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Learning to think, talk and act like an engineer

Yara and Eli put wheels on their basket car as part of the Engineering Club at Heritage Heights Elementary School. In addition to teaching the third-graders about engineering, it helps them with their literacy skills.

Literacy and engineering come together at UB to help third-graders learn the engineering design process

Release Date: March 25, 2015

Anton and Ari reinforce the axle of their car.

“People might wonder why literacy researchers would be interested in studying an Engineering Club. But recent standards movements ... focus on literacy skills across all content areas. Each discipline, like engineering, has its own set of disciplinary literacies.”
Mary McVee, director, CLaRI
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Welcome to the Engineering Club at Sweet Home School District’s Heritage Heights Elementary. Joey and Anton are eager third-graders working on how they can attach the back wheels (CDs) to an axle (pencil) to a car body (foam core board) that will be powered by a rubber band.

“It’s hard Joey, very hard,” says Anton.

“But if we two work together …” answers Joey.

“It’s not gonna be too hard,” says Anton, “’Cause we two have great ideas.”

The boys are part of an after-school club sponsored by the University at Buffalo’s CLaRI (Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction) and NYSCEDII (The New York State Center for Engineering Design and Industrial Innovation), along with support from the Graduate School of Education and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at UB.

Twice a week, 22 third-graders stay an hour after school to learn about engineering and the engineering design process.  The enthusiastic third-graders do not just focus on engineering. They are also learning how to talk and interact like engineers, honing their literacy skills, especially language, to work collaboratively.

“People might wonder why literacy researchers would be interested in studying an Engineering Club,” says Mary McVee, director of CLaRI and principal investigator on a study exploring literacy and engineering. “But recent standards movements like Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards focus on literacy skills across all content areas.  Each discipline, like engineering, has its own set of disciplinary literacies.”

This spirit of collaboration and communication is palpable on club days.

“The level of engagement was exceedingly high,” says Library Media Specialist Leanne Zlotek. She calls the Engineering Club an “amazing experience.”

The daily tasks revolve around engineering. But the underlying literacy principles are what CLaRI is all about. Students work with peers to solve intricate real life engineering problems, using inquiry skills, a process the surrounding adults say leaves the kids wanting more.

Student projects include a balsa wood and Popsicle stick bridge, and another that constructs a landing protection system made of balloons and modeled after the Mars Rover. Children are now familiar with several types of engineering, such as civil and aeronautical engineering. Excited parents have told Zlotek their children go home sharing everything they do in club and talking enthusiastically about what they are learning.

There are ties between engineering design and art design in elementary settings, says Tracy Langlotz, an art teacher involved in the project. When she introduces Heritage Heights Elementary students to a new project Langlotz helps children explore materials and think about what each different art material can contribute to a finished project.

Langlotz follows a similar procedure whenever introducing a project in the engineering club. First, the students gather around the materials table to explore the different substances. Because some of the children are English Language Learners not yet proficient in English, students first learn the names for everyday objects.

“What do we call this?” Langlotz asks, holding up a thumb tack. As she guides children through explorations of the properties of the different materials, she models the types of questions engineers might ask themselves.

“Does this bend?” she asks. “How strong is this?”

Today’s club begins with a video of a rubber-band-powered car in action. Cheryl Aldrich, Sweet Home’s Instructional Support Specialist for Science Education, helps her students think through some problems they encountered during the previous club meeting with designing their own cars.

Some of them had struggled with materials, so Patrick Rexford, a four-grade classroom teacher at Heritage Heights, made a model car out of a basket, pencils, a curler, a binder clip and four wooden wheels.  

“What do engineers do if the first materials they have chosen aren’t working?” asks Aldrich, while Rexford demonstrates his model for the students.

Then Rexford and Aldrich lead the children through a discussion of what kids can think about when changing their design. Part of the engineering design process, the teachers tell them, means learning about planning, creating, testing and improving.

The kids zip off to six round tables in the library media center.  They hunch over their cars, all of which have bodies made of plastic baskets or foam core board. Some cars have wooden wheels, and some have wheels made from old CDs.

“What do you think about your design?” the teachers and UB faculty and graduate students ask them, stressing the literacy skills central to CLaRI’s mission. “What needs to be improved?”

As they work on their cars, pairs of students leave the library to go outside into the hallway where they test their cars.

“Hey, this car goes better upside down,” says Anton when he tests his model.

“Why do you think it goes better when it’s upside down?” asks one teacher, prompting the boys to consider the possibilities. After testing the car, the kids return to the library to improve their model.  They decide to change the rubber band, then go to the materials station at the front of the room to choose one. Soon, they have the new rubber band – this one thicker and bigger – install it, and go to the hallway to test again. 

Watching the boys work as a team, Ken English, deputy director of NYSCEDII, is impressed with their collaboration. Many engineering companies and industry partners, he says, emphasize the need for workers who not only have the proper skill set around engineering content and design, but who can also communicate effectively with team members and clients.

"Both as an engineer and as a parent,” English says, “I know that a great way to open doors to future careers in engineering is by having kids experience and understand what engineers do on a daily basis.”

At another table, Yara and Eli have been working diligently to attach their wheels to the body of their car. With great anticipation and excitement, they wind up their rubber band and put the car down on the floor. The front wheels spin in place but there is no motion.

“When we wind it up it doesn’t go anywhere,” Yara says disappointedly.

Aldrich asks Yara and Eli to put their heads near the floor and look to see which part of their car is touching the floor.

“Where is the bottom of your car?” she asks.

“Oh, on the floor,” they say.

“Why don’t you want it rubbing on the floor?” Aldrich asks them. “What force is working on the bottom of your car?”

“Friction,” both answer, almost together.

The children work diligently to solve the problem, but then encounter another design issue.  Rexford suggests they go out to the testing area to observe how some of their fellow engineers have designed their cars. As the children watch the cars, Rexford wonders whether they have ever seen cars at home get stuck in the winter.

“The tires spin around and around, but the car does not move anywhere,” he says.

It’s a light bulb moment for the children.  

“Tape! They have tape on their tires,” Yara says after watching some of the other cars.

“The tape adds friction,” says Eli.

The two children quickly return to the materials table, find some tape and add it to their tires.

As children work on their projects and teachers help them explore the engineering design process, all are immersed in a rich language environment that prompts them to question, explain and critically examine: Why do you think that works?  Why doesn’t it work?  What problem does that solve? Where are you in the engineering design process right now?  Let’s think about that together.  Did you check your product against the requirements that your client gave you?

“This partnership is a real success story,” says Lynn Shanahan, associate professor of literacy education in UB’s Graduate School of Education, who worked closely with Zlotek and Heritage Heights Principal Scott Wolf to establish the partnership with the UB team.

“Few schools have opportunity to teach the engineering design process at the elementary level,” Shanahan says. But when Zlotek approached her about a collaboration involving inquiry, Shanahan knew the UB team would jump at the chance. The collaboration between the researchers at UB and the teachers at Sweet Home was essential to understanding disciplinary literacies and the development of the curricular activities that were appropriate at the elementary level.

“Having the teachers try the lessons with third-graders,” Shanahan says, “is critical to learning pedagogical approaches for introducing the engineering design process with elementary-aged children.”

Media Contact Information

Charles Anzalone
News Content Manager
Education, Educational Opportunity Center, Law,
Academies, Honors College, Student Activities

Tel: 716-645-4600
anzalon@buffalo.edu