Saturday, August 27, 2016

Building a House for the Three Little Pigs

On Friday we had our first Engineering Lab.  You've probably heard of STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  Engineering is also one of the strands of the Next Generation Science Standards.

In our Engineering Lab, students learned that engineers are people who ask questions and create solutions.  We also learned the steps of the engineering process: 

ask 
imagine
plan
create
test
improve 

We read the story of The Three Little Pigs, then asked our guiding question: 

"Can I build a house for the three little pigs, that will be strong enough to prevent the Big Bad Wolf from blowing it down?"

We looked at all of the building materials available in our classroom: linker cubes, wooden blocks, foam blocks, paper and tape, and so on.  We met the Big Bad Wolf, which was actually my hairdryer decorated with googly eyes and paper ears.  Our pigs were adorably tiny and stuffed, from Mrs. Staten's pig collection.

We closed our eyes to think about houses we'd seen.  Would our house be large or small?  Would it include doors and windows?  Would it be short or tall?  

Next came the planning step.  Students looked at the available materials and drew two different ideas for a pig house.  

We divided into groups of three.  I modeled how to discuss students' house drawings, in order to choose the best design.  This was the trickiest step, because first graders are just starting to practice sustained conversations about academics.  Many students needed a little coaxing to join the conversation.  Some teams had to compromise on the choice of building materials, and we used rock-paper-scissors to solve disputes.

Each group starred their favorite design.  Some groups chose aspects of each drawing that they wanted to incorporate in their house.


Finally it was time to begin building!  This was a really interesting activity to watch.  Some groups moved into leader and follower roles right away; others worked in partnership with each other.  A couple of groups divided up the labor by assigning the floor to one student and the walls to another. 

Groups took ten to twenty minutes to complete their houses.  Our focus was on the process, not the product, and kids seemed to really enjoy figuring out how to make their houses strong and stable.  Some structures were easily identified as houses, others resembled a pile of rubble, and others were hastily rebuilt after collapsing due to instability. 

As groups announced their houses' completion, the Big Bad Wolf came out to demand, "Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in..."  You know the rest!

Most of the houses stood up to the Big Bad Wolf.  A few houses lost little parts, and their builders set about improving the structures, then retesting with the wolf.  All of the students agreed that Engineering Lab was incredibly fun!

You've probably figured out that Engineering Lab is not just about teaching students how structures rise and fall.  This activity gave students an opportunity to draw a model, use spatial skills, work in a small group to express and listen to ideas, translate a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional structure, and, sometimes, fail.  

Failing is a big part of engineering and a big part of first grade.  In fact, failing is a big part of growing up.  We fail and then we improve.  Or we fail, we cry, we give up, and then we try again.  Or we fail and we quit... for a while, until we feel brave enough to try again.  

My motto for our class this year is "Smarty Cats are Brave."  It takes bravery to fail and try again.  It takes courage to write, to read, and to work in a small group.  It takes grit to work toward a goal that seems impossible.  

I am preparing first graders for a world in which many of them will hold jobs I can't even imagine.  My goal is to help students be brave, to persevere, and to solve problems.  And for that, I can't imagine a better strategy, and a better way to spend our Friday afternoons, than engineering.  

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