Amador Elementary Students Blend Reading and Engineering in DPIE Afterschool Program


February 1, 2018

Ms. Phillips and her students gather for "The World of Engineering" - a STEAM Afterschool course offered by DPIE's Academy. Using basic engineering skills, students explore classic children stories and solve problems.

Ms. Phillips Portrait

On an overcast Thursday afternoon, a collection of Amador Elementary students eagerly awaited another learning opportunity after school. The site was C-206 – in a 4th grade classroom. The purpose was for the once-a-week module of “The World of Engineering”- one of the many Afterschool STEAM programs hosted by the Dublin Partners in Education (DPIE). The goal of this particular program is to enable students to use their imagination and investigation skills to design projects that help to solve world problems. Leading the class is Ms. Sara Phillips. Sara attained her B.A. in Liberal Studies from CSU Monterey Bay and later earned a M.A in Education from Chapman University. This is her 17th year in education and her sixth in DUSD. Subsequent to our classroom visit, we had an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Phillips to gain her observations.

DPIE: Is engineering a passion of yours?  If so, how did you develop your curriculum for once per week sessions?

Sara Phillips: “Engineering has become more of a passion for me over the last few years. I see many valuable lessons that relate to engineering that go beyond Science. I see my students building problem-solving and team-building skills when working cooperatively to accomplish a common goal. I notice students taking ownership of the tasks, and therefore feel a sense of accomplishment when they find answers to their questions. Over time, I have seen students let go of feeling like they need to do things in a certain way or within a certain time-frame. They begin to accept the challenges that come along with engineering and use the setbacks as stepping stones in order to dig deeper, work harder, and seek more knowledge. These opportunities allow them to feel sense of accomplishment because they navigated their own learning.”

Story Books for Afterschool Lessons

Ms. Phillips developed her course with an inspiration from Roxaboxen, a children's book about imagination and creativity. With this inspiration her class approached the Three Little Pigs as young engineers.

 DPIE: Please articulate why you have chosen to add a book to each section.

Phillips: “One of my inspirations for this program is a book called Roxaboxen, by Alice McLerran. The story is about a town that children create by using only rocks and boxes, but especially their imaginations. In using such basic materials, these children create a whole world of their own where they create all of the things they want in their world (like ice cream shops), but also think ahead about potential problems like what to do if someone breaks a law that they’ve created? I started thinking about all of the wonderful technology that children have access to today, and all of the opportunities that this gives them. But, I also notice that they don’t always have the opportunities to create their worlds with basic materials like I did as a child.” “After reading The Three Little Pigs, we looked at the problems and solutions in the story, as well as the different viewpoints the characters displayed. We did some research about unique houses from around the world. We looked at the features that made the houses strong and discussed how we could apply these ideas to our designs.  The students then designed their homes, making them as strong as possible, and testing them out with the Big Bad Wolf (blow dryer).”

Parachutes in Afterschool Class

A student drops a parachute designed in Ms. Phillips course. Students used mostly recycled materials for testing and developing their solutions for Jack's parachute escape in Jack and the Beanstalk.

DPIE: Share some of the feedback that you’ve received from the students.

Phillips: “The students seem to enjoy the freedom they have as they design their own creations, while also having the support and structure when needed. They also seem to enjoy the simplicity of the course. We use mostly recycled materials, and I have been amazed at how excited the students are to bring in egg cartons and cardboard boxes. Last week, when we began designing parachutes for Jack to escape from the giant's castle, several students were excited to realize that their plastic bags worked perfectly to help Jack land safely. Most of the stories are familiar to the students, so they have something to connect to. At the same time, they look at each story with a different lens than before. We look at these stories as “engineers” now.”

Student Takes Notes in Afterschool Class

A students lists notes shared in the class. Ms. Phillips course includes ongoing research and group discussions for solving their engineering problems.

DPIE: Give us a preview on some of your upcoming topics/projects.

Phillips: “This week, we will continue discussing Jack and the Beanstalk and designing our parachutes. We will then attach Lego people to the parachutes and test them out from the top of the play structure. Over the next few weeks, we will read about the history of Valentine’s day and designing projects that include 3-dimensional hearts, tallest possible stacking hearts, measuring our heart-rates, and catapults for Cupid. We will then begin creating our own world with boxes (and other recycled materials), while thinking of potential real-world problems that we might see in our towns. We will read Roxaboxen and research problems local towns and cities experience. Students will decide what problems they would like to tackle as they become the engineers for their self-created towns.” In this continuing series, we will highlight ongoing classes in the STEAM Afterschool program. DPIE recently published the Spring schedule which occurs from March through May. Enrollment information can be found at:

DPIE Afterschool Spring 2018

DPIE's Spring 2018 Afterschool courses open for enrollment mid-February. Upcoming courses and schedules are available online - View upcoming courses.