ITEEA The Elementary STEM Journal, Vol. 23, Issue 3
PublisherInternational Technology and Engineering Educators Association, Reston
ReleasedMarch 1, 2019
The Elementary STEM Journal, Volume 23, Issue 3 - March, 2019

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Activity: Streamlining Differentiation and Integration: Exploring a New Educator Resource


Streamlining Differentiation and Integration: Exploring a New Educator Resource 
by Chris San Antonio-Tunis, Owen Berliner, and Christine M. Cunningham


Teachers face myriad challenges in today’s classrooms, including subject matter integration and differentiating instruction for diverse learners. As classrooms become more diverse, and as testing and other requirements continue to take time away from instruction, teachers must carefully balance the needs of their students with other mandates and requirements. Fortunately, recent innovations in classroom technologies, while not a silver bullet, show potential to mitigate these and other challenges. Services like Google Classroom and Moodle are making it easier for educators to create, distribute, and grade assignments. Tablets are becoming cheaper and thus more ubiquitous, and mobile phones, once regarded as solely a distraction, have become powerful learning tools.

However, not all new classroom technologies are created equal. With U.S. investments in learning technology surging toward 20 billion in 2018, products abound. While some of these innovations are imagined and developed by educators, others are crafted by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The EiE project at the Museum of Science, Boston, has grounded its work in a belief that tools for educators should be developed in close collaboration with educators. In this article, we describe a new digital component to our flagship engineering curriculum, Engineering is Elementary. Developed alongside educators and designed to streamline differentiation and integration, this new resource will help educators balance the complex demands of the teaching profession.

Engineering is Elementary

Since its founding in 2003, EiE has been guided by the philosophy that all students can engineer, and that the process of engineering provides unique opportunities for multidisciplinary instruction in the elementary classroom. Developed collaboratively with educators, the curriculum uses engineering design challenges to integrate science, math, and technological literacy. Additionally, each unit begins with a storybook that sets the context for the activities and integrates English language arts and social studies into the lesson. The storybooks and the integrative nature of the curriculum resulted directly from the insights of educators who strongly suggested the resource allow for cross-disciplinary instruction.

To date, the curriculum has reached over 200,000 educators and 19.6 million students nationwide. When we began, digital assets in elementary classrooms were limited, and digital infrastructure in schools was often nonexistent or unreliable. Classroom technology has changed dramatically in the last 15 years, prompting us to explore how we, as curriculum developers, might leverage the digital medium to transform our paperback storybooks into a more interactive, multifunctional tool.

collaborative development of a new digital resourceAH0A8566-300-med.jpg

Development of this new resource began by learning from and with classroom teachers. In a series of surveys, interviews, and focus groups, we asked educators to tell us about the digital infrastructure at their schools and the availability of various technologies such as laptops and tablets. We asked how well supported they felt by their schools to learn and utilize new technologies and what functionalities and capabilities they would want from a digital version of an EiE storybook. Over 700 educators from all 50 states and six countries participated in this initial outreach. From these early data we gained three important insights:

•     Classrooms are more diverse than ever, and educators desperately need resources that can be easily differentiated.

•     With limited time in the school day and an ever-changing landscape of standards, curricula that integrate multiple subject areas help educators streamline their instruction while also prompting students to view their work as interconnected and relevant.

•     Educators do not always receive the technical support they need to implement new technologies and rarely have time to learn new and complicated systems. Therefore, any new resources must be straightforward and intuitive.


To differentiate their instruction and meet the needs of their diverse learners, educators must provide multiple avenues for children to understand content. Acknowledging this, we built several functionalities into the digital storybooks to facilitate differentiation. Educators can toggle between abridged and unabridged versions depending on the reading level of their students and the time they have available. They can also choose between Spanish and English versions, accommodating the needs of Spanish-speaking students. We also included an integrated text-to-speech reader capable of reading the storybook aloud. This can be used by the educator as a whole-class read-aloud, or by individual students who may benefit from listening and following along. Finally, we included an OpenDyslexic typeface, a font designed to mitigate some of the common reading errors associated with dyslexia.

cross-content integrationFigure 1.1 Digital Storybook Dashboard.jpg

Educator feedback highlighted their desire for a resource that could integrate content across a range of disciplines. To address this, we developed a set of features that connect the story’s content to science, social studies, and engineering. These include:

•     Integrated vocabulary definitions with text-to-speech that allow students to receive vocabulary support.

