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Cross-curricular connections

Teaching Nature of Engineering with Picture Books

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) have placed a special emphasis on engineering, raising engineering design to the level of scientific inquiry. Therefore, it is important for teachers to integrate engineering processes into their teaching. Students should experience engineering design in their science classes—but the activity itself should not be enough. Students should also reflect on their engineering design experience in light of nature of engineering (NOE) ideas included in the NGSS. In this article, we describe how we integrated reading picture books into an engineering design process and how we used these books to generate explicit and reflective discussions around NOE ideas. This reflective approach intentionally draws students’ attention to the relevant ideas described in the NGSS while they are engaged in the engineering design process.

Picture books are helpful for students to make a better sense of the engineering design process (Mantzicopoulos and Patrick 2011). Similarly, we found picture books conducive to generating reflection on the engineering design process from the perspective of NOE ideas. We aligned each picture book with phase(s) of one popular engineering design process and certain NOE idea(s) to explicitly teach these ideas (Figure 1). We particularly selected these books because their overall messages nicely aligned with phases of the engineering design process and NOE ideas that we wanted to convey. The use of picture books to support teaching NOE ideas is particularly helpful for English Language Learners (ELLs) because visuals make the content more accessible to them. English Language Learners can also be paired with group members who understand both English and ELL students’ first language during the engineering design activity. Reading aloud picture books and subsequent discussions also targets Common Core Standards for Language Arts.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Engineering Design Process.

Engineering Design Process.

Explicit-reflective Nature of Engineering Instruction

There is a substantial amount of literature suggesting that engaging students in the scientific inquiry does not necessarily improve their nature of science (NOS) views if the students were not formally introduced to NOS ideas through explicit-reflective NOS instruction (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000). Similarly, we inferred that our students would not necessarily improve their NOE views due to their engineering design experience if we did not teach NOE ideas in an explicit and reflective fashion. Therefore, we wanted to intentionally draw our students’ attention to the relevant NOE ideas described in the NGSS while they are engaged in the engineering design process and to facilitate reflection about the engineering design experience from a NOE perspective.

Teachers should coordinate their explicit-reflective NOE teaching with the phases of engineering design process while students experience the engineering design process by designing, constructing, testing, and improving their design ideas. During each phase of the engineering design process, we recommend intentionally drawing students’ attention to certain NOE ideas by reading picture books. This explicit approach to teaching NOE can be utilized with any engineering design challenge. Our goal in this article is not to describe an engineering design activity but to explain how we integrated NOE ideas with the engineering design process through picture books. We implemented our explicit-reflective NOE teaching approach throughout a soda can crusher design challenge (Deniz, Kaya, and Yesilyurt 2018). Grades 3–5 students designed, constructed, tested, and improved their soda can crushers designs during the engineering design challenge. In this article, we describe how we taught NOE aspects in an explicit-reflective fashion within a soda can crusher design challenge by using picture books. However, this explicit-reflective NOE teaching approach with picture books can be integrated with any engineering design challenge.

