NGSS Curriculum Integration—Off on a Tangent!

The creation of a school garden inspired this fourth-grade unit.  All students in the school were responsible for planning the garden, as well as for planting, weeding, and harvesting our crops of tomatoes, pumpkins, and carrots. The harvest was shared with the school cafeteria staff, who prepared salad and dessert bar selections for the students, and our fire department staff, who watered our garden in the summer, providing a community connection. All food scraps were composted, and many seeds were harvested, dried, and saved for use in future gardens.

Judy Hebert and 4th-grade students

The curriculum focus for each grade included the study of specific plant parts. Fourth graders explored how the structure and function of plant leaves would be important for optimum plant growth, a Disciplinary Core Idea focus at this grade level. During their research, students often encountered the term food factories. It was interesting to observe students wondering (on their own!) why that connection existed, then, without prompting, asking questions while they considered potential answers, reflecting NGSS practice.

My students live in an area with large factories that had been staffed by immigrants from their own families. I encouraged students to interview those family members and other relatives to better understand how the factories worked, including the products they made, supplies used in production, and waste that was disposed. Students shared their stories with the class, then wrote journal entries about the parallels between food production of leaves and the manufacturing sites they had observed.

Students were intrigued by the idea that children worked in factories at very young ages, so I introduced the book Kids at Work, which detailed the jobs held by young children, including coal mining, farming, and textile factory work. Child labor laws protecting children from working in dangerous jobs were discussed, and some class groups chose to research the lives that children led before these laws were passed.

During the discussion and journaling activities, I asked the students where most of the factories in their area were located. Students eagerly responded that the factories were all near the river, providing a great example of observing the crosscutting concept of patterns. Next, I asked them to explain, with evidence, why they thought the factories were located near the river. After much discussion, students decided to research reasons for this placement, as they determined that their ideas needed to be supported by more evidence.

Students again interviewed family members, and reviewed (with teacher modeling) the history of the city pertaining to industry. I also included a review of simple machines, focusing on their engineering design, and asked students to again parallel differences between simple machines and the machines used in the manufacturing process in these factories. Students then illustrated how changes made to these machines resulted in enormous gains in production.

As students became more familiar with the manufacturing process, they encountered the term assembly line. As they had done previously with the term food factories, students became interested in creating their own assembly line. They detailed their suggestions for one and shared their ideas with the class. Their practice of planning and carrying out an investigation became a natural progression from their own research.

I asked them to consider these questions: What is the product goal of your assembly line? What materials will be used, and how is waste eliminated? I reviewed the comparisons between raw materials in leaves (CO2, water), light from the Sun, and green material in chloroplasts, and the materials that might be used in the assembly line. This offered another great opportunity to work with patterns and how they influence cause/effect. Students had traveled on such a tangential journey in their research that they needed a refresher on the concept of food production in leaves, since the goal of plant research at all grade levels was the garden’s success . The crosscutting concept of systems and their components was evident during the students’ investigations.

Next, students decided to invest some money (from the PTO fund) to develop craft packets to make Christmas ornaments. They discussed the constraints, most notably the cost! In the gym, all 60 fourth graders were divided into groups, and they passed the packet contents down their assembly lines, with each child responsible for one part of the craft creation. Students at the end of the line wore plastic gloves, examined each piece, and determined whether it needed to be returned for revision. Their quality control was impressive and provided evidence for determining criteria for success! 

Students created more than 200 ornaments, which were sold at the annual holiday musical event. Student groups then calculated profits, determined the cost of repaying the PTO investment, then shared their mathematical findings with the class. They presented creative ideas on ways their profits could be spent, with debate and visuals used as enticements. To demonstrate final factory/leaf food production integration, I had students read the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and journal their ideas for a story called “Charlie and the Leaf Factory.” Their stories provided the connection between literacy and the crosscutting concept of understanding the behavior of systems.

This leaf-function journey allowed students to engage in three-dimensional learning every day. Students observed patterns in nature, constructed explanations of the relationships they observed, then engaged in all aspects of curriculum integration. Social studies, math, and literacy were seamlessly included in their studies. They were so involved and engaged that they shared their findings with students in other grades. Third graders then asked if they could “have fun” (their words!) learning the same material next year. Success!

Judy Hebert

Judy Hebert is a retired K–5 science teacher from Chicopee, Mass. She is currently an NGSS@NSTA Curator focusing on Earth science grade 4. Hebert’s work with students has always had an emphasis on outdoor education. Water monitoring, hiking in state parks, and school gardening have been her major interest.



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