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Inspire out-of-the-box thinking in students with these wide-ranging books that demonstrate STEM in action.
At its roots, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. But beyond the basics, STEM thinking goes past facts to explore innovation, problem-solving, creativity, persistence, divergent thinking, and assimilation of new ideas. Integrating literature into a STEM curriculum helps teachers prepare twenty-first-century kids for challenges and jobs that we can’t yet predict. Instead of focusing on specific content, the books on this list show STEM thinking in action, inviting students to see the world differently and to think in new ways about their observations. In fiction and narrative nonfiction, students will see characters facing real-world problems and then using STEM thinking to develop solutions through trial and error. Teachers can use these books to celebrate the joy of figuring things out, and to illustrate that failure is often an important step to success.
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. By Laurie Wallmark. Illus. by April Chu. 2015. Creston, $17.99 (9781939547200). Gr. 1–3.
This picture-book biography details how Ada Lovelace Byron was able to imagine and write a computer program more than 100 years before the first computer was built. By applying mathematics and logic to the design of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she pioneered the profession of computer programming.
Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant. By Songju Ma Daemicke. Illus. by Christina Wald. 2017. Arbordale, $17.95 (9781628559033). K–Gr. 3.
Without a scale large enough, six-year-old Cao Chong creatively considers several designs and devises a mathematical process to measure the weight of an elephant. Based on a true story from ancient Chinese history, this puzzle will show students how math helps solve real-world problems.
Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13. By Helaine Becker. Illus. by Dow Phumiruk. 2018. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $17.99 (9781250137524). K–Gr. 3.
Sure to inspire a new generation of mathematicians, this picture book captures the drive and determination of Johnson through her segregated childhood education to her critical leadership role supporting many NASA programs, including Apollo 13. Additional in-depth information about Johnson’s life, along with a list of sources, is included.
The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath. By Julia Finley Mosca. Illus. by Daniel Rieley. 2017. Innovation, $17.99 (9781943147311). K–Gr. 3.
Patricia Bath broke new ground for both women and African Americans in the field of ophthalmology. By inventing the Laserphaco Probe, she created a quick and almost painless way to treat cataracts, now used on millions of patients around the world. A note from Bath herself highlights the power of perseverance.
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. By Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Illus. by Eric-Shabazz Larkin. 2013. Readers to Eaters, $17.95 (9780983661535). Gr. 1–4.
The inspirational story of former basketball player Will Allen and his quest to start a vegetable garden in a city filled with pavement and parking lots will inspire kids to think about where their vegetables come from.
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin. By Julia Finley Mosca. Illus. by Daniel Rieley. 2017. Innovation, $17.99 (9781943147304). K–Gr. 2.
Animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin would eventually overcome the challenges of autism to design animal husbandry techniques to more humanely treat livestock in the meat industry. This rhyming story illustrates for young readers that being different is not a detriment.
Green City: How One Community Survived a Tornado and Rebuilt for a Sustainable Future. By Allan Drummond. Illus. by the author. 2016. Farrar, $17.99 (9780374379995). K–Gr. 3.
When a tornado destroyed Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007, the citizens designed multiple solutions for making their city tornado-proof as well as environmentally sustainable. Reusing materials and mindful of energy savings as well as their climate, townsfolk built a whole new town.
Locomotive. By Brian Floca. Illus. by the author. 2013. Atheneum, $17.99 (9781416994152). K–Gr. 3.
A Caldecott Medal winner, this book views the advent of cross-country train travel from every perspective: the building of the transcontinental railroad, the structure and mechanics of the locomotive, tasks of crew members, the passing American landscape, and experiences of passengers. Images and text work together to form a visually stunning package, and a substantial information section for older readers provides even more technical and historical details.
The Most Magnificent Thing. By Ashley Spires. Illus. by the author. 2014. Kids Can, $16.95 (9781554537044). K–Gr. 2.
A young girl struggles to design and build the most magnificent thing, but her initial attempt fails. From her efforts, children see the importance of planning, preparation, and not giving up in the face of disappointment. Illustrations convey the spectrum of emotions from frustration to happiness at her ultimate success.
Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist. By Jess Keating. Illus. by Marta Álvarez Miguéns.2017. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, $17.99 (9781492642046). PreS–Gr. 3.
As a woman, Eugenie Clark had to prove that she was smart enough to be a scientist and brave enough to research sharks. By thinking differently and using research, she changed people’s perceptions about female scientists and sharks. Additional factual details will fascinate budding marine scientists.
Solving the Puzzle under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor. By Robert Burleigh. Illus. by Raúl Colón. 2016. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $17.99 (9781481416009). Gr. 1–3.
With fellow geologist Bruce Heezen, Marie Tharp carefully plotted Atlantic Ocean depth data, making a surprising discovery that confirmed the theory of continental drift. This informative and inspiring book illustrates scientific inquiry in a relatable way by comparing it to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.
Swap! By Steve Light. Illus. by the author. 2016. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763679903). PreS–Gr. 2.
A little pirate uses ingenious thinking to barter items on hand for the items he needs to help a down-on-his-luck sailor. A loose button starts the swapping spree that finishes with a fully refurbished ship. Kids can practice counting the items and judging their worth in trade as they join the refrain of “SWAP!”
