Books for the junior engineer
December 30, 2009 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Are there any good books out there for your 6-10 yr. old child who shows an interest in engineering?

Say your 6 yr old child comes home and says, "I want to build (blank) when I grow up." What books do you give to show him/her what it's all about?

I'm thinking of a kid's eye view of project engineering/management. To be the engineer in charge of a big project you need experience in the details. I'm thinking there might be a kid's book out there that says something like

"I'm a mechanical engineer. I do this and this and this. Blah blah blah."

"And I'm an electrical engineer. I do this and this. . ."

"And the project engineer is the guy over there with the grey beard. He's the guy in charge of the whole project, not just the little parts."

"This is how we build (blank)."

I'm not looking so much for a book like David Macauley's "the way things work" (although it's a very good book for what it addresses) but more along the lines of a kids version of System Engineering Management by Benjamin Blanchard only waaaaaaay simplified for young readers. And, of course, it should be fun to read and maybe a little goofy (maybe even goofy like the Cartoon History of the Universe goofy--educational but certainly not a text book).

If there isn't a book out there like this, there should be. Anybody have any suggestions?
posted by Lord Fancy Pants to Education (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There definitely are. I was looking for some books at the library on Pharmacology careers and all I could find were in the juvenile section, which was loaded with books on various careers for kids of all ages.

I cannot recommend one to you, but a quick search of "Kids Engineering" on Amazon returns quite a few results you might check out.
posted by Palerale at 1:41 PM on December 30, 2009

The How Did They Build That? series is pretty good. They've got Road, Airport, Bridge, Skyscraper, and School. First few hits on this Amazon results page.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:51 PM on December 30, 2009

Oops, I see they've also got Dam, Tunnel, and Stadium. Here is the publisher link -- you can look through the airport one, and see if that's the kind of thing you're looking for.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:57 PM on December 30, 2009

If How Things Work isn't what you want, what about McCauley's building books? (Scroll down to the "Also bought..." list.) At that age, I *loved* the illustrations - years later, I still remember the bit in Castle about how poop was managed. As your child gets older, the text is more approachable and interesting, but honestly the illustrations are just hugely interesting and informative.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:57 PM on December 30, 2009

What about the David Macaulay books like Castle, City, and Cathedral? I loved them when I was little, with lots of detail about how complicated structures get designed and built. They have a type of story to them, and I think they can help support engineering "thinking" in general.
posted by dreamyshade at 1:58 PM on December 30, 2009

I bought Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book for my 8 year old future engineer cousin, and he reportedly loves it.
posted by Soliloquy at 2:50 PM on December 30, 2009

Thirding David Macaulay's other books. "Castle" is also available on DVD.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:54 PM on December 30, 2009

Underground is another really good David Macaulay book.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:55 PM on December 30, 2009

Flying Buttresses, Entropy and O-Rings is probably a little old for the age range you mentioned, but is really well done explaining engineering to a general audience and I know of some who read it as a middle schooler.
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 2:59 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing David Macaulay. The books are pretty light on text, with great pictures. There are videos of Castle, Cathedral, and Pyramid, I think. Most public libraries would have some, so you can check them out.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:04 PM on December 30, 2009

Trilogy Publications' "Those Amazing Engineers" seems like a good choice. "Those Amazing Engineers helps kids understand just what engineers do. Examples from robots to rockets, from supercomputers to shampoo, illustrate that engineers make a big difference in our lives." Amazon says ages 9-12, but it's probably fine for a 6yo.

Uh, "Cool Careers for Girls in Engineering" could maybe work depending on something gender related. (Obviously it includes pie-baking, vacuuming, and clothes ironing-based engineering. Not to derail, but why not have it be "Cool Careers in Engineering" and give a mixed gender set of profiles? Eh, I guess we still need to overcome plenty of social biases and mindsets, and overcompensating is good for that. ala "take your daughter to work" day.)

"Rocks, Jeans, and Busy Machines: An Engineering Kids Storybook" seems good too: "This book is the first in a unique series of books for children ages five to nine and is the only series written by professional engineers specifically designed to incite an early understanding of and interest in the different fields of engineering."
posted by sentient at 3:23 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'm out of line here, but I'd go with things like Backyard Ballistics and certain parts of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Simple, yet interesting explanations on things all us little kids dig.
posted by Redhush at 5:01 PM on December 30, 2009

How about an issue of or a subscription to Popular Science?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:36 PM on December 30, 2009

I like Jan Adkins who wrote Moving Heavy Things which I really enjoyed and wished I'd read before I moved a really heavy thing recently.

It's the kind of thing that I think kids 100 years ago would have seen in action whereas today we think we need heavy machinery to move things.

Another favorite is the books listing 507 or 1800 mechanical movements.
posted by mearls at 7:16 PM on December 30, 2009

Response by poster: Good comments but still pretty "mainstream."

David Macauley's books are great but they deal with the "things" of engineering. His books show the reason why any kid wants to get into science and engineering. The cool thing about the English Channel is that it goes under the English Channel. The cool thing about a skyscraper is that it's so dang tall. But that's not exactly what I'm looking for.

I'm looking more for a kid's book that deals with the "processes" of engineering and the "organization." I'm looking for a kid's book that explains in a fun way why we have a Preliminary Design Review (PDR), and a Critical Design Review (CDR), what they are, how we meet requirements and schedule, what happens during Assembly and Test, why problem solving is still so important even though we've known how to build towers and bridges and satellites for years.

This, of course, is not normally considered "the cool stuff" of engineering but it is the glue that holds engineers together so that the bridge can actually be built (instead of having 100 engineers running around building their own solid but different designs).

I'm looking more for a Systems Engineering or Systems Management book for the junior engineer/organizer heavy on the "organizer."

As an anti-example think of Dilbert. Everybody knows he's an engineer who works with other engineers but it's pretty unclear what they actually do (Adams worked for AT&T for years which is where he gets his material). The jokes come when Adams skewers the "process" side of his job--meetings and stuff like that. It's an "anti-example" because I'm looking for an educational book that puts the process and organization in a good light not a comedy book that lampoons it (even though I love Dilbert).

I'm looking for a kids book that goes into the purpose of those meetings and how they relate to building that cool thing they're building.

Thanks for the comments so far. Please keep 'em coming.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 12:18 PM on December 31, 2009

IIRC, David Macaulay's books, especially Castle and Cathedral, do address planning in a roundabout way. During the cathedral's construction, new technology comes into play that radically changes the design, and by the time the castle is built, peace has broken out—basically, things that were not taken into account during the planning.

But formal design processes and engineering hierarchies are IMO just as much social as they are technical, and the best way to teach that stuff at his age is social interaction and not time alone reading. So much of engineering is building on the work of others. Someone working alone will tend to reinvent the wheel. The best thing you can do for a child interested in engineering is encourage play with like-minded friends, or maybe setting up a trip to "Engineering Camp" or something similar.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:23 PM on December 31, 2009

"Sorry Bobby, you can't touch your Legos until you've filled out an environmental impact statement form, and submitted revised designs to our review board."

Honestly, I think this is a bad idea; teaching children project/engineering management is a fine way to kill the love of the craft. It's also not clear there's any one right way to do management; at it's heart there's two aspects: risk management and finance. If this sounds dangerously boring, like insurance policy boring, thats because it is. The insight Dilbert brings to the table is how poorly finance experts grasp engineering risks.

There are plenty of places to introduce children to finance; risk management is a different beast entirely. Probably the most interesting way to teach risk management practice is to capture failure. Tahoma Narrows, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Challenger, Arianne 5, etc. This website has a collection of noteworthy failures, and wikipedia even captures a list. Many of them are recent enough in public memory that you can find video of the failure in progress, and "post-mortems" of the biggest ones in front of congress. Here's a fairly interesting lecture on failure of systems, with a focus on software-caused failures. A quick amazon search reveals this cheap book that seems to have useful case studies and even a "further reading" section.

Beyond that, what exactly it means to manage an engineer varies wildly. Some places encourage exactly the 100 designs approach you shun; there were plenty of lightbulb filament designs in Edison's labs, and I doubt you'll find a Preliminary Design Review. Other companies form a company around making a single idea work (or fail), like Shockley Semiconductor.
posted by pwnguin at 4:54 PM on January 3, 2010

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