Monday, March 17, 2014

Electricity Design Brief

Looking for a PBL (problem based learning) challenge for your students to apply what you are learning about electricity?  We have just completed unit 2 in the FOSS unit, Energy and Electromagnetism.  The students have built circuits (series and parallel), explored conductors and insulators as well as energy flow. They have attached vocabulary words to the hands-on activities and learned how to explain the scientific concepts.

Now we wanted to see if the students could apply these concepts to an engineering project.  How about designing and creating a house?

In order to set it up, my colleague Elena and I set about to create a Design Brief.  If you don't know much about design briefs, I recommend you check out Ginger Whiting's book Children's Engineering. 

Basically, the design brief consists of five parts:

  • Background Statement (puts the task in context)
  • Challenge statement (what's the task?)
  • Criteria (specific details about the finish designed product)
  • Materials (things that can be part of the finished design)
  • Tools (items that you can use to help you build)

We thought long and hard about what we wanted our kids to be able to do.  We wanted them to create 2-3 rooms to include 3-5 lights and one fan.  They could use the materials we had been using such as wires, dcells, light bulbs, motors and more.  We also have LittleBits and Squishy Circuits in our Engineering lab and so we allowed the students to use these as well.  Tools they could use included  wire strippers, scissors, duct tape, glue guns and even a drill. 
Once our criteria was in place, we then added the design portfolio.  The design portfolio is a place for students to record their thinking, plans, reflections and redesign as they build.  This portfolio is based on the engineering design process loop.  This process can be found to use in multiple formats including this one by Ginger Whiting.  In the design portfolio we created a place to restate the problem, brainstorm planning ideas, create a solution, test your design and evaluate it. 

Here are some pictures of the building phase.  First they built the walls for the rooms. 

Next we added the electrical components.  The kids love to use the drill (with an adult nearby of course!) to drill perfect circles in the ceilings of the homes. The students were able to use wires, light bulb holders, dcells, Christmas lights, motors for fans, and more!  The video clip shows the squishy circuits and the little bits. 

Here is one of the final products.  See the bed in the bedroom, the coffee table and flat screen TV in the living room?   These students took the design element and ran with it!  Not all were as detailed inside...many just focussed on the wiring and bare bones of the house.  That was okay too! Students were able to present their finished projects to their peers and I have included a rubric for assessments as well.                                                                                                          If you want to pick up this design brief and portfolio along with the procedures for creating it then visit my TPT store here for a quick link. 


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Connecting Language Skills to Science

As I have said before, first you have to DO science...then you can connect language skills to it.

Let me share a story about a bored student.  Imagine sitting down to 30 minutes of grammar skills a day.  Sometimes they study possessives.  Sometimes they study fragments.  Nothing is connected.  Sentences are not meaningful.  It is complete skill and drill.

Now, imagine connecting these skills to something you are DOING in the classroom.  These skills suddenly become more meaningful and easy to do.  Enter the idea of the Language Board. 

What’s a Language board?
       I was introduced to the idea of Language boards from FOSS in the Spring 2012 newsletter when I read the article by Kimi Housoume entitled “Science and Language; a Good Mix for Learning.”  She describes connecting science concepts to language skills on a daily basis.  They called it a language board. 
          At the same time, I became fascinated with Shelley Gray’s “I’m Done, Now What?” board.  This is an actual board that you can switch out different activities for early finishers.  I purchased the yearlong activities from TPT and set to work.  These activities met many of my needs, but crossed over to activities for math as well as reading.  I used it for a year and my students loved it.

          Then over the summer (when I had time to think) I thought…why not combine the two ideas?  I thought, this would make a great activity for my kids to do as a morning work routine.  We can switch the activities out weekly and offer choice as to when to complete them.  Each child used one of their notebooks to record their thinking and have a place for me to check the work as they go.  So now, I am in the process of creating these for my students (upper elementary) as they connect to content (science and math).  
           I created different categories for students to practice and named them Making Words, Vocabulary, Word Work, Fix it, Write it and Think it.  (My students recently said that I need to add "Design it" as another category...maybe I will!) 
          I have recently posted my first Language Board packet on TPT where it is available for purchase for just $5.00.  It includes four weeks of language activities to use for morning work, literacy stations or even homework. These language board activities are integrated with the topic of ecosystems.  

Let me know what you think!  


Monday, March 3, 2014

DOING science...

I love, love, love teaching electricity to my fourth graders.  We have used the FOSS kit "Magnetism and Electricity" for several years and absolutely love it.  This year we have upgraded to the FOSS 3rd edition "Energy and Electricity".  Why do we love it?'s because the students are completely engaged in the process of building circuits.

I recently did a workshop where I had some fourth grade teachers in attendance.  I passed out the bulb, wires and battery and asked the teachers to make a circuit.  I expected the kindergarten teachers to struggle, but was shocked to find the complete opposite was true.  The kindergarten teachers jumped in and kept trying until they made it work.  The fourth grade teachers (who teach electricity every year) had no idea what to do.  It wasn't until later that I was told, the teachers teach with a textbook. I get that.  We have a LOT to cover and not enough time to do it.  But, something stuck in my head...if they don't understand how to light a bulb, how will their students?   This brings me back to the fundamental belief...students need to DO science first.

In my classroom, I teach all kids - gifted, emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, English as a second language, autistic, ADHD and, oh yeah, a few that don't have a label.  Since I teach children with many different needs I have learned over the years that it is crucial to level the playing field by giving all kids the same background to build from.

Using FOSS or any inquiry based program, you are trained to "do" first and add vocabulary and concepts later.  For example, when teaching a concept such as "salinity" we start with an experiment or observation in which we notice what is the same and what is different in samples of water.  The brain seeks patterns and stores information through activities that engage the brain - like comparing, testing, observing, and more.

Once we "do" the activity then we talk about it.  What did you notice? see? observe? Talking helps to secure the information in the brain before we move on.  Once you have explored and talked about the activity, then you can add the words and concepts.  We add information on a class chart and introduce the science words we want our kids to use.  (I love this chart that I learned about through the awesome program Seeds of Science!)

Then if you want to read from a text, the kids have something to hook the information to.  We read a selection and then write about what we have learned. My students are used to answering focus questions in their notebooks and write full paragraphs to explain their thinking.
Lastly, and I think most importantly, is the "think it" phase.  Students need to think things through, ponder, reflect, and solidify information.  It's that "metacognition" piece that is so essential for students of all abilities.

Only through all of these phases will students truly "know" science.