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.






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.






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. Joey Noelle Lehnhard is a Senior Education Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and CSTA member.

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:

Leave a Reply


State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.