Weaving Literature into Science: Novel Engineering

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.  I wove my webs for you because I liked you….By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
                                                                                    Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte, the spider who saves Wilbur’s life by weaving remarkable words into her web, is the perfect literary analogy for Novel Engineering, a new movement in literacy that seeks to engage students in design thinking and engineering through an integration with works of literature.

Charlotte, as a design thinker, empathizes with and defines Wilbur’s problem (being slaughtered); she then brainstorms a series of words that could be spun in her web to show Wilbur as a remarkable pig. The word “crunchy,” supplied at first by Templeton the Rat, is quickly rejected for more appropriate words, Some Pig! and Charlotte spins her first web prototype. Charlotte continues to test her web prototype by building other webword designs: Terrific, Radiant, and Humble. The end result is that Charlotte solves Wilbur’s problem by saving his life, even as her own life as a spider comes to an end. Her reflection on the engineering process–that by helping Wilbur, “it lifted her life a trifle”–is an inspiring commentary on how good design can better the lives of others.

This summer I attended a Novel Engineering workshop at the STLinSTL
conference hosted by MICDS in St. Louis. The workshop presenters, Christy Moore (MICDS) and Monette DeSimone (City Academy), introduced attendees to Novel Engineering, an initiative that states its objective as follows:

Students use existing classroom literature–stories, novels, and expository texts–as the basis for engineering design challenges that help them identify problems, design realistic solutions, and engage in the Engineering Design Process while reinforcing their literacy skills.

The workshop immersed attendees in the Novel Engineering process. We listened to the children’s book Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and defined the problem to solve: a farmer’s garden is being eaten by hungry rabbits.

Working in teams of two to three, we used a Novel Engineering planning sheet to state the problem; identify the client (either the farmer or the rabbit); suggest a plan; and sketch an initial design.


Selecting an assortment of materials–such as paper cups, clay, tongue depressors, straws, and tape–we constructed our design.  My team chose the farmer as our client, and we built a hydroponic device designed to keep the growing plants at a height unreachable by the hungry rabbits. After making a rough sketch, the design had to be tweaked so that the support stilts would securely hold the hydroponic structure (a triangular base of tongue depressors held the cone-shaped hydroponic device the best).

We revised our plan and sketched the new design and finished assembling the device (note in the photo that we also built pipes and a water tank to supply water to the hydroponic plants). Each team then presented their engineered solution (some teams chose the rabbits as clients and created catapult devices to assist the rabbits in quick entry to the garden food). Below is an example of the Novel Engineering planning sheet.

The Novel Engineering process could be easily adapted in a library setting, and it addresses several AASL standards:

1.2.5 Demonstrating adaptability by changing the inquiry focus.
1.2.6 Questions and display emotional resilience by persisting in information             searching despite challenges.

This project could be further enriched by requiring students to research background for their design, such as what types of hydroponic devices are currently being used. The conference presenters videotaped their students as they presented their engineered designs; the engagement and enthusiasm of the students was very apparent.

Below are a few resources as you consider weaving literature and the sciences in Novel Engineering.

Novel Engineering Suggested Book List and Activities

TED Talk by Amos Winter (shows refining a design to meet a client’s needs:
an inexpensive, all terrain wheel chair that works in wind and sand)

Crash Course Kids:  What is an Engineer?

Crash Course Kids:  The Engineering Process


4 thoughts on “Weaving Literature into Science: Novel Engineering

  1. This is fabulous! I read Muncha, Muncha, Muncha to my summer camp kids. What a great extension. And I love the template you provide. Do we have permission to use it?

    • Hi Allison, this was a handout at the workshop and because of the Novel Engineering logo at the top, I assumed it came from the Novel Engineering website for educator use. However, I will e-mail the workshop presenters and query them. I will post more info as soon as I find out.

  2. Love this! I didn’t realize it was a movement! We did fairy tales last year and had students identify problems in Jack and the Beanstalk and creative solutions for them. Lots of great design thinking. Eager to share more ideas like this! Thanks!

    • Dear Natalie,
      Our science teaching does a parachute build that stems from a Jack and the Beanstalk prompt. I’d love to read more about your approach to inquiry with this fairy tale1

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