Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Elementary Engineering!

One of the things I love the most about teaching fourth grade is how EXCITED students get when you tell them that they are going to be "real" scientists!

One of our district units in fourth grade is a science kit called "Motion and Design" which is, essentially, an engineering kit.  It is a FANTASTIC way to end the year because the students are physically active "doing" science and have really learned the collaborative skills needed to be successful!

To get us warmed up for the unit, I have created a few cooperative challenges for the students to try to get them in the scientific frame of mind.  I want the students to not only be able to work together, but I want them to see that scientists are constantly have to do things like  . . .

. . .  troubleshoot problems
. . .  ask good questions
. . .  handle materials carefully
. . .  follow directions
. . .  make modifications to their work
. . .  take careful notes

and more!  One of the challenges I designed was a "column challenge" where the students were given a set of supplies (1 sheet of paper, liquid glue, 1 paper clip!) and told to design a column that would support as much weight as possible.  I gave them about 10 minutes as a team to meet, brainstorm, and experiment with the materials.

 When the experimenting time was over, I gave the students 20 more minutes to work and told them they needed to fill out their planning sheet, get it approved by me, and then build their tower. I allowed them to build 3 different columns--as long as they had their plans on their sheet!

Groups got to work and it was fun to see the different design attempts came in.  After the students had been working for a while, I threw in a curveball!  I stopped work and told them that many times in the real world, plans change at the last minute and I added in a new requirement:

The column must be at least 3 inches tall.

You should have HEARD the moans!  I simply pointed at the clock and the kids quickly regrouped, got new supplies, and got to work.

I had tall columns, short columns, square columns, round columns--and even "combos" like this . . .

Yes, it was messy.  Yes, there were arguments.  But in the end, we waited a day for the columns to dry and then we TESTED!  We set some ground rules about sportsmanship and so on and then dragged out some old math textbooks to use as our uniform weights.

Of the 7 teams, four failed completely, two groups were able to stack 1, and one was able to stack 4!  The students were so excited!  Finished, right?

WRONG!  Here's where the REAL science comes in!  Just when the students thought they could celebrate, I asked them, 

"What did you learn from testing your columns?"

We generated a list of things we learned--that not using enough glue was bad . . . that making the column uneven was bad . . . that wasting time and creating inferior products was bad . . . and so on!  So, I explained to the students that many of them "failed" the challenge in that their columns didn't support much weight.  I asked how many of them thought they could apply what they had learned from their first round and improve their products?  Hands SHOT in the air and they begged to have another go at it.  I agreed--in the name of science!  I gave them another 20 minutes, enough materials to make ONE more column, and they set off to work.  

It was all worth it!  When we tested the next day, every group had a column that supported books! In fact . . . one of the groups was able to do THIS!

Give it a try!  I love doing this kind of investigation in my classroom. . . it is good for students to think mathematically, for them to think scientifically, and for them to work as interdependent members of a team.  

This lab is SUPER easy to do on your own...if you want my formal write up, here it is!  

Here is the other lab we did first--building the tallest tower possible!


  1. Cool Activity!! Our tech teachers in the middle school do something similar. :-)


    Mrs. Allen's 5th Grade Files

    1. It's fun--I really believe the process is more important than the results...and it fosters a love of science, don't you think?

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Brandee! The kids had so much fun!

  3. STEM stuff :) I love it!! We're experimenting tomorrow (hopefully) with designing a prototype for a problem that arises on a theoretical documentary filming expedition. All in preparation for our virtual field trip with Discovery Education. Can't wait to see what my kiddies make of it. And I think I'll try out your column activity next week - it'll be fun :)


  4. Cool! Neat site, but that small narrow font makes my eyes explode - reeeeeally hard to read.