Personally, I love the holidays. I love decorating, baking, and the events that each holiday brings throughout the year. However, as a teacher, my feelings aren’t always the same. The day of a class party is not always easy – especially if it’s also the day before a long break. The students are excited (rightfully so) about a party and break, and this makes it difficult to get anything else done. In the past, trying to get a little more work out of my students before a party, I may have said, “If we can’t get this assignment finished you are going to lose some of your class party time!” Which really, doesn’t make anyone feel good.
Surviving the holidays with science started years ago with Halloween. My colleagues and I did a whole day of pumpkin science and math which the kids loved. Last year, our day before winter break, we tested structures to see if they could withstand an earthquake. I wrote about the experience here. The downfall of this was timing. We actually didn’t have a chance to get through everything that day and we had to resume in January. It wasn’t the end of the world, but not ideal. After that I decided to make holidays stand alone science events. On Valentine’s Day we built catapults and launched candy hearts across the outdoor basketball court. This year, the day before break, we’re going to see who can build the tallest structure out of marshmallows and toothpicks.* Below is my plan, and the science, reading, writing, and math standards we will be using throughout the activity.
Begin the day giving students five minutes to build the tallest structure they can using 50 marshmallows and 100 toothpicks. (This intro activity meets all four of the NEA’s 21st Century Skills: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Innovation, also NGSS Science and Engineering Practice (SEP) 2: Developing and Using Models)
- Students measure the height of their model and I will have them convert measurements into different units as well. They will record a sketch of their design and a few notes about the effectiveness of their design (Is the structure standing upright? Leaning? Collapsing?) in their science notebooks. (Standards: NGSS SEP 2 and 4: Analyzing and Interpreting; Data 5: Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking; CCSS Math.Content.4.D.A.1)
- After analyzing their own design students will do a “Model Walk” looking at the other structures in their room and evaluating their effectiveness. They will take notes in their science notebooks collecting data and ideas. (Standards: NGSS SEP 4; SEP 3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations SEP 6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
- Next, we will try out Wonderopolis. I haven’t used this site with my students yet, but I’ve been hearing rave reviews and am excited to give it a try. I like to expose my students to different careers within the area we are studying, so I may start with a Wonder about being an architect. Then, with partners I will have them read this Wonder – Where is the World’s Tallest Building? We will dive deeper into this text and examine its structure, and then the content for main ideas and details. I will also choose a few key vocabulary terms for us to analyze. (Standards: CCSS.ELA. Literacy RI.4.1.2; 4. RI.4.4.4; RI.4.4.5; W.4.8)
- After we read about skyscrapers, I will give students time to conduct additional research on their own that will help them redesign their structure to reach higher heights. At this point I will give them guidance to pay attention to what shapes – both the overall shape, and the shapes within the frame – that are used in skyscraper construction. I will ask students if they notice any patterns as they look at various skyscrapers in their research. This can lead to a discussion of the function of the shapes used and the overall height of the building. (NGSS Crosscutting Concept 1: Patterns; 6: Structure and Function; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.7; CCSS.Math.Content.3.G.A.1 – we have not gotten to Geometry yet this year, so this is a review)
- With new knowledge and ideas students will redesign their structure in their science notebooks. They will need to work with their partners to collaborate and come to agreement on what design they want to build next. Students will draw a model in their notebooks, and write about their design and why this design will reach higher than their first design. (Standards NGSS SEP 2; 6 Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions)
- After students have redesigned their skyscrapers they will rebuild! This time there will not be a five minute time limit. They will be allowed to build and follow their plan, making adjustments as they go. When they are done, they will once again measure their structure recording their final data in their notebooks. Once other groups are done students can again do a model walk and compare designs and heights. (Standards: NGSS SEP 3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, SEP 5)
- I would like to end this activity with students writing a conclusion about their structure. The goal would be for them to explain why they built their structure the way the did, incorporating information they learned from their online research, and also from the structures built in class. I would want them to include questions they still have, plans for another redesign, or for a whole new build. I’m not sure we will make it to this step, but I’m going to try. Depending on time, I may have students combine groups and just talk about their learning rather than write it down. (Standards: NGSS SEP 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information; CCSS ELA-Literacy.W.4.2; W.4.10)
By using science to survive the holidays the students see it as a special “fun” day, and I know that I am still meeting a variety of standards. And, in case you are wondering – or worried – our day still has plenty of time for a traditional party with treats and Minute to Win it style games!
I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, both in, and out, of your classroom!
*Based on last year’s earthquake structure unit and this year’s marshmallow and toothpick activity, I clearly like having my students construct buildings. Upon reflection, I think this goes back to my own days as a student participating building balsa wood structures in Odyssey of the Mind. :)
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