Tag Archives: STEM

My Brain on Open-Ended Projects

Thanks to some inspiration on Twitter from Jessica Hirsch (@jhirschcusd), I thought it would be a neat idea to have my 4th grade gifted students try to create Makey Makey Operation games with shapes.  (They are on a Geometry unit in their regular classrooms, so this seemed like a good time to try it.)  As my classroom once again became a Disaster Zone Lab of Innovative Thinkers, I realized that I pretty much go through the same thought process every time we embark on these adventures. I tried to make a visual of it, which you can see below.  I ran out of space at the end, so don’t assume that these things always end on a high note…


We will hopefully complete the project next week, and I will blog more specifics about it.  If you aren’t familiar with Makey Makey, you can see my post from earlier this year about the Onomatopeia Poetry the students created with Scratch and Makey Makey.  And yes, my brain went through the same steps for that one, too!


More Bridges

My 2nd graders study structures, and our 2nd semester is spent on man-made structures.  We start with bridges, and I usually challenge the students to make bridges out of different types of materials.  Even though the activities always seem to engage them, I felt like I wasn’t quite making the lessons meaningful.

This year, I started simple by showing the students a BrainPop video about bridges and using our Depth and Complexity mats to discuss the video.  This week, we reviewed a lot of the Language of the Discipline (they particularly like the word, “abutment,” – for obvious reasons), and they remembered quite a few from the video.  Then I challenged them to do this activity.  The students were good at connecting that their attempts at paper bridges were beam bridges, but they were definitely getting frustrated after about 10 minutes of trying and failing.


At this point, I would usually have shown them the solution on the teacher notes.  But this time I asked them to pause while we looked at the shapes interactive on the Building Big site.  After the students realized that triangles are the strongest shape, I asked them to apply that knowledge to some new attempts at the paper bridge challenge.  I was surprised to see some of the creative options they developed.

I finally did show them the solution on the teacher guide, and they were quick to understand and explain why the change in the paper’s shape made it suddenly stronger, Then they came up with variations and improvements.

This was the first time I really felt like the students weren’t just having fun building bridges, but were actually stepping through learning while developing innovative ideas at the same time.  They were explaining how the shapes they tried changed the force on the bridge, as well as how placing the load could affect the outcome.

As I watch many people on Twitter share “STEM” building challenges, I wonder how many, like my first attempts at bridge building lessons, might be more fun than educational.  Though fun is great, I feel better now that the students have found a way to make a “bridge” between their enjoyment and their learning.

Rube Cereal Machines

Thanks to Carrie Sledge on Twitter (@GreenGTAIM), I learned that General Mills has joined with RubeGoldberg.com to encourage creativity by inviting people to design Rube Goldberg machines that will pour cereal.  The General Mills contest is only open to people who are 18 years and up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the tutorials they created for using 6 of their cereal boxes to make simple machines.  The Rube Goldberg site hosts its own contest for participants who are 8 and up, but you should definitely check the rule book, as there are detailed instructions and a registration fee.  Whether you are competing in an official contest or not, creating a Rube Goldberg machine can be a great way to incorporate many curriculum-related skills, as well as the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity).

Larry Ferlazzo has a page dedicated to Rube Goldberg resources that you should definitely take a look at if you decide to embark on this adventure!

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Screenshot from Rube Goldberg Contest Task Announcement 2018

Gifts for the Gifted 2017 – RollerCoaster Challenge

A few years ago, I thought I would help out the parents of my gifted and talented students by writing about some games, toys, or books that I thought might make good purchases during the holiday season.  I called the series of posts, “Gifts for the Gifted,” and I have continued to do it annually on every Friday in November and December.  These gifts are suggestions for any child – not just those who qualify for a GT program. Sometimes I receive a free product for review, but I am not paid for these posts, and I never recommend a product that I wouldn’t buy for my own child.  For past “Gifts for the Gifted” posts, you can visit this page. Also, you can see last week’s recommendation here.  And, if you want to see the more than 100 games and toys I’ve recommended over the years on my blog, check out my Pinterest board.

RollerCoaster Challenge is another fabulous product from ThinkFun.  I’m pretty sure the company doesn’t need any PR from me, as this game has won numerous awards in the last year, including the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award and Toy of the Year Finalist.  I’ve seen it recommended on numerous gift guides – especially ones that are related to S.T.E.M. products. But all of those accolades may not have reached the audience who reads this blog, so I want to make sure RollerCoaster Challenge gets included in my list, too.

