Novel Engineering

How do students develop a solution to a problem while empathizing with a “clients” needs, purpose, and constraints using existing curriculum?

This week in my Digital Ed Learning class, we are investigating ISTE Student Standard 4: Innovative Designer. To me, this is an exciting standard as it encourages students to use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions. (ISTE Student Standards 2019) The question above is what is driving my investigation this week.

Over the past few years I have felt the push of standardized testing results guiding my instruction. Opportunities for STEM learning have been moved to before or after school. That means classroom instruction has become heavy in math and literacy, which has created a noticeable deficit in student engagement.

Finding the time and support to incorporate innovative lessons (that are not district approved curriculum-based) is difficult at best. That is why I am beyond thrilled to share with you a resource called Novel Engineering. Novel Engineering is a program designed by Tufts University that combines what you are already reading in class with the Engineering and Design Process.

This video shows some ways that you can implement Novel Engineering in your classroom.

Novel Engineering integrates literacy and engineering. “Stories are full of tension, conflict and dilemmas that make wonderful departure points for engineering projects that weave the subjects together.” As students are reading a novel, they jot down problems that the character(s) face. Students will select one of the characters with a problem to become their “client.” Students will pair up to “design, prototype, test and iterate on solutions to their chosen problem.” (Gossett, 2017)

ISTE Standard 4, Innovative Designer has 4 indicators shown in the image below. In summarizing the indicators, students need to use a design process for solving authentic problems, considering constraints, and develop and refine a prototype showing student perseverance with an open-ended question.

Novel Engineering has these indicators built into the process in three parts: Frame the Problems, Engage in Conceptual Planning, and Realize and Test their Ideas. (Milto, Tufts University)

In Framing the Problem, students will read the text deeply to gather information, empathize with the character’s needs problems, brainstorm solutions that will make sense, and consider constraints from the text as well as in the classroom. It is in this step, that I think students and teachers sometimes rush over because they want to get to the fun stuff- Making something!  It is this step that you must develop an understanding of a problem and develop some sense of empathy for the character in order to create an authentic solution. (McCormick, 2016)

I read the novel, Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. This novel is told from two perspectives from different time periods. Salva is a boy that escapes from his village in the Sudan because of a Civil War and Nya is a young girl that has to walk long distances daily to get water for her family. As I was reading, I took a lot of notes about what the characters experienced and problems that they encountered. (see image 1) It made me very sad that all the the people displaced in the war had no way of knowing if their families were alive. Salva had to walk for weeks towards a new country without knowing if his family survived the attack on the village. So that is the problem that I decided to find a solution for.

Image 1: Framing the Problem- a list of problems generated while reading the novel, Long Walk to Water.

The next step in the process is Engage in Conceptual Planning. Students will consider multiple ways to solve the problem, keeping in mind the time and place of the text and what materials would be available. Designs have to be based in reality, students are not allowed to use “magical” solutions. Students will use math and science reasoning when figuring how their design will work.

During this step, I filled out a design solution sheet. I needed to define the problem, tell how my solution would solve the problem, write down the criteria needed to make it successful, write down design constraints, and make a sketch of the design. (Image 2) In my first drawing (not shown), I made the message board 3 sided, because I know that a triangular structure is mathematically strong. It was when I was trying to figure out how people would know where you were going, that I decided to make it four sided to show direction (NEWS). It is during this part of the process that you should have a mid-design share out, so that students can ask questions to help you refine your ideas.

Image 2: Engage in Conceptual Planning- the design sheet I created to envision my solution.

The final step in this process is Realize and Test Ideas. Students take all of their planning and feedback and build a physical prototype. Students will present their ideas to the class and they can continue to make iterations on their prototype based on design tests, peer reviews, or class evaluations.

I used “classroom supplies” to build a scale model of a message board. (Image 3) After building the solutions, I have more questions… How will the information be given to the families to find out that members are alive? Who will collect the information? What do you do when the boards fill up? What happens if the writing utensil runs out?

Image 3: Realize and Test Ideas- the prototype of a message board.

In the end, I know that this is an authentic problem that needs a solution because in the book, it took Salva over 18 years to discover if his family survived the war. However, because of the questions generated above, I need to go back and make some iterations to my design.

The great thing about Novel Engineering is that students don’t have to complete all three stages in order to engineer. In the first stage, I was reading carefully, really trying to understand what the characters were going through. I found myself empathizing with the characters at every step, walking long distances in the extreme hot weather, wondering if the characters would be safe, trying to navigate the geography that Salva and Nya had to cover, understanding the conflict that divided the country, hoping that Salva would be reunited with his family, and realizing what technologies were available when the story took place (because I originally wanted to build an solar-powered message board that used a satellite to collect data). These are strategies that all teachers would love for their students to engage in while reading. You could stop after the second stage where students are taking all of the information gleaned from reading and design a solution to the problem. Students could present their ideas in mini groups and get important feedback from all of the students as they have read the text just as deeply and have a genuine understanding of the text. Think of all of the rich discussions that would be going on in your classroom! It is at this stage, where it is most beneficial to give feedback because students could go back to their design plan to make changes. If you do choose to make a prototype, then students could have a gallery walk, of course students could give feedback, but for the sake of time, it is difficult for students to go back and make adjustments to their prototypes.

Novel Engineering is a program that uses a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions (ISTE Student Standard 4) You are able to use your current literacy program to integrate engineering.


  • Portsmore, M., & Milto, E. ( ? ) Using Literature to Catalyze Authentic Engineering Design in the Elementary Classroom
  • McCormick, M. E., & Hammer, D. (2016). Stable Beginnings in Engineering Design. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER),6(1). doi:10.7771/2157-9288.1123
  • Gossett, R. (2017, August 22). A Literacy-Based Strategy to Help Teachers Integrate Science Skills. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from
  • (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • ISTE Standards for STUDENTS. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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