The introduction of engineering into elementary school state and national standards offers students new opportunities to engage in practices with which they are likely unfamiliar. One core engineering experience is using an engineering design process to solve a design challenge. As children navigate a structured engineering design process, they encounter new opportunities to engage in verbal and written discourse. Engineering curricula may feature physical artifacts like materials and engineering notebooks, the use of which structures students’ experiences. Engineering notebooks have potential to guide elementary students’ engineering practice in unique ways that enhance their learning; this study investigates how notebooks shape students’ engineering practice, discourse, and interactions.
Our research approach is based on educational ethnography developed by Author 4 and colleagues ([Author 4], 2014; [Author 4 et al.], 1999). This approach begins by asking ethnographically oriented questions about the cultural practices of a group (Castanheira, Crawford, Dixon, & Green, 2003). In this case, we analyzed the video dataset and notebooks to understand the ways that elementary engineering was interactionally accomplished among the students, the notebooks they used, and their teacher. We drew from interactional sociolinguistics to study specific discourse processes in contexts of use (Gumperz, 1982).
We used video data collected as part of a larger research study. We purposefully selected one elementary student group (3-5 students) from each of four classes engaged in engineering design. Student engineering notebooks were also collected. Students used these notebooks, part of the curricular resources, to record data, represent models, and present designs. We transcribed video footage of each group (4-7 hours apiece) and created event maps for each lesson. During analysis, we paid particular attention to student use of the notebooks. We derived categories representing how the notebook is used and the roles it plays as students engage in engineering practices.
We found that the notebook shapes student practice of engineering, becoming an actor in the students’ conversations and structuring student activity in several key ways. First, the necessity to draw or describe plans for a group design in the notebook demands that students build consensus. Second, as part of the discussion and argumentation during this consensus-building, students rely on information held in the notebook, referring to previously recorded design ideas, scientific data, and engineering test results. Finally, particular sections of the notebook require students, individually and as a group, to reflect on their engineering practice and synthesize their activity throughout the design challenge to present final designs or recommendations to clients.
As engineering at the elementary level proliferates, considering these and other ways in which notebooks support and structure student engineering practice could assist teachers and curriculum developers in designing better learning opportunities for elementary students.
Castanheira, M. L., Crawford, T., Dixon, C. & Green, J. L. (2001). Interactional ethnography: An approach to studying the social construction of literate practices. Linguistics & Education, 11, 353-400.
Gumperz, J. J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Author 4. (2014). Book chapter. Dordrecht: Springer.
Author 4 et al. (1999). Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
Are you a researcher? Would you like to cite this paper?
Visit the ASEE document repository at
for more tools and easy citations.