I’m going to start with getting one negative out of the way – pretty much the only negative about this game.  There are a lot of pieces in this game.  As a parent and a teacher, I get kind of nervous about games dependent on numerous parts.  Easy to lose, painful to step on, difficult to store.  However, the pieces are what make this game so entertaining.  It reminds me a bit of the game Mousetrap that I used to play as a kid.  The fun is in putting the pieces together just the right way. (I never actually played Mousetrap, just assembled the bazillion parts.)

RollerCoaster Challenge is a 1-player game that is suitable for ages 6 and up.  Of course, the number of players and the best age group varies in real life.  Most of ThinkFun’s solitaire games work well with 2 or 3 people collaborating to solve the challenges, and this one is no exception.  As for age range, I refer you to the above paragraph.  If your 6-year-old (or 10-year-old, for that matter) has a problem with leaving Legos all over your house, you may want to think twice about this purchase – or be proactive with a plan for keeping the pieces contained.

The game comes with Challenge cards, scaffolded perfectly to increase the difficulty slightly on each challenge.  The cards tell you which pieces to use to build your roller coaster: tracks, posts, and tunnels.  The diagram shows you certain locations, and then the player(s) must figure out where to place the rest in order to make a working roller coaster track.  When completed, you can put the small plastic coaster attached to a ball bearing (included) at the top of the track and let it go.  Watch it swiftly glide down the track to its end-point, and cheer!  (My students added the last instruction, and adhered to it faithfully at the conclusion of each challenge.)

Of course, there is no law against designing roller coaster tracks of your own imagination.  In fact, ThinkFun encourages this by offering a free online “Create Your Own RollerCoaster Challenge Card” link.  You start with a solution, then the challenge, and can share the whole thing on social media or print it when finished.

My 3rd grade students love this game.  If I had let them, they probably would have played it for hours.  Their spatial reasoning skills are far superior to mine, and they could identify where to place the posts and tracks with little effort on the Beginning challenges.  Once we reached the next level, it took them a bit longer to solve (which is exactly what I like to see), but they persevered happily.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that RollerCoaster Challenge is well worth the anxiety of keeping “track” of numerous pieces.  I definitely recommend it for budding engineers and problem solvers!

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Rock the Lab with Hour of Code

I love Rock the Lab, an incredible resource from @learnmoorestuff.  She has recently updated her Hour of Code page, and the layout is awesome.  It includes links to the basic computer science lessons for each grade level, the activities that have been especially developed for Hour of Code, an Hour of Code Hyperdoc, and a link to the newest Flipgrid Explorer series, which is all about coding!

Be sure to get involved with the 2017 Hour of Code, which is happening next week from December 4-8.  This has been one of my favorite annual events, and I’ve seen incredible student learning ever since my classes started participating the very first year.  Trust me, you don’t have to be knowledgeable about programming to facilitate a great Hour of Code experience!

Image from Pasco County Schools on Flickr

Interactive Onomatopoeia

When my students were working on their cardboard mini golf courses, I casually suggested using a Makey Makey to make things interesting – and realized that I hadn’t yet introduced this group of kids to the wonders of this invention tool.  When I saw a post from Colleen Graves about making interactive stories and poems using Makey Makey and Scratch, I knew this would be the perfect project for my 4th graders.  They are studying literary masterpieces right now, and learning about figurative language.  It seemed to be a natural transition from discussing onomatopoeia to designing simple Scratch programs that would allow us to add sounds using the Makey Makey.

After teaching some of the basics of Scratch, I showed the students an onomatopoeia poem to which I had added some heavily penciled symbols (the graphite will conduct if you lay it on pretty thick).  I attached the Makey Makey to the symbols and my computer, and started my Scratch program, reading the poem and pressing the symbols at the appropriate moments.  Then the students got to choose their own poems from some I had printed out to program in pairs.  They got to share their creations on Seesaw, and were pretty excited about the way their projects turned out.

This was just the beginning.  Now that the students know the concept, they will be able to apply it to poetry they will be writing in the next couple of weeks.  I’m hoping to also guide them toward creating more complex artwork using copper tape or conductive paint for the Makey Makey triggers.

The Makey Makey was on “Gifts for the Gifted” list in 2014.  Since then, I have seen many more uses for it.  In fact, I just ordered Graves’ book, 20 Makey Makey Projects for the Evil Genius, which may keep my 4th graders busy for the rest of this year!

image from Josh Burker on Flickr

Playing with the Periodic Table

One of my students recently professed his fascination with the Periodic Table, and it seems like hundreds of Periodic Table links have suddenly shown up on my social media sites.  I decided to curate a list for him, and it seems only fair to share it with you.


World’s Largest Periodic Table image from David Gleason on Flickr