Educators learn to meld science and literature at Washington University conference

More than 30 educators from across Missouri and Illinois gathered at Washington University in St. Louis to learn how to use STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) to bring literature to life, during a two-day Novel Engineering conference June 13-14.

Designed by educators and researchers from the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), Novel Engineering is an innovative approach to integrating engineering in elementary and middle school reading activities. Students read a book, work together to identify the problems in the story and use STEAM to create a solution.

“Part of the reason that I love Novel Engineering is because it gets our kids to become better communicators, better collaborators and gets them to use all of those 21st century skills we always talk about,” said Lisa Meyers, a certified Novel Engineering facilitator, who led several of the sessions.

Melanie Turnage leads a session during the Novel Engineering conference.

At the helm for other sessions were Melanie Turnage, curriculum coordinator for WashU’s Institute for School Partnership, STEMpact facilitator Barbara Pener, and Elissa Milto, lead developer of Novel Engineering and CEEO Outreach Director. The conference was done in collaboration between the ISP and CEEO.

Turnage said the conference was a wonderful opportunity for teachers in our region to learn new ways to incorporate multiple content areas.

“It was exciting to be a part of the professional learning happening during the sessions and to support teachers as they plan to implement Novel Engineering in the coming school year,” Turnage said.

The conference was a mixture of presentations and workshops with an emphasis on hands-on projects.

“I like being creative so this conference is totally in my wheelhouse. I’m all about it. This is a fun way to bring engineering and simple machines into the classroom,” said Rachel Bentlage of Jefferson Elementary in Cape Girardeau. Bentlage is a K-1 reading specialist and likes that Novel Engineering spotlights the importance of learning through failing forward.

“Failure is life and you’re going to fail at things,” she said. “You need to go back and rethink how you can make it better. In particular, I think it’s great that Novel Engineering will push the limits of our students who are perfectionists.”

Janet Creek shows off her hammock chair prototype.

Participants identified problems from books including  Peter’s ChairThe Three Little Javelinas and Humprey the Whale, and used engineering design principles to create unique solutions for challenges the book characters faced. It was a productive two days, with design prototypes that included a new hammock chair for a boy named Peter, a coyote trap, and charting a path to get a lost whale back to the ocean.

In one session, participants read the book Egg Drop, and learned about an egg that was determined to fly, with or without wings. The team started problem scoping and realized the problem was twofold: that the hen was not monitoring the egg, and that the young, naive egg didn’t realize it couldn’t fly. After brainstorming solutions, and a couple of false starts that included an alarm monitoring system for the egg and a flying suit for the egg, they were finally ready to prototype. The resulting design was an egg carrier for the mother hen. The team tested their prototype by building a model of a chicken and testing the carrier on it.

Rubina McCadney, a sixth-grade science teacher at Brittany Woods Middle School in University City, said the conference enabled educators to take a deeper dive into the process. She has taken part in other Novel Engineering opportunities, but said this gathering really helped hone her understanding.

“This experience has been enlightening and given me more detailed information. I feel really secure going back into my classroom and introducing this to my students, and even to other teachers,” said McCadney. She also appreciated the collaborative nature of the conference, and getting best-practices ideas from other teachers.

McCadney hopes her students use the problem solving skills they’ll learn in Novel Engineering throughout their other subject areas.

Registration costs for the conference were subsidized by a grant from the McDonnell Family Foundation.

Participants of the conference are invited to attend Novel Engineering follow-up sessions throughout the upcoming school year. They’re scheduled to meet in September, January and May. The goal is for teachers to have a chance to collaborate, reflect and share their experiences implementing Novel Engineering.

June 2019 | by, Myra Lopez