Building A Car: A STEM Collaboration

By: Jenn Langhus

The emphasis on STEM in education has been ringing in my ears. Reports are everywhere about how our country is falling behind in technological innovation. It make sense that the change has to start in our schools. How can I make the integration of science, technology, engineering and math engaging to my students? Simple things like purpose, choice and collaboration play a big part in student buy in.

In September, our middle school science teacher and I collaborated on a three week hands-on science lesson on force. The idea was to include age-appropriate problem solving and encourage original research. The lesson went down like this. Partnerships of one First Grade student with one Eighth Grade student were made along with a ploy; each pair must design and then build a toy car for a local toy company. The parameters where that the car must be able to move. Cars will be tested for how far they travel. The buy in was audible with cheers from the students.

Built into this lesson was the science and technology of force (how do things move?) the engineering of design (how can I build something that moves?) and the math of how far does it move. The students were given the objective and then we teachers stepped out of the way.

Session One. Students met with their partner using a planning sheet to discuss the engineering design ideas for their cars as well as develop a materials list for the car. The Eighth Graders were instructed to allow the First Graders to take the lead in designing the cars asking open ended questions and driving the growth of the idea. How can we make the car unique? How will our car move? The session ended with a sketch of the car and a list of materials for the First Graders to take home and assemble before the next meeting the following Tuesday afternoon.

Session two. The excited First Graders took their material lists home and the following Tuesday brought their building items to school. In the Science Lab and the Lunch Room, the students worked together to build their cars using materials such as cardboard boxes or gallon milk jugs for the bodies of the cars, cd’s for wheels and chopsticks or straws for axles. Each partnership were on their own timeline knowing there would be two days for building the cars and then the testing would begin. Each toy car was indeed unique. There was a three wheeled car, cars with faces and a car made out of a construction cone. The collaboration was audible everywhere we went with all the partnerships on task enjoying their learning.

Session three. On the final day together, the students were feeling the crunch. It was time to do the finishing touches on the design and focus on how this car was going to move and how far. Armed with measuring sticks and timers, the Eighth Graders led the First Graders in testing their prototypes. Then came the reflection. How did our car move and how far? How did the materials we used help or hinder the motion? What would I do differently next time?  As the students discussed and problem solved these questions, they constructed knowledge of force through this inquiry-based experience.

As the partners parted ways, the Eighth Graders went on to learn about Newton’s 3 laws of motion and designed more car prototypes. My First Graders headed back to our classroom using technology to show their learning. Each student took a photos of each car with the schools iPads. Using the ShowMe app, students described the materials used in building their cars as well as how the car moved. Each ShowMe was then added to the student’s blog to share with their parents and the world giving meaning to the project by exposing it to an authentic audience. By creating engaging integrated lessons in elementary school, we can foster interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

Jenn Langhus is a first grade teacher in Portland, OR. She is always interested in allowing students to construct knowledge from exploration and questioning- using technology when it makes sense. Her first graders blog here. 

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