As I wrote about last month, I’m really working hard to improve STEM in my classroom. I’ve created posters to teach the engineering design principles that students need to learn (download for free in my TPT store!), and we are working to incorporate them every chance I get. Valentine’s Day seemed like a perfect opportunity.
Before we go too far, I have to admit that the cookies had nothing to do with the STEM activity. It has been my tradition for 25 years to bake heart cookies for my students on Valentine’s Day, and I really liked the alliteration of cookies and catapults. So, full disclosure, this blog post will focus on catapults!
First, I decided to teach my students how to build catapults rather than have them explore and design themselves. There is a benefit to having them experiment and figure things out, and that’s exactly what we did in the First Americans Shelter Design Challenge. For this activity I wanted my students to focus on controlling variables and collecting data over multiple trials. For that reason, I used the catapult plans I found at DevonCollier.com. Each group needed 9 large popsicle sticks, several rubber bands, and a handful of candy hearts and a handful of Hershey’s kisses. I got the supplies ready that morning and after lunch, the building began!
The question we decided to answer was “Which would fly farther, a Hershey’s Kiss or a candy heart?” The students worked in partners to build the catapults, then we grabbed our measuring tapes and went outside to collect data. Each pair was responsible for collecting data for three trials for each type of candy. They collected their data on a data collection sheet, and then we went back inside to put our data together and find an average. You can download the Valentine’s Day Catapult data sheet for free below the pictures! They had to do some great math because they converted centimeters to meters, and then added and divided to find the average.
The students put their data together on a class data collection sheet, and then they had an answer to their question! Most importantly, they had a blast while practicing some key math and science content in a real-world experience. And they ate candy! What’s not to love?
Thank you to Sonya DeHart for designing the border I used on the Data Collection Sheet and to A Primary Kind of Life for creating the font on the Data Collection Sheet. Check out these talented teachers!
I am really fortunate to have a principal who supports me in attending a national or regional conference every year. This year, my whole team got to go to the regional NSTA (National Science Teaching Association) conference, and I was really inspired to jump into STEM! I had dabbled before, but the conference helped me see how to take the next step. What I really wanted was something that tied to my required curriculum, and also intentionally taught my students about Engineering Design Principles. I was looking for something more than an opportunity for kids to play around with cardboard and gadgets. Here’s what we did.
Students built background knowledge with a Gallery Walk.
I decided to incorporate required social studies standards about Native Americans, required math standards about subtracting and multiplying decimals and required science content about climates. We began with a Gallery walk including maps and pictures of traditional Native American Homes. Students worked in teams of 4 to look at a group of 2-3 pictures and record things they notice and things they wondered. After a few minutes they rotated to a new group of pictures. We also read an article about the First Americans to arrive that focused on the land bridge theory and the ways different cultures adapted to different climates. I wrote the text at three different levels so that all of my learners could access the information. We used a close reading protocol , so spent three days working with the vocabulary and ideas in the text. You can get the text and the Gallery walk maps and pictures in my TPT store here.
After my fifth graders had developed an understanding that people have adapted to different environments by using the available resources, we learned about the Engineering Design Process. We had gone through it before, but I created these posters so that my students could begin to internalize the steps. (The posters are free on TPT!) Then I put my students in groups of three. (I use an Excel spreadsheet to randomize the groups.) Each group randomly chose a climate card and a lifestyle card. The climate cards match the standard climates (Mediterranean, Tropical, Tundra, Arid, Temperate). They have two choices for lifestyles: permanent and nomadic. The challenge is to build a shelter that matches the climate and the lifestyle. So, a group might be building a permanent shelter for an arid climate, or a temporary shelter for a Mediterranean climate.
After we had explored the challenge together, each group got additional research materials: a short description of the climate including some of the natural resources, an analysis of each available building material’s Pros and Cons, and a list of the cost of each resource. The cost varies by climate because some resources are more difficult to get in different climates. The groups took a day to take notes from their research materials.
Then I guided students through the Engineering Design Process using the Student Guide. They completed the first few steps together, and then I met in a five minute conference with each group. The conference is essential! I used that as an opportunity to make sure that each student was involved in the planning process and understood the essential content about the climate.
Many groups had designed a traditional native home based on what they had learned about, and had not taken into account the climate and/or the lifestyle. For example, one group had chosen the tundra with a nomadic lifestyle. They initially planned to build a tepee, which was great for a nomadic lifestyle but a tepee in the tundra is not a suitable match! By meeting with that group, I was able to ask questions that helped them uncover that difficulty and they changed their design. Flexibility is a key attribute that I try to teach my students any chance I get!
Then, it was time to build! I gave students one hour to create their shelters. The next day I gave them one hour to test their design and improve it. All of the groups improved their design, so I felt really good about that! The final day of the project we invited parents and key staff (like my principal – always good to let him know that his PD dollars paid off!) to come to our presentations. Two students presented while one student from each group rotated to see the other groups. Then we switched, so after 3 rotations, everyone had seen the other projects. Each student left feedback for the other projects and then the projects went home.
Each student turned in an individual reflection, budget and self-assessment of their Habits of Mind, which I used to grade the project. I did grade the actual shelter, although you could. I focused my grading and feedback on the individual analysis of the features of the building and the individual student’s assessment of the design.
My students really loved this project, and so did my parents and my principal. I loved the way we brought together essential content and Habits of Mind like flexibility, innovation and problem solving. I purchased or found these materials for this project: clay, pipe cleaners, styrofoam, cardboard, hemp string, leather remnants and glue. My total cost for the class was under $20.00. All of the resources you need to complete this project are available at my TPT store. If you try this project or have suggestions for how to improve it, please leave comments.
Fifteen years ago, my dad told me that personalization was going to be the name of the game in education. As usual, he was right. What he calls personalization, we call differentiation. And it’s hard to do well. One of the things that I’ve struggled with is making differentiation easy for the teacher but not blatant to the student. We all know those students that shut down when they realize they are not at the same level as the others. That’s why I’ve started writing resources that look the same, but are at different Lexile levels. As Fountas and Pinnell have said repeatedly, a level is a teacher’s tool, not a child’s label. Read their blog post for more on that. https://fpblog.fountasandpinnell.com/a-level-is-a-teacher-s-tool-not-a-child-s-label
My goal with these resources is that you will easily be able to teach essential and/or interesting content while simultaneously differentiating the reading level for your students. And, they will be practicing on-grade level comprehension standards at the same time. Give them a try, and let me know what you think. Also, what other topics would you like to see? I’m working on one about the Northwest Native Americans right now, and have a couple of other ideas, but I’d love to hear from you about what you need!
Click here to go to my TPT store where you can buy leveled texts. If you follow me on TPT, I will email you whenever I post freebies on my blog! In the meantime, please enjoy this freebie Biography about Neil Armstrong (only available here – on TPT, you have to pay!). There are three Lexile levels – 800, 900 and 1,000. In the Common Core State Standards grade bands, 800 is about the middle of fourth grade, 900 is about the middle of fifth grade and 1,000 is about the middle of sixth grade. I hope this helps you teach essential and interesting content and differentiate at the same time!