by Michelle Forsythe and Julie Jackson
Most people think of the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web as a story of devoted friendship between a spider and a pig. But it can also be read as a story of a budding engineer – Charlotte – who prototypes, builds, tests and revises her web to solve a problem.
As teacher educators, we use children’s books to make lessons about science and engineering accessible to children of all ages.
Through books, children can experience how engineers use design-based thinking, which focuses on creative and innovative solutions, to solve problems. They can also explore the history of things that they use every day, such as crayons, bridges and cars. And they can expand their image of who can be an engineer or inventor.
Our work suggests that picture books and biographies for young adult readers can be particularly effective for introducing children to the engineering design process. These are the actions – ask, imagine, plan, create, test and improve – that engineers take to design a solution to a problem. They also help children understand engineering habits of mind. These are the traits, such as creativity and persistence, that help engineers successfully solve problems.
Here are some of our favourite science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) books for children, and some of the engineering lessons that they teach.
Lonnie Johnson was always curious about how things worked. One day, while trying to figure out a way to replace the harmful chemicals found in refrigerators and air conditioners, he connected a pump with a nozzle to his bathroom faucet. When he turned the faucet on, water blasted across the room. Johnson had invented a water gun! Johnson tested and redesigned his new invention until it became the perfect summer toy – the Super Soaker.
This picture-book biography introduces young readers to the prototype-test-redesign process that is central to engineering.
Lilian Todd – a self-taught inventor, engineer and contemporary of the Wright brothers – worked to improve airplane designs in the early 1900s. This picture-book biography of her life illustrates how an engineer’s designs frequently fail. And it uses quotes from Todd’s perspective – “There is no work so discouraging, so exasperating, so delightful … so exhilarating as building aeroplanes” – to capture her resilience in overcoming these challenges.
As children often face similar obstacles in their own STEM journeys, Todd’s story provides a model for how children can prepare for, reflect on and move forward from moments of failure.
Another biography, written for ages 10-13, tells how teenaged William Kamkwamba built a wind turbine to produce electricity for his family in Malawi. The story shows how anyone, of any age, anywhere in the world can be an engineer.
This book is a great selection for a family or multi-age book club as it is also available as a picture book, a biography for adults and even a movie. Everyone can pick the version that is best for them and gather in person or via video chat to talk about lessons learned from Kamkwamba’s dream, determination and design.
Many books that are already in homes, schools and local libraries can also be used to introduce the engineering design process and habits of mind. We recommend looking for the following story features when choosing a book to explore design-based thinking with children.
First, the story presents a problem in a real-life context. Second, the story describes a design plan or way to solve the problem. Third, a character creates, tests and evaluates a prototype of this design. And finally, a character improves the design and applies the revised solution.
Michelle Forsythe is assistant professor of STEM education and Julie Jackson is associate professor of curriculum and instruction, both at Texas State University