without characters needing to solve problems. The same tools you already use to help your students understand plot can help your learners understand engineering.

Consider Mr. Popper’s Penguins. The plot focuses on Mr. Popper receiving a penguin in the mail and needing to keep the penguin happy and healthy. All along the way, Mr. Popper is designing and building various things for Captain Cook. You can get your students thinking like an engineer by encouraging them to reflect on questions like:

  • What problem is Mr. Popper trying to solve?
  • What ideas does Mr. Popper have to solve his problem?
  • What would you do if you were Mr. Popper?

You can really take your engineering thinking to the next level by asking your students, “How can we build a model of our ideas?” It’s amazing how many models you can build using supplies like cardboard and hot glue or LEGO.

Entire books can focus around key characters solving problems. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen tells the story of Brian trying to survive in the wilderness by constantly strategizing different ways to stay alive. The Wild Robot by Peter Brown showcases a robot overcoming adversity by exploring all sorts of technologies from camouflage to prosthetic limbs to housing. The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder provides an amazing opportunity to discuss how infrastructure helps communities and what can happen when infrastructure closes down. If you were to think through your own curriculum and ask yourself, “What books show people solving problems?” I’m confident you would have a long list. And every time you encounter a character trying to solve a problem, you have the opportunity to show your students engineering in action.

If you can teach your students to analyze a plot, then you can certainly help them think like engineers.


This week’s blog was a guest post from Lindsey Nelson from Opportunity Unlocked. On Saturday, January 11th at 11 AM, Yen Verhoeven will be interviewing Lindsey about uncovering authentic engineering activities in children’s books. Lindsey will walk you through a STEM lesson from start to finish, and we’ll talk about how to get started in STEM without becoming overwhelmed.

Come with your questions, because Lindsey will have the answers!

Register for this free event here: https://events.genndi.com/channel/easySTEM

Don’t worry if you aren’t able to attend live, you will get a replay of the webinar delivered to your inbox as long as you register!


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