When I was a child, one of my favorite toys was a set of wooden blocks, in a variety of shapes and sizes. We would play for hours, sometimes building models of structures and other times experimenting with designs and patterns. We also had Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys, and we realized that different materials could be used to make different things. Fast forward to today, where in addition to “building,” the articles in this issue also discuss the mental processing that young builders learn and use as they manipulate a variety of materials in 3-D and in real time.
For example, Bridges and Skyscrapers has a lesson plan for building and testing these structures in the classroom, along with suggested trade books on the topic. [SciLinks: Bridge Structures, Science of Bridges] And the author of Just Right describes a challenge in which students explore and test properties of materials and build model houses based on what they learned about the materials (and I enjoyed reading how the teacher used the story of the Three Little Pigs as an introduction! [SciLinks: Engineering Structures]
Young children are fascinated by putting things together and taking them apart. The authors of Family Style Engineering describe how teachers can support these beginning engineers in the classroom and also through hosting a family engineering event. (Their ideas could certainly be adapted for middle level students.) It’s No Problem to Invent a Solution shows how we can tap into the creativity of young children as they create their own inventions [SciLinks: Inventions/Inventors]
Understanding the nature of materials is another component of the building process, and several articles have ideas for helping students explore the characteristics of common materials. With young children, you could start with a Please Touch Museum (with suggestions for doing so). In the investigations described in Limestone or Wax?, students study and identify the properties of common materials (there are graphics showing the students’ comparison chart) and then take on a design challenge. Is Concrete a Rock? includes a lesson plan to probe students’ misunderstandings and help them differentiate between natural materials and those made by humans. My grandfather was a steel worker and the bus I rode to school passed a mill every day, so we didn’t have to ask How Is Steel Made? But since most steel is now made overseas, students (and teachers) may find useful background information in this article. [SciLinks: Metals, Properties of Metals, Rocks, Rock Cycle]
The Great Build a Buoy Challenge presents a design project for students to build a floating structure. Even if you don’t live near a body of water, this challenge has opportunities for students to explore materials, buoyancy, hands-on building, and problem-solving. [SciLinks: Buoyancy, and if your students want more on what buoys are used for, check out NOAA's National Data Buoy Center. Select an area from the menu on the right of the map for a closeup of the buoys in that area.]
The author of The Science of Safety notes that “science begins with a question to answer, whereas engineering begins with a problem to be solved.” She then describes how she took a science unit on force and motion and extended it with a problem-solving activity in which students apply their knowledge to design safety features for “cars” they made. The photos of the students and their cars’ passengers are priceless! [SciLinks: Forces] And now, S&C readers can learn from Ken Roy, NSTA’s Chief Science Safety Compliance Consultant. His initial column, Modeling Safely, looks at types of modeling clay and their appropriateness for classroom activities.
Many of these articles have extensive resources to share, so check out the Connections for this issue (December 2012). Even if the article does not quite fit with your lesson agenda, there are ideas for handouts, background information sheets, data sheets, rubrics, and other resources.