The search continues for picture books to include in an early childhood robotics curriculum. As I wrote in previous blog posts, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a robot picture book that demonstrates robotics concepts. Granted, I’m looking at storybooks, not nonfiction, but is it really too much to ask? When working with young children, as young as four or five, I’d rather draw them into a playful discussion using an engaging story than use above-level nonfiction texts to present dry facts.

Now I’ve expanded my search to include picture books about any kind of machine, not just robots. Coding and computer science are one side of the robotics coin; the other side is mechanical engineering — the actual designing, building and functioning of the robot’s hardware. Many non-robotic machines demonstrate relevant mechanical engineering concepts. For example, any machine with wheels shares characteristics with a robotic rover. Any machine with a lever shares characteristics with most robotic arms.

The most likely place to start when considering picture books about machines is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton. Can a classic picture book from 1939 offer anything of interest to 21st century robotics students? I discovered, surprisingly, that the answer is yes! I believe that both the story and the illustrations could be used in a robotics classroom to introduce and consider several important engineering ideas.

In the book, Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann, his steam shovel, promise to dig a cellar for a town hall “in just one day.” No one believes they can do it, it seems impossible, yet somehow (spoiler alert) they are able to accomplish this very challenging task just in the nick of time. Hooray! The story demonstrates persistence and determination in the face of grave discouragement. This is a message that children need to hear, especially when the limbs of their WeDo robots keep falling off or the wheels of their EV3 rovers won’t stay on track. Mike Mulligan has what researcher Carol Dweck would call a “growth mindset,” an essential perspective for successful learners, especially in robotics and other STEM fields.

While most of the illustrations in the book are somewhat fanciful – after all, the steam shovel wears a smiling face – but the book’s endpapers offer a detailed profile of the steam shovel, a fairly accurate diagram worthy of analysis by aspiring mechanical engineers. The parts of the machine are labeled with call-outs and we can see exactly where, for example, the “boom” and “trip line” are located on the shovel, not unlike the parts of many robotic arms. The form and function of this machine are clearly represented in the three distinct levers – the hoist lever, the crowd lever, and the swing lever. Young robotics students will certainly benefit from a critical thinking discussion and analysis of the book’s beautiful endpapers.

Although the story ends with Mary Ann’s retirement, the book’s conclusion has a surprisingly contemporary feel. Mike Mulligan converts Mary Ann into the town hall furnace. Her steam engine becomes the building’s boiler, yet he keeps Mary Ann’s structure intact, her smiling shovel still beaming at Mike Mulligan and his friends. This ingenious repurposing reminds me of the contemporary trend of “upcycling” made popular by a crafty and ingenious hipster culture. Today on Pinterest or Intagram you can see many examples of upcycling projects, such as a vintage tractor wheel turned into an urban dining table, a wooden pallet converted to a kitchen cupboard, a stack of old suitcases made into a chest of drawers. If Mike Mulligan lived in Wicker Park or Logan Square today, he would be hailed as a Chicago-style hipster hero for upcycling a steam shovel and converting it into a functioning furnace.

Whether you are hipster or not, this beloved classic in children’s literature, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, still sparks interest and learning almost eighty years after it was first published.

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