Ticktock Banneker’s Clock. By Shana Keller. Illus. by David C. Gardner. 2016. Sleeping Bear, $16.99 (9781585369560). K–Gr. 3.
In the eighteenth century, a young Benjamin Banneker takes inspiration from a pocket watch to invent a larger clock that chimes. He perseveres over many months to imagine, revise, and complete his invention. An author’s note provides more information on his life.
What Does It Mean to Be an Entrepreneur? By Rana DiOrio and Emma D. Dryden. Illus. by Ken Min. 2016. Little Pickle, $17.95 (9781939775122). K–Gr. 2.
A young girl named Rae demonstrates curiosity and innovation as she finds an inventive solution for a dog-washing business. This story aims to foster open-minded thinking and a positive entrepreneurial spirit in young readers.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. 2015. Dial, $16.99 (9780803740808). Gr. 5–8.
Readers will be transported to East Africa in this inspiring memoir of a young Malawi boy who used scrap metal to invent a windmill and bring electricity to his drought-stricken village. This book should make readers think about the electricity, running water, food, and educational opportunities that many take for granted in the Western world.
Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. By Jeannine Atkins. 2016. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781481465656). Gr. 4–7.
This collection of fictionalized stories in verse about three real women whose innovations influenced modern science conveys their scientific importance while also imagining the complexities of their lives as daughters, wives, and sisters. Readers will relate to the three women as they investigate and think differently about metamorphosis (Maria Merian, 1647–1717), fossils (Mary Anning, 1799–1847), and comets (Maria Mitchell, 1818–89).
Hidden Figures. By Margot Lee Shetterly. 2016. Harper, $16.99 (9780062662385). Gr. 5–8.
This book tells the true story of four mathematicians known as “human computers” who used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets into space. Not just their intelligence but their motivation to learn and persevere helped them succeed.
Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem. By Patricia Newman. 2017. Lerner/Millbrook, $31.99 (9781512426311). Gr. 5–8.
Newman highlights curiosity and the thought processes of a scientist, showing kids each step that marine biologist Brent Hughes took to solve the mystery of why the Elkhorn Slough ecosystem is healthier than other similar areas. Through careful study, Hughes discovered that sea otters help keep the seagrass algae-free through their feeding habits, which, in turn, provides benefits to the entire ecosystem.
Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees. By Franck Prévot. Illus. by Aurélia Fronty. 2015. Charlesbridge, $17.95 (9781580896269). Gr. 3–5.
Kenyan environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai resourcefully engineers both peace and environmental responsibility. This book explains how she earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for starting an NGO dedicated to planting trees, protecting the environment, and promoting women’s rights. It also shows her persistence in her efforts throughout the political upheavals in Kenya.
Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet. By Buzz Aldrin and Marianne J. Dyson. 2015. National Geographic, $18.99 (9781426322068). Gr. 4–7.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin shares ideas and encourages readers to think critically about planning for a trip to colonize Mars. Drawing on his experiences as an astronaut, Aldrin discusses what readers will need to do to successfully inhabit the planet, and includes activities throughout.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. By Chris Barton. Illus. by Don Tate. 2016. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580892971). Gr. 1–4.
The author’s mission is to diversify common perceptions of what scientists and engineers look like and who they can be. This book shows the many obstacles and setbacks Lonnie Johnson experienced while getting his engineering degree and working at NASA, and also his tireless efforts to launch his invention, the Super Soaker.
Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done. By Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser. 2017. Harper, $17.99 (9780062472502). Gr. 6–10.
Two teenage girl programmers show how they got started in coding and pushed through barriers to create their viral video game Tampon Run. This conversational and relatable book shows authentic problem-solving and provides students with the inside scoop on what life is like for women in STEM industries.
Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. By Phillip Hoose. 2012. Farrar, $21.99 (9780374304683). Gr. 7–12.
The personal work being done by scientists and conservationists are strong themes in this study of the yearlong migration cycle of a single Eastern shorebird. This species is rapidly declining as humans cause changes to its feeding grounds and food supply. Readers interested in conservation work will see the real-world ways that scientists are getting involved.
Sabotage: The Mission to Destroy Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. By Neal Bascomb. 2016. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $17.99 (9780545732437). Gr. 8–11.
This true story combines adventure, wilderness survival, military strategy, and the science of the atomic bomb. Nine Norwegian commandos explore multiple solutions to life-threatening problems, as they attempt to destroy a hydroelectric plant that produces heavy water, a vital component for constructing an atomic bomb.
Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up. By Jennifer Swanson. 2016. Charlesbridge, $17.95 (9781580897204). Gr. 6–9.
This book explains the molecular bonding of nanoparticles and gives examples showing how engineers are using this technology to create new materials that enhance the athletic performance of superstar athletes like Michael Phelps and Serena Williams. Kids will be fascinated by the innovative improvements through cutting-edge, real-world science that is changing elite sports.
Sonja Cole, a former school library media specialist, is the author of Booktalking around the World: Great Global Reads for Ages 9–14.
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