Longest Chain STEM Challenge

As a teacher who is working with ten different grade levels, I’m a huge fan of STEM challenges that are low-prep, require everyday supplies, and are still engaging. I’ve used the following challenge with students from grades 3-6 and am always impressed with the depth of thinking that arises from such a simple task.

The Prompt: Create the longest chain possible from a single piece of construction paper.

Constraints:

  • Chain must be constructed of interlocking loops
  • Materials limited to single sheet of construction paper, scissors, and stapler
  • 20-25 minutes to create chain

Supplies:
– 1 piece of construction paper per group (use different colors for each group)
– 1 half sheet of construction paper per group (same color for all groups is fine, but try to
make it a different color than all of the whole sheets of paper)
– 1 pair of scissors per group
– 1 stapler per group
– Extra staples in case groups run out
– Measuring tape
– Rulers

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Procedure:

Quickly introduce the challenge to students by sharing the prompt and the constraints.

(Optional, but recommended) Give teams 7 minutes to work with a half sheet of paper, scissors, and a stapler to create a prototype for their chain. This is the time where I’ll often hear students engaging in some high-quality discussions. You can push these conversations deeper by encouraging them to use a measurement tool to try to prove why their theory will produce the longest chain.

After the prototyping phase, have students discard or set aside their chain experiments. Distribute full sheets of construction paper to groups and have them begin working on their final chain. (To prevent cheating, make sure the new paper is a different color than the paper groups worked with during prototyping.) Give students 20-25 minutes to work on their chains. Most groups will use this full time because of the number of strips they’ll have and the time it takes to staple.

Recommended questions to ask while you circulate around the room:
– What did you learn from your prototype that you’re applying to your final chain?
– (For early finishers) Is there anything you could do to extend the length of your chain?

When the building time is up, have teams measure their chains. I like to do this as a whole class, with teams bringing up their chains and measuring them in the front of the room. Teams come to the front, briefly share their strategy, and then measure their chains with a tape measure. We then record team data on the board. Our follow-up discussion doesn’t revolve around who made the longest chain, but rather, which techniques yielded lengthier chains.

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Teacher Tips:
I have had success with having students complete this task in both pairs and trios. I prefer trios because the conversation has more voices and ideas and they can set up an assembly-line system for creating their chains.

I will often use a random team generator to create groups and get students working with different people in the room.

During the chain construction, I task teams with coming up with a team name for our measurement chart.

 

 

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The Grinch Games!

I’ve been looking forward to this week for over a month! It’s our final week of school before vacation and it’s all about the Grinch in STEM class. I’ve put together a variety of Grinch-related tasks for my students in grades K-4. When they arrive in class this week, students are able to move freely between tasks for the duration of class.

  • Super Sleds: This challenge involves creating a sled that the Grinch can use to slide down Mt. Crumpit. This station is stocked with cardboard, rubber bands, tin foil, index cards, and paper clips.

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  • Balance It On Crumpit: At this station, the Grinch has a bag full of stolen goodies. Students have to make the balance level by adding a variety of weighted objects to the plastic bucket.

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  • Zipping Into Whoville: Using cups, pipe cleaners, string, binder clips, and rubber bands, students try to create the most effective zipline possible to help the Grinch get back into Whoville to return all of the stolen gifts.

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  • A Seuss-ian Creation: This station is open-ended and challenges students to use a variety of recycled materials to create a new toy or musical instrument that a Who can use to make “noise, noise, noise!”

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  • Lifting a Tree: At this station, students help the Grinch stuff a tree up the chimney by exploring how a simple pulley system works.

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  • A Whoville Christmas Tree: Using cups, students try to build the tallest tree possible. Once it’s built, they can decorate it using the pompoms.

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  • Grinch’s Growing Heart: On Christmas Eve, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. At this station, students use Legos to create three different sized hearts.

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  • iPad Grinch Drawing: This activity is geared towards my youngest kiddos — using a Finger Paint app on our iPads, they try to create a picture of the Grinch.

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  • Stealing Presents: Maybe my favorite of the activities! I got this awesome new toy — The Turing Tumble — and have turned it into a Grinch Game activity. Marbles get loaded into slots at the top left and right of the plastic board and students use different components that can get placed onto the board to try to get all of the marbles to wind up on the Grinch’s portion of the bottom of the board. (I’ll try to get a picture that better illustrates how the Turing Tumble works.)

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I’m looking forward to four more days of the joyful noise, noise, noise that these games have created in my classroom!