•     Interactive engineering design process call-outs that help students better understand the steps that engineers take to design a technology.

•     Interactive maps with key points of interest that provide opportunities for geographic and cultural connections.

•     Interactive animations that help students explore and understand complex science concepts.

•     Discussion questions that encourage students to reflect on what they have read.

Whether the storybook is used in a whole class setting, by students in small groups, or by students on individual devices, these features bring multiple subject areas together under one platform. This allows users to dig deeper into the multiple disciplines highlighted in the narrative. It also emphasizes the interconnectedness between content areas, which helps students find relevance and meaning in their work.

AH0A8551-300-med.jpgstraightforward and intuitive

As we added features, we kept a close watch on how these capabilities might create complexity. To ensure ease of use, we created an intuitive dashboard (Figure 1.1) where all of the aforementioned features can be toggled on or off by the educator or student. This also allows an educator to customize the platform to accommodate learning goals and students.

We also designed with technological accessibility in mind. Because of variances in technological infrastructure across schools and districts, we made the digital storybook available through a device-agnostic, web-based platform. This circumvents compatibility issues and affords teachers the flexibility of using the books on most modern devices, regardless of which technological ecosystem the school has invested in.

educators report digital version is a valuable resourceFigure 1.2 Preference of Digital Version Over Paper.jpg

As our development neared completion, we wanted to, once again, gather feedback from educators about the resource. We granted access to over 400 educators from around the country and asked them to use the platform with their students and provide evaluative input. Roughly 70 educators provided survey feedback, and a dozen agreed to more in-depth follow-up telephone interviews. Survey data suggest the digital storybooks are an improvement over the original print version, with 71% of respondents reporting they would prefer to use the digital version (Figure 1.2). Data also suggest that the digital version is straightforward and intuitive, with 79% of respondents reporting that they found it to be so (Figure 1.3).

We conducted interviews with a select group of educators who were willing to provide additional feedback. Takeaways from these conversations suggest the digital version effectively engages students in authentic learning experiences, while making interdisciplinary integration easier for the educator:Figure 1.3. Ease of Use.jpg

“I teach in a low income district with 75% free lunch. We are 1:1 with iPads. My kids really liked the maps feature because geography is not something we spend a lot of time with. They really liked seeing the country where the character was located, and how far from where they live. We also did the discussion questions with a partner. I think it held their attention better than the paper version.” – Ginger, Slocomb, Alabama

“Showing them a Google Map of where the character was from, showing them the region, etc. got [the students] more excited.” – Antonio, Buffalo, Minnesota

By creating a resource that is easily differentiated, educators are better able to provide learning opportunities for all of their students:

“We had students of all reading levels and several EL students. Everything from the vocabulary to the way it was structured enabled better differentiation opportunities.” – David, Lake Wales, Florida

looking ahead

Regardless of our continued advancements in technology, teaching will always be a challenging profession. It will always require dedication, content and pedagogical expertise, and an ability to balance the demands that compete for an educator's time and attention. However, just like the chalkboard, the textbook, overhead projector, or document reader, technologies can support teachers as they create learning experiences for their students. After gathering advice and feedback from over 700 teachers, we are excited to officially release our new digital storybooks. With particular attention paid to differentiation and integration, we hope they streamline these common challenges and support teachers in balancing the demands of their profession. Lastly, we hope this resource fulfills the mission of Engineering is Elementary to support educators in reaching all of their students.


Chris San Antonio-Tunis is a project manager on the Engineering is Elementary Research and Evaluation team at the Museum of Science in Boston. In this role, Chris works collaboratively with EiE project leaders to align their project goals with effective evaluation strategies. He designs data collection instruments, supports data collection processes, and manages the analysis of evaluation data so that EiE can make evidence-based improvements to its offerings. He holds an M.Ed in Education Research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Owen Berliner is a project manager on the Engineering is Elementary Curriculum team at the Museum of Science in Boston. In this role, Owen led the design and creation of the EiE digital storybook platform. Additionally, he contributes to the project by developing new curriculum units and associated educational resources. He holds an M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago.

Christine M. Cunningham is a vice president at the Museum of Science in Boston and the Founding Director of Engineering is Elementary. Her work has focused on making engineering and science more relevant and accessible, especially for populations that are underserved and underrepresented in STEM. She holds joint B.A. and M.A. degrees in biology from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Science Education from Cornell University.