Academic journal article Science and Children

The Cat in the Hat Builds Satellites: A Unit Promoting Scientific Literacy and the Engineering Design Process

Academic journal article Science and Children

The Cat in the Hat Builds Satellites: A Unit Promoting Scientific Literacy and the Engineering Design Process

Article excerpt

The integration of engineering with scientific practices in K-12 education can promote creativity, hands-on learning, and an improvement in students' problem-solving skills (English, Hudson, and Dawes 2013). These practices can be enhanced if aligned with mathematics and English language arts standards. Combining math, literacy, and engineering makes learning more inclusive, exposing students to real-world problems while supporting learning through the engineering design process (EDP). The integration of children's literature can model and scaffold engineering practices, which allows teachers to reframe the practices and problems and help students understand real-world issues. The following unit incorporates five children's books that model and scaffold the EDP for students in grades 3-5 (see Table 1, p. 82). By providing students with real-world problems that pique their interest while they learn, these books can provide teachers with a way to connect abstract science concepts to everyday ideas.


Engineering design processes are used by engineers to solve problems. For this unit, we used a five-step EDP, which was simplified for elementary students by the Boston Museum of Science and the Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning (INSPIRE) at Purdue University (Mann et al. 2011). The five steps are Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve.

Each step of the EDP encourages students to answer a set of questions. During the EDP, students answer the following questions:

* What is the problem?

* What have others done to solve this problem?

* What are the constraints?

* What could be some solutions?

* What materials are needed?

* Does the product work?

* How can the product be improved?

The Satellite Design Challenge Unit

The Satellite Design Challenge Unit was created for use in an informal STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program. Informal settings are key to developing engineering skills among K-12 students: They offer enrichment opportunities for students that supplement traditional classroom learning, which is often limited by certain constraints. According to Eshach (2007), children's experiences in formal and informal environments have great effects on their achievement in schools. Furthermore, informal learning environments can play an important role in promoting science learning by increasing interest, engagement, and understanding of STEM for individuals of all ages and backgrounds through self-directed learning experiences (Phillips, Finkelstein, and Wever-Frerichs 2007). Research indicates that only 10% of U.S. students are exposed to engineering in informal K-12 educational settings (NAE 2010), despite the research surrounding informal education and its positive impact on student learning and attitude (Schnitika et al. 2012).

Children in this informal STEM program, ages 8 through 10, worked together during the five-week unit to seek innovative solutions to the challenge of designing, creating, and marketing a satellite to launch into space and orbit the Moon. Students were exposed to critical learning skills such as teamwork, creative problem solving, and effective communication as they rotated through the five steps of the EDP (Mann et al. 2011). Additionally, they shared design choices with their peers in the form of an advertisement created to market the product they had developed. The activity used for this program was modified from Kruchten, Robbins, and Hoban (2014).

The unit aimed to help students understand engineering practices through the EDP. Students were assigned to groups so that each contained one third-, one fourth-, and one fifth-grade student. This differentiation strategy met the needs of students at all three academic levels. Although students learning English as a second language (ESLs) were not a part of this population of students, this unit's hands-on, scaffolded nature allows for incorporation of ESL strategies. …

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