Novel Engineering

Often teachers ask us how making can authentically connect literacy and language arts concepts. Tufts University’s Novel Engineering is answer! This is one of our favorite activities because it uses common recyclable materials, easy to access craft supplies, and encourages students to dive deeper into books and stories in order to create unique solutions for problems the characters are facing. With a focus on the literacy concepts, this is a fun way to bring engineering and simple machines into the classroom.


Novel Engineering was designed by a group of educators and researchers from the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. Their team has assembled an authentic way to integrate the engineering design process with a clear focus on literacy outcomes. They have created a curated list of books to get teachers started and have also provided examples of what novel engineering looks like in a classroom to help you brainstorm learning outcomes and prepare your lesson.

When we are working with students in a workshop setting we will often begin with commonly known fairy tale books and short picture book that we carefully curate for diverse representations. Some of our favorite diverse author/illustrators are Rachel Isadora, Duncan Tonatiuh, Carmen Tafolla, and Yuyi Morales. For more information about diverse fairy tales and picture books, check out our list of novel engineering fairy tale picture book and engineering problem examples and  this list of multicultural fairy tale books.

Novel Engineering Process (adapted from Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach):

  1. Read a book and define problems that the character(s) is/are facing.
    1. Discuss while reading, clarify as needed, identify design constraints.
    2. We created this visual guide handout to help keep designers on task
  2. Examine problems and brainstorm solutions for character client(s):
    1. Novel/Story is context and characters are client. Try to empathize with what they need in their situation.
    2. Make inferences from text, brainstorm solutions, define criteria
    3. Explore types of simple machines and recyclable building ideas to be used in design.
  3. Design solutions and plan the design.
    1. Consider and discuss what materials are needed for the design.
    2. Consider and discuss how the design will work.
    3. Sketch what will the design look like.
    4. Share and discuss designs and criteria/problem.
  4. Create functioning prototypes.
    1. Test it and reflect.
    2. Get feedback during Mid-Design Share Outs with fellow designers.
    3. Reflect on feedback and make notes of changes you make or questions you have.
  5. Improve design
    1. Revise and make design better after feedback and testing.
    2. Make note of changes.
  6. Share final design solution and design process
    1. Show off final solution to peers/audience.
    2. We created this reflective prompt guide to help students communicate their design and learning with others.

If you’re interested in learning more about Novel Engineering, check out these resources:

Articles about Novel Engineering:

Research about Novel Engineering: