Novel Engineering – engineering and literacy combined for student success!

Read a book, make a fish hook! Sound interesting?

If so, read on….

One of the real highlights of my recent Churchill tour to the USA was a visit to the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at TUFTS University, Boston. One of their main projects is Novel Engineering and the website at has detailed information. Essentially the project uses classroom literature as a context for engineering to engage kids in STEM through the integration of engineering and literacy.

Students identify a problem or challenge in a text and set about designing and building a solution to that problem. Examples of texts and the challenges the characters face can be found at


This term I have been using the classic American text My Side of the Mountain to support my Science and Human Society and its Environment units based on animal adaption and national parks. I’ve also been exposing my students to tinkering and makerspaces and they have responded very positively to design, make and create activities. So it was with interest that I set out to see how My Side could fit our ‘making’ environment in the classroom.

My Side of the Mountain has at its centre Sam Gribley and his adventures in the Catskill Mountains after he runs away from home. It is very much about adapting to a foreign and sometimes hostile environment with many practical challenges – ideal for novel engineering. One of the activities Sam completes in the book is the making of a fish hook using twigs and reeds/grass.

I set the task of having the students make their own fish hook using twigs, bark and natural materials from the school yard. I gave little practical guidance and we went outside and spent the first session collecting materials and ‘trying’ to make a hook. This was really interesting as students approached the activity in a number of ways; some jumped in and started trying to tie things together randomly while others took their time and found fine pieces of twig and casuarina leaves or tore grass plants into thin pieces for the weaving and tying.

first attempts

first attempts

first attempts - tying the hook using casuarina needles

first attempts – tying the hook using casuarina leaves

completed hooks

completed hooks 



Frustration also become evident for some students who while academically very capable and high achieving in the tradition sense could not complete to their satisfaction a finished design. We shared our finished designs of varying success and talked about the iterative design process and my favourite belief of ‘learning through mistakes’. We talked about what we could change in terms of material selection for the hook and for tying. We then returned and started afresh, this time students that struggled initially had taken on board suggestions, reflected on their designs and seen the success of others. Again we repeated the process and after a third making session of about thirty minutes we had our finished hooks ready to share.

On reflection I think that Novel Engineering has much to offer and caters especially well for students with learning difficulties or who might not always achieve the general mainstream academic success of their peers. I also found that both boys and girls engaged equally well, however students who have difficulty with say comprehension and reading could produce a product related to the text and explain the process that they had undertaken.

What struck me was how this type of engineering design task really allows all students to shine, one of my students really struggles with literacy and in this activity she shone and quickly crafted and delicately bound together a hook. She came to me beaming and explained that the needlework and craft that she did at home made the construction component that much easier.

I see great value in the project. It offers teachers who are not confident with the design and make process, a way in through using texts that they are familiar and at ease with. By combining both literacy and STEM, an integrated project learning experience is accessible and students have an engaging and challenging environment in which to succeed. Thanks also to Cara Rieckenberg from SEA school who recommended both this text and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series.

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