Student Entrepreneurs

For our first unit with the 7th & 8th graders, all of the specialists in my building have crafted projects that encourage students to take positive social risks. In STEM class, my project took the from of students coming up with an idea for an invention or product that would help a target user somewhere in the age range of Pre-K to Grade 4.

This project challenged teams of students to identify a meaningful problem that children encounter, develop a viable solution that addresses that problem, create a prototype of the idea, produce a slide deck aimed at persuading an audience to support their product, and presenting their product in a “Shark Tank” style pitch. Oh — and they had only 6 days to complete all of these tasks! It was certainly a heavy lift, but my students more than rose to the occasion.

After having five classes of 7th and 8th graders complete this project, I was blown away by their engagement, passion, and creativity. They have displayed a keen ability to put their fingers on challenges faced by younger students and their products have attempted to help students with problems including making friends, reaching or using things not designed with children of their size in mind, avoiding getting lost, losing things, staying focused and motivated in class, helping when they experience bullying, and encouraging them make healthy food choices at school.

The biggest takeaway for me in this project has been the magical results of allowing students voice and choice in their work. While I provided a frame that included specific “must haves” and a target audience, the assignment left plenty of room for students to develop something that mattered to them. While there was some variance in total effort, all but a tiny handful of my 70+ students clearly cared deeply about their projects and showed determination and perseverance in bringing their ideas to fruition in their prototypes and slide decks. The diversity in the resulting projects also created a lot of “buzz” and excitement in the classroom, as students were also curious about the work being completed by other groups.

The amount of spontaneous exploration and learning that happened due to this project also impressed me — I had groups engage in experimentation with LEDs and circuits, structural integrity when working with cardboard, sewing, programming, working with a saw, and a host of other skills. I am excited to continue to look for ways to allow learning to unfold authentically as it did in this project; my students’ work confirmed what research tells us — that immediately applying skills learned “just in time” leads to more meaningful and durable knowledge-construction.

Imagining Possibilities: Repurposing & Not a Box

This week, the focus of my lessons with my K-2 students was our first STEM class principle — Imagine Possibilities. My goal in structuring these lessons was getting students producing lots of possible ideas and then choosing one (or more) to explore.

My three second grade classes completed a simple repurposing activity, which also tied in with our yearlong focus on resources. We reviewed the terms reduce, reuse, recycle and then learned the new word repurpose. Students then got to choose an item from a bin containing all sorts of boxes, containers, and other miscellany that I’d been diverting from my recycling bin for a few weeks. Their excitement about getting to repurpose grew as the week went on — when I was walking groups of students to my classroom, the kiddos in the front of the line would ask, “Are we going to be making things like the other kids did?” My hope is that their interest in repurposing will spill over into their home lives, as it’s such a simple (and cost-effective) way to get kids making and engineering.

Here’s a look of some of their final products — I was blown away by their creativity!


Meanwhile, with kindergarten, I tackled “Imagining Possibilities” with a favorite lesson framed around Antoinette Portis’ Not a Box. I gave each of my kindergarten students half a cereal box (I have over 50 kindergarteners and my stock of boxes didn’t run deep enough!) and encouraged them to use it to create their own “Not-a-Boxes.”

Again, students created a wide range of responses to this task. And, my goodness, did they have a great time making them!

 

I’m excited to see what else my students will create as we continue to practice and build a culture of imagining possibilities!

“Constructing” Relationships: Share & Build

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In my new role, I’ve got to learn about 400 names (insert teacher in a cold sweat just thinking about it!), which means that I’ve been starting off all of my first classes with name games. Because I’m teaching STEM, I came up with this simple little idea that achieves the dual purposes of having students introduce themselves and working together to create something.

The activity, which I’m calling Share & Build, is super simple. I put Jenga blocks into a bucket. Students passed the bucket around the circle, each taking out a block. I modeled the process by going first and sharing my name, something I like to do, and then placing my block down on a table or the floor (whichever makes the most sense for visibility.) I then chose a student to repeat the process. That student selected the next participant, until we had gone through the whole class and had created something together.

My second graders loved this activity and were highly interested in seeing how their classmates would choose to add their blocks to our classroom creation. I found it interesting to observe the way that, as the top photo shows, some classes ended up working to create a neat, orderly design, while others were more focused in looking for novel placements of the blocks. We definitely had some toppling action, which provided a good first opportunity to discuss the importance of mistakes and experimentation in STEM.

If you’re considering trying out this idea, I think that, with a smallish class, having students have two blocks each could make this activity even more engaging.