Simple STEM design challenges have ignited my fourth graders’ engagement, enthusiasm, and knowledge of engineering.
This year, I resolved to challenge my students with one simple STEM design activity each month. I paired ten of my favorite investigations with a simple, straightforward design process template. Wow! My students love it!
Their first challenge was to build a tin foil boat. The template moved them through eight steps of the design process:
- Identify the problem. This was given: Design a tin foil boat that holds as many pennies as possible.
- Conduct research. Students searched for information on buoyancy and boat design. They found plenty of text, images, and videos on the Internet.
- Develop possible solutions. Each child drew pictures of boats he/she thought would float and hold many pennies.
- Choose one solution.
- Construct a prototype. Each child received a 3 x 3-inch square of tin foil. (I have learned to limit the size because I ran out of pennies last year.)
- Test the prototype. Each group of four students shared a small tub of water and 20 pennies.
- Communicate results. Students recorded the number of pennies their boats held.
- Evaluate and redesign. My class was ready for the challenge! Each student used what they learned to build a better boat.
Each group reported on the design of the boat holding the most pennies. What had they learned? A flat boat with slightly upturned sides held more. In their own words, “More surface area allows a boat to hold more cargo.” Brilliant!
For our second design challenge, students tackled the spaghetti tower. Each group received 20 pieces of spaghetti and 10 large marshmallows. Research was vital. Groups that understood how to build a strong base built sturdier, taller towers.
What struck me the most with these activities? My students’ autonomy! They moved through the steps of the simple STEM design challenges independently. They acted like engineers. Heck, they even talked like engineers! If you want to engage your students, try a design challenge.
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