Engaging English Learners in K-12 Engineering

Engineering is now part of the Next Generation Science Standards as well as many state standards. As schools and teachers begin to think about how to introduce engineering in their classrooms, they should do so in ways that support all students, including English learners.

Because K-12 engineering is a relatively new discipline, we have an opportunity from the start to design curricula and instruction that embed effective practices. There is not yet much published research specifically about engineering with English learners. But there is much to learn from research done in other STEM disciplines, particularly math and science. The recent consensus report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives, provides a comprehensive review of such research. It addresses STEM learning and language development, effective instructional strategies, school-family-community interactions, teacher preparation, and assessment. The concise summary of relevant literature, and its 24 conclusions and 7 recommendations provide valuable resources to spur thinking about engineering with English learners.

Over the past few years my Engineering is Elementary (EiE) team and I have begun to explore some of the affordances of engineering for English learners. Close work, conversations, and observations of elementary teachers and students engaged in engineering lessons suggest a few ways that English learners can benefit from engineering instruction. These resonate strongly with the overall themes of the NASEM publication.

First, engineering can be designed to offer rich opportunities for language-intensive classroom experiences. Hands-on engineering challenges invite students to engage in authentic, purposeful, and meaningful discourse. As they dive into open-ended challenges, students can generate original solutions.

Students need and want to use language to share their innovative, unique ideas with others on their teams and in their class. Well-designed engineering lessons ask students to read, write, speak, listen, and visually represent their ideas and designs. For example, as students engineer a device to help a person with a physical disability open jars and cans, they might research the topic or interview the client to learn more about what is needed, discuss design features and sketches with teammates, share ideas for which materials to use and why they might work, negotiate with team members to arrive at an initial plan, draw and label a diagram of their proposed solution, collect and record data about how it works and where it needs further adjustment, determine how they can improve the device, and communicate what solution they recommend and the process they used to develop it with their classmates and clients.

A second beneficial feature of engineering centers on the materiality of engineering. Students, and many engineers, use physical materials to produce a product. Exploration of materials and their properties is an important part of engineering for children, especially those in elementary and middle school. Describing materials and naming properties allow all students to develop both understanding and a robust vocabulary to communicate—whether something is fluffy, opaque, strong, or porous might determine whether it is the best choice to meet the criteria of the project. Developing linguistic descriptors goes hand-in-hand with developing skills to manipulate and construct solutions. As they design concrete models, students can demonstrate their ideas through gesture, drawing, and construction of a technology. The materiality of the solutions allows students with varying levels of English proficiency to participate and share their ideas in meaningful ways. They can experience success by using multiple ways to show what they know.

The open-ended nature of engineering design challenges, which allow multiple solutions, also can invite English learners to contribute what they know. Culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms are rich in different ideas and perspectives, which can strengthen engineering solutions and the learning community. Students can draw on their funds of knowledge and creativity as they consider how to solve the challenge at hand. As English learners share their ideas and draw from concrete experiences, they can communicate the salient features to others through language and sketches. Furthermore, other students are encouraged to consider the different ways other cultures solve problems thereby broadening their perspectives. 

Finally, engineering can encourage students to develop new identities for themselves and see others in different ways. Doing authentic engineering tasks shows students they are capable of this type of work and allows them to begin to build affiliation and identity. Engaging in language-rich engineering challenges can provide opportunities for students to develop their academic language in ways that build their self-confidence about their engineering or STEM abilities. Engineering tasks that allow students to demonstrate their ideas also encourage students to regard their teammates and classmates as valued collaborators. Contributions that draw from multiple modes of communication can be made, recognized, and celebrated by a larger group, and students, including English learners, can become active, valued members of the engineering learning community.


Christine M. Cunningham is the Founding Director of Engineering is Elementary and is Vice President of the Museum of Science, Boston. 

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