Transforming Elementary Science through LEGO™ Engineering Design

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

Over the past two years, researchers from Tufts University and Boston College have collaborated with local educators to develop and implement four new engineering-based science curriculum modules in 15 urban third- and fourth-grade classrooms. This research is motivated by the dual need to incorporate engineering into K-12 education while improving the learning and teaching of science in the upper elementary grades. The investigators seek to address this need through the continued development, implementation, and evaluation of innovative engineering-based science curriculum for grades 3 and 4. Driving research questions include:

  1. What and how do students learn from engineering-design challenges tailored to standards-based science concepts?
  2. What are best practices for introducing children to engineering while at the same time promoting their deep understanding of science content?
  3. Can engineering contexts improve elementary school teachers’ practice of science instruction?

The project currently works with three urban school districts in the Greater Boston area, and pre-service teachers at Boston College. All classrooms currently participating in the program are third and fourth grade classrooms.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is longitudinal and comparative; it is designed to generate evidence that is descriptive (using case study and observation), associative/ correlational (using interpretive commentary and quasi-experimental methods), and causal (using quasi-experimental methods). The investigators have developed a curriculum (four modules) to teach science through the engineering design process and implemented it in intervention classrooms. The topics covered in these units include sound, properties of materials, simple machines, and animal structures and behaviors. Teachers are trained in the units during a summer workshop and then implement the units in their classroom in place of the equivalent science units they previously taught. The investigators administer pre- and post-assessments of students’ understanding of scientific concepts and compare pre- and post-test gain in intervention classrooms working with the intervention curriculum to those in control classrooms where teachers use the regular (non engineering design-process based) curriculum. The comparison condition is composed of the same teacher, in the year preceding intervention, teaching the same concepts but without the engineering design-process based curriculum. Data on students' science conceptions are collected during this time.

This project collects original data using diaries/ journals/ records kept by study subjects, assessments of learning/ achievement tests, personal observation, videography, and survey research including paper and pencil self-completion questionnaires, face-to-face structured interviewer-administered questionnaire, and design artifacts produced by participating elementary school students. Instruments and measures used include:

  1. Science Assessments: The project team has developed science assessments for each of the science units involved in the project. These assessments are given to students before and after they study the engineering design-based science unit, as well as the typical science unit that teachers use during their first year of involvement.
  2. Science Attitudinal Surveys: Surveys on students’ attitudes towards science and engineering have been developed by the project team. These surveys are given to students before and after they study the engineering design-based science units, as well as the typical science unit that teachers use during their first year of involvement.
  3. Describe-Design-Diagnose Interview: Interview protocols have been developed for one science concept covered in each of the units. The interview protocols first ask students to describe the science concept. Then, students are asked to apply the science concept in a design. Lastly, students are asked to take a pre-existing artifact or artifacts and 'diagnose' how the science concept relates to or makes the artifact work. These interviews are only being completed with a subset of the population.
  4. Student Engineering Journals: Teachers are given student engineering journals for each of the units they teach in their classroom. Parts of the journals are being analyzed for completion, science conceptions, and design ideas.
  5. Classroom Videotapes: A subset of classrooms is being videotaped while they implement the engineering design-based science units. These videos will be used to help clarify what teaching methods are being utilized and what the classroom environment is like when these units are implemented.

Student change on the science assessments and attitudinal surveys will be examined for all students in both the control and experimental classrooms. The change in the experimental and control classrooms will be compared. Student interviews are analyzed for conceptual understanding of science and engineering design process. Videotaped classroom segments are coded for verbalizations and activities related to science and the engineering design process. Pre-post describe-design-diagnose interviews will be performed with a subset of students to examine their changing science conceptions and design capabilities in more depth. District-level indicators of ESL and free lunch status in participating schools will also be examined.

Raw data will be made available on request.


Preliminary data on student learning in some classrooms have been collected and analyzed. For the simple machines module, students significantly improved by an average of 5.1 out of a possible 20 points on a matched pre-post written assessment (p<0.001, N = 30). For the properties of materials module, students showed significant gains on a pre-post clinical interview that elicited their ideas about selecting, measuring, and describing materials and objects (average gain 4.9 out of 36 points; p<0.05; N=9).

Additional data, which include classroom observations, interviews with students, matched pre-post assessments, and students’ written work and engineering design artifacts, are being collected for all modules to further examine the effects of elementary school engineering-based science instruction.

Publications & Presentations: 

To date this project has been referenced in one research article and one book:

Brophy, S., Klein, S., Portsmore, M., & Rogers, C. (2008). Advancing engineering education in P-12 classrooms. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(3), 369-387.

Sternberg, R.J., Jarvin, L., & Grigorenko, E.L.. (2009) "Teaching for Intelligence, Creativity, and Wisdom", Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

This project has also been featured in four more informal articles: two in Tufts University publications, one in a New England Business magazine, and one authored by a teacher participant in a local newspaper. Links to these articles are provided below:

Other Products: 

The investigators have developed four curriculum modules on the topics of sound, properties of materials, simple machines, and animal behaviors and structures (teacher handbook, student workbook, assessments, LEGO™ kit). ‘Simple Machines’ unit has been implemented with 152 Boston College students, of whom 70 were declared pre-service teachers; four modules were implemented with in-service teachers in fourteen 3rd and 4th grade classrooms in the greater Boston area. Summer workshops have been developed to train teachers in these units.