September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

A Primary Engineering Unit Template

Posted: Friday, December 11th, 2015

by George Feldman and Joey Noelle Lehnhard

For the past few years, as a teacher in a bilingual first grade classroom in rural central California, I’ve been having my students conduct some simple engineering design challenges. The engineering activities are a good way to address the demands of state testing and the intensive English Language Arts and Math curriculum, because they can provide an authentic context for integrating different subjects. I hope this week-long lesson template might inspire you to try some engineering activities with your students.

Day 1 (40 minutes):

Offer up a problem for the students to solve based in something in which they have personal experience. I find the students are most motivated if the problem is connected to other things we’ve been learning, their local environment, or real issues in their community. Often, I begin by using a picture book to set the stage and then engage my students in a science talk to discuss the problem.

Day 2 (40 minutes):

Review the problem they have to solve and share the available materials. I do materials management in one of two ways, depending on the project.

cottonOption A: Give them a set amount and type of materials (e.g.4 cotton balls, 3 toothpicks, 1 meter of masking tape). This is a great option for the beginning of the year. Students can focus only on how they will use the materials instead of what materials to use.

Option B: Show them the contents of my “junk box.” Inside might be a wide variety of supplies including: tape, cups, water bottles, glue, yarn, fabric, foam, tubes, balloons, Popsicle sticks, and whatever else I might have around. This option is a bit more authentic to real engineering and requires more creativity on the part of the students.

After viewing the available materials, I have them write out a plan. Often, because I have so many English Language Learners, this plan is in a combination of English and Spanish.

engineer_plan2

 

 

 

 

Day 3 (40 minutes):

This is the main build day. Some students will have finished their plan on Day 2. As soon as their plan is complete, I give them the materials they’ve asked for. I do not require that their plan be in perfect English, only that they’ve made clear to me that they’ve thought through their idea and that all the needed materials are listed. Inevitably, they’ll have forgotten something and I’ll send them back to add on to their plan by writing, “I also need _______.”

With about 15 minutes left, I allow them to start testing and refining their designs. As students test, they observe each other’s designs and talk to their classmates. This leads to natural collaboration, and a chance to fix their mistakes or enhance their designs.

Day 4 (90 minutes):

Students continue to refine their design for another 15 minutes. Then, I lead a science talk where students share their products and tell each other what happened, why it happened, and what they want to do differently. This is also a chance for them to learn from each other’s solutions. After the science talk, I give them more time to refine their designs. Finally, we test each one together as a class. Afterwards, I have the students write about the experience and help them to connect it back to the content I’m trying to teach.

engineer_plan2

 

 

 

 

As the year goes on, students begin to internalize this process of coming up with solutions, determining the materials required, designing, constructing, testing, and refining designs. This is similar to the K-2 Engineering design process (at right) as explained in the Next Generation Science Standards Appendix I*. Including collaboration, science talks and literacy tasks helps students make deeper connections and understand the content.

Primary_Engineering_CycleI’ve tried a variety of different engineering design challenges with my first graders. Here are a few:

  1. A large aquarium has kelp that needs constant waves. Make a wave machine for the aquarium.
  2. A civil engineer is trying to slow down the flow of water without disrupting the wetlands habitat. Make a channel that makes water flow slowly.
  3. Based on your knowledge of aquatic birds, make a foot that can be used to move through water.

* NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

George Feldman is a first grade classroom teacher at Ohlone Elementary in Watsonville and a teacher trainer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He also writes trilingual children’s books. george_feldman@pvusd.net Joey Noelle Lehnhard is a Senior Education Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and CSTA member. jlehnhard@mbayaq.org

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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