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.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Talking about science...what do you think?

We have been working on the FOSS unit Balls, Ramps and Energy from Motion, Force and Models. This is a great way to teach variables (independent, dependent and controlled) in the context of content (force and motion).  Balls and Ramps allow students to create a system in which they will investigate speed of motion as well as forces working against it (friction).  They will also explore and understand how energy is connected (potential and kinetic).

What I love the most about any FOSS unit, is that the children DO the activity FIRST and connect the VOCABULARY AFTER they explore.  They also come to understand that engineers work at solving problems that come up.  They use their knowledge of science to design and build useful things - in this case, designing a system to accurately measure the speed of a ball on a ramp.

This is something that makes PERFECT SENSE to me.  I have a classroom that includes ESL, Gifted Ed, LD, ED, Autistic and 504 (ADHD, Hearing Impaired)...yes, I am not kidding!  For these kids, plus those without a label (yes, there are some of those kids too!) I have learned that scientific vocabulary as well as process vocabulary "sticks" when you connect it to a real world experience. 

I wish I could post a video of the kids talking and discussing science.  We had an AMAZING discussion full of "I disagree" statements and "the evidence states..." statements. Unfortunately, that would be showing the kids too much and I don't feel comfortable posting their faces so openly.

However, children are able to use the scientific and engineering vocabulary as they work.  You can see them thinking and processing what they are doing as they create.  Is this mastery yet? Not yet, but they are on their way.  Talking is essential to understanding for many children....and adults. (Including me!)


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Word Lanyards for science

So once we determine the words that we want to focus on, what do we do to ensure the students learn them? I know we introduced the words and then had the kids write them in a vocabulary journal.  They even used research methods online to find the synonyms, antonyms and prefixes/suffixes on their own. That's very empowering and engaging...but it is not enough. What do we do next?

In the past, we may have scoured the internet (or even the teacher's store) searching for games, worksheets even crafts that may be "cute" and "fun" for the kids.  However, even with all that extra work and effort, the kids often didn't make the connections or remember the meanings.

Word Nerds  gives a lot of suggestions that we have tried and used in our classroom.  Our favorite is the Word Lanyards. 

With the lanyards, we type up the six key words along with synonyms, antonyms or words with prefixes or suffixes added to the base word.  Our team takes turns typing up the lists and we print copies for each classroom.  Then we cut out the words and put them in the lanyards.  (In my case, I have a few late bus kids cut and put them in the lanyards!)

Each day, students take one lanyard to wear throughout the day.  We use the words during transitions (if you have a synonym for ____, line up), brain breaks and morning meeting games.

Here are some ideas: 

Scramble - By the time I get to 5 find all the words that are related. They should get into six groups with the synonyms or antonyms together with the key word.  Check to make sure they are correct. Once finished, sit down!

Word Dude and Checking Dude – Split class into two groups – Word dudes on one side of the room and Checking dudes on the other.   Then say by the time I count to 5, get into a group of two.  Word dudes have to give a sentence with their word in it while checking dude checks to see if they are right.  If they use the words correctly, they should give a silent cheer, do a silent dance move and then go back to their side of the room.  Then student jobs switch and repeat the process. Should take 5 minutes.

Pictionary – choose one of the 22 words and draw a picture on the whiteboard.  Have students guess what it is.

Create a tableau using the words. A Tableau is a "freeze picture" that acts out the word. Google it for more information!

We have found that our fourth graders have done these activities without any problems - as long as it is quick, fun and move on!

Hope this helps your day...




Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Purposefully planning vocabulary in the Science Classroom

Have you ever wondered why we continue to teach the same thing over and over again...even when we know it isn't working for 80% of the kids? We hear "we've always done this".  "It covers the standards."  But if it isn't working, then why do we continue to waste time on it???

This summer I noticed a lot of chatter on Pinterest about the book Word Nerds. I figured I needed to read this book!

Guess what?  I loved it! When my team and I got together to plan for the upcoming year, we discussed the ideas in the book and decided it was worth a try.

First idea: Vocabulary should not be random words.  Instead they should be purposefully picked to tie into the curriculum in your classroom during the two week vocabulary cycle.  I also feel strongly that the words need to be experienced in order to connect meaning - rather through a science investigation, a math activity or a social studies role play.  Together, we searched through our curriculum to find words that would overlap in science, social studies and math content.  Words such as position, rapidly, current, prior and more.  We pick six words for the week.

Second:  Once we choose the words, we create a vocabulary guide sheet for the teachers. This is really powerful for us. It helps keep vocabulary consistent in each room as well as the skills we want to address.  As you see, we also add antonyms, synonyms, prefixes and suffixes to our basic six words.
Vocabulary JournalThird:  The students are finally introduced to the words.  First present cloze sentences in which the students predict what the words will be.  Next, share the words (I do it one at a time) while the students guess which words fit in which sentences. (Oh yes, that would be context clues!) Next the kids are given a vocabulary journal that is full of Frayer Model graphic organizers.  I bought this vocabulary journal at TPT for just $1.00.  It's a great buy! We are lucky to have laptops that we share as a grade level. Students work as pairs to search for the new vocab word, find antonyms (if there are some), synonyms, and a definition in kid friendly language.  Then they draw a picture and write a 7 up sentence (with at least 7 words). The kids like the ownership of searching for the words themselves.  Sites we use include and .
Fourth: Now, we meet up again and share words that the kids have found.  We add them to our class chart (and anymore that we have found in the planning phase) and post the chart in the room.     All of these parts take about three days to complete.  So what do we do for the rest of the two week cycle? Oh that will be another post! 


Monday, November 4, 2013

STEM....rocket ships!

To the moon Alice!  Our fourth graders have begun their first engineering project of the year.  They are designing rockets (paper) that will travel to the moon.  To hook the students I showed them the video To Moon, Mars and Beyond by NASA. It's an excellent video that shows what NASA is working on for the next stage of moon exploration. Using the Engineering process, students first asked the question:  How can I create (build, design, make) a rocket that will fly?

Our next step was to plan....what type of rocket will we create that will fit onto our rocket launcher (oh yes, we have a rocket launcher!) and successfully fly? Students imagined what it would look like and planned the design alone or with a partner.  Our Engineering lab has cushy seats for planning that we love!!!

On to the create phase....the only restraint that we gave them was that the rocket should fit onto the tube of the launcher.  They had recycled paper, markers, glue guns, bottle caps, index cards, duct tape, craft sticks, etc... What would they create?

 We had many designs that were created.... Here is one example.  There are many more that I can share another day!

Our final step was to can find directions to make a rocket launcher on line.  You need PVC pipe and a bike pump for the air pressure.  This one was donated by our local University (University of Mary Washington).  We have a partnership with Dr. George Meadows. The kids like this because it has a button to push and test!  It makes a loud noise too (which adds to the fun!)