At the beginning of an engineering design activity, we read the picture book Designing Dandelions (Hunt and Pantoya 2013; see the full book list in Table 1). We used Designing Dandelions to spark students’ interest in the overall engineering design process. Designing Dandelions is a fictional story in which aliens try to repair their spaceship by applying the engineering design process. As we read the book, we stopped at certain pages, asked questions, and elicited students’ ideas about engineering in general and engineering design processes in particular. We also discussed how aliens used their creativity and imagination while they repaired their spaceship by implementing an engineering design process. Designing Dandelions allowed us to explicitly introduce two NOE ideas (engineering design process and creative NOE) to our students. We used Engineering Elephants (Hunt and Pantoya 2010) to discuss what engineers can and cannot do in the real world. Reading Engineering Elephants allowed us to communicate the idea that engineers strive to find solutions to human problems in the real world (social and cultural NOE). While reading the book, a student commented on a page in the book, “Of course, engineers don’t make elephants but they do make roller coasters.” Before we ask our students to brainstorm about their possible design ideas and draw their design ideas on paper, we read the book Coppernickel the Invention (van Reek 2006). Coppernickel the Invention tells the story of two friends (Coppernickel and Tugsten the dog) attempting to construct a tool for picking high-hanging elderberries. We used this book to convey the message that there can be more than one design solution to the same engineering design problem and simple engineering design solutions can be more effective than the seemingly more complex engineering design solutions. After reading the book, students in each group brainstormed to come up with design ideas, agreed upon a design idea, and created a technical drawing of their design idea on paper. A child remarked, “my idea is simple just like Tugsten.” Before each group started constructing their design ideas, we read the book The Most Magnificent Thing (Spires 2014). This book tells the story of a girl struggling to construct a special scooter, which has an extra attachment to carry a pet dog. This book communicates the idea that engineers should use their creativity and imagination and persevere in the face of difficulty and failure in order to succeed when completing their engineering design projects. By reading this book, we explicitly communicated the message that engineers can revise their design ideas (tentative NOE) by using their creativity and imagination (creative NOE) while persevering in the face of failure (failure-laden NOE). Another student remarked, “the girl was not careful with her tools but we should be careful.” Each group ended up constructing a different design and demonstrated their designs to other groups. We concluded the engineering design activity with reading the book Ten Birds (Young 2011). This book tells the story of how 10 birds come up with 10 different solutions to cross a river. We asked our students if they see any similarity between 10 birds’ 10 different solutions to cross the river and their different design solutions. Several students wanted to reply at once. Sam eagerly responded, “We built different designs and the birds crossed the river in 10 different ways.” We used this opportunity to explicitly introduce the idea that there is no single best design for an engineering design problem and engineers can offer different solutions to the same problem (subjective NOE). This explicit emphasis on subjective NOE idea helped our students to internalize the meaning of subjective NOE idea by encouraging students to reflect on the story in Ten Birds from the perspective of their own engineering design experience.

We culminated the engineering design process with an overall reflection on the engineering design experience from the perspective of NOE ideas. The NOE poster that we created (Figure 2) served as a visual aid to facilitate the reflection while we asked each group to discuss the reflection questions in Table 2. After students finished discussing the reflection questions, we asked each group to present their collective answers to reflection questions about one NOE idea to the whole class. The NOE poster and the questions in Table 2 allowed us to facilitate reflection on the engineering design experience from a NOE perspective. This culminating reflection activity gave us another opportunity to explicitly convey NOE ideas to our students at the end of the engineering design experience. For example, one group chose to talk about collaborative NOE aspect. Their group speaker Vong summarized their group responses to three reflection questions about collaborative NOE aspect in Table 2 as follows: “We built the soda can crusher together. If we did not work together, we wouldn’t have the same design. I guess it is better to work as a team like real engineers.”

Figure 2
Figure 2 Nature of Engineering poster.

Nature of Engineering poster.

After the oral reflection, we recommend engaging students in a written reflection activity as well. Students can choose one NOE aspect (e.g., creative NOE) and write about how this particular NOE aspect was visible during the entire engineering design activity in their science notebooks. Examination of students’ science notebooks can give the teacher an overall idea about to what extent students’ internalized the meanings of NOE aspects. Reading aloud each picture book and subsequent reflections on relevant NOE aspects can give teachers opportunities for formative assessment while teachers can use the culminating reflection activity on the engineering design process from NOE perspective as a summative assessment.


We suggest that NOE ideas should be explicitly taught as an integral part of any engineering design challenge. In this article, we demonstrated how we taught NOE ideas to grades 3–5 students through picture books while they engaged in an engineering design activity. We found that selecting relevant picture books about engineering and supporting explicit NOE teaching with these books were extremely helpful. The picture books that we selected and the explicit-reflective NOE instruction described in this article can be used with other engineering design challenges with some modification. We think that introducing engineering design and NOE ideas together as early as possible can help students to develop more informed ideas about engineering.

Hasan Deniz ( is a professor of science education and the director of Center for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Education at University of Nevada Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ezgi Yesilyurt is an assistant professor in life sciences education at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Erdogan Kaya is an assistant professor of computer science education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., and N.G. Lederman. 2000. Improving science teachers’ conceptions of the nature of science: A critical review of the literature. International Journal of Science Education 22 (7): 665–701.

Deniz, H., E. Kaya, and E. Yesilyurt. 2018. The soda can crusher challenge: Exposing elementary students to the engineering design process. Science & Children 56 (2): 74–78.

Mantzicopoulos, P., and H. Patrick. 2011. Reading picture books and learning science: Engaging young children with informational text. Theory Into Practice 50 (4): 269–276.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Engineering Literacy Elementary

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