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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management / Sustainability

Books to Help Build Elementary Students’ Understanding of Engineering

Thoughts Turn In Springtime …

For the last several weeks, the view from my office on the third floor has been of treetops filling out with leaves. Looking down to the ground, I can see flowers coming into bloom, bushes becoming green, and animals of all kinds scurrying, hopping, or flying about, urgently concerned with their appointed, springtime tasks. It’s a delight and a wonder to see the natural world coming to life in such vivid fashion.

… To Tech?

But here’s what I have been touching and using during these weeks: the keyboard of my computer, the touchscreen on my phone, the steering wheel of my car, the roads around my house, and many other designed and built objects of day-to-day technology.

A Victim of Success

The fact is, we live in the engineered world much more than the natural world. We live in the engineered world to such a degree that we almost don’t even see it as engineering.

Students’ conceptions of what engineers do highlight just how invisible this designed, engineered world is. A series of surveys over the last 15 years has made clear how little students, especially elementary-age, understand about engineering.

Engineers are, to them, are mostly mechanics and laborers, along with some technicians. They fix vehicles and machines, lay down roads and put up buildings, and make sure the lighting and HVAC systems work.

The Larger Picture

Almost totally missing from students’ conceptions of engineering are the hallmarks of what engineers actually do. The National Academy of Engineering has laid out a full program for “changing the conversation” about engineering. It focuses on how engineers use knowledge of math and science to develop technological solutions to improve people’s lives and solve problems across nearly every field of human activity. Engineers, in this telling, are creative, persistent, collaborative, and analytical, in varying degrees at various times to various ends.

Future Matters

It matters for students to understand these attributes of engineering because what they come to see as accessible, interesting, and possible for themselves, at even very young ages, has a big influence on their future selves. What excites them shapes what they like to do, which shapes who they think they can be, which shapes what they study, which lines them up for future career options.

A fascinating book, Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments, makes this case in well-researched, accessible detail. One of the main points turns on the importance of designing learning opportunities to positively shape young students’ interests and feelings about topics of study:

Recent research on the relationship between affect and learning shows that the emotions associated with interest are a major factor in thinking and learning. Not only do emotions help people learn, but they also help determine what is retained and how long it is remembered. (82)

For younger students, reading experiences can lay the circuitry of their affective apparatus in long-lasting ways. Whether experienced aloud, in reading groups, or in their own explorations, the content of engaging books can have an outsized impact on current and future learning orientations.

Books to the Breach

To apply this formula as a remedy to the empty or misbegotten conceptions students have about engineering, out-of-school programs can make great use of books about engineering. As both literacy tools and pathways into greater familiarity with engineering and technology, the books on this list offer a widely appealing, substantive entrée into these forces that so deeply shape our individual and shared lives.

Can’t Go Wrong

The books come with recommendations from various quarters, not least from the elementary-age children in our own house. And they’re just a sampling of the increasingly wide world of high-quality, engineering-related books available for young learners. Mileage may vary, but these books are guaranteed to move students in some way or another, with approximate grade levels and links to more information provided.

For PreKindergarten to 2nd grade:

2nd and 3rd grade:

4th and 5th grade: 

For breakfast, I had two scones with homemade strawberry jam, a banana, and three cups of coffee, one for each of our elementary-age children.

Author: @ericiversen

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