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Saturday, March 7, 2015

STEM in the Elementary Classroom

Materials Used in Creation of Sail Car
Back in February I received an email from Catherine Logue, Associate Editor, Scholastic Instructor asking if I'd be interested in reviewing a STEM product.  Of course I jumped at the chance!  As I waited for the supplies to arrive, I tried to imagine what exciting materials would be shipped to us.

When the box arrived I couldn't open it fast enough.  Peering inside, I was less than thrilled!  Seriously, I was disappointed!  Inside were about 400 notched craft sticks, many clear straws,  6 inch long, thin dowels, elastics and some large and small cardboard wheels.  As I looked at the lot, I wondered what the students could possibly do with this collection or ordinary items.  Then I noticed there were directions for a "Sail Car" provided by Pitsco Education (Try This Engineering: Sail Car).

As I gave my word I to review the product I decided to forge ahead and give it a chance.  When I presented the project to the students the fist pumps and 'oh yeah's' showed their eagerness to begin. Some parameters and basic directions were shared with the students.  They were allowed to work with a partner, small group or independently.  Students were asked to plan/sketch up to 4 designs on an organizer.  In their fervor to get started their drawings were crudely thought out and drawn.  (I purposely didn't give them the direction sheet as it had a picture of a completed car depicted on it.  My thinking was that they might copy this car & not create their own.)

Students worked steadily for about 40 minutes.  When it was time to "shift gears" for other instruction the room erupted with a loud "AWWW!"as students shared their displeasure at the interruption.

During indoor recess almost all the students worked on their cars...not because they HAD to but because they WANTED to! This alone speaks volumes of using STEM type activities in the classroom!  It took some more class time to finish the car (over a couple of days).  It was rather a trying experience as students had difficulty attaching the wheels - had I read the directions carefully, I could have saved them some frustration (but in the process I learned a bit about engineering too - Thank you Nancy F. for helping!).  Of course throughout the building process discussions were being held about things that were working, not working - students collaborated between groups and were happy to share their successes. At one point, we even examined a "lego" car that a student made during recess one day so we could compare the wheel structure! Great ideas coming from these 10 year olds!

The day arrived that we were ready to test the cars to see which one would travel the furthest.  A START line was created and several tape measures were secured to the floor!  Students were only allowed ONE blow through a straw - then the distance was measured.  Each car had 3 tries.  Students all lined up along the start line and awaited their turn.  It really was fun.  You could hear the students discussing why someone's car worked well or didn't work as well.  The cars' distances ranged between 6 inches and 60 inches! Huzzah!

To wrap up the project students all discussed what they learned and wrote a "Sail Car Reflection".  “Awesome! Fun! Confusing! Hard! Challenging!” – these are the words my students used to describe the project.  They loved being able to “create something using their own ideas.” "Next time I'll take time to make a better plan." "I liked the materials because they were simple to use." 

This is only one example of STEM in the classroom (and not a very overly planned activity).  The next activity will involve research - as students need some foundational skills or at least the background knowledge.  What's the next activity???? I'm not sure, but I do know that IT will happen again and SOON!  

I would love to hear your ideas about STEM in the classroom and how you manage it! Feel free to share in the comment sections below!


  1. That's pretty cool! Thanks for sharing. It is really nice to see what and how kids are learning these days.

    1. Thank you Cal! Always love sharing with the public the goings on in our classroom!

  2. This is a great example of how common materials can be used for great STEM challenges. Kids love to build and engineer. You don't need anything special to do it- straws, paper, some tape and Popsicle sticks can lead to hours of engagement! We have an all school science challenge, doing similar activities to these, each year for our "Science Day" and the kids love it.

    1. Hi Sarah,
      That's exactly what I loved about this lesson! It was made out of regular materials. Okay, the cardboard wheels were pre-fab but could have been made by the students! It's great that you have an all school science challenge. Great for kids of any age! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Nancy,
    I love the engaged learning your students experienced with everyday materials. was the first thing I thought of when I saw the vehicles they made. That is a great STEM experience we had at my school in Iowa. We built wind turbines to see how to generate the most power.

    We've used Pitsco for ordering supplies for our TSA program, as well. We made balsa wood gliders and balsa wood boats, powered by rubber bands. Those units in 7th grade science were some of our best experiences.

    Hooray for raising a new generation of critical thinking scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians! Keep up the great work.


    1. Hi Denise,
      Thanks for sharing While it looks a little intimidating for 4th graders - I think it would be a great challenge. Going to explore it further to see if I can make it work for them.
      One thing I have realized is that I have to become more comfortable with the process and activities. Not having or knowing all the answers can be daunting but the students don't seem to mind. It's still necessary to have a basic foundation so guiding questions can be given if needed.
      Loved the Pitsco materials because they were so easy to use. It was great to see that it doesn't take a lot of money or materials to actively engage these students.
      We are in the middle of our next STEM experience and while I made changes to the process I know I further modifications will need to be made for the next one! I guess this is a work in progress for both teacher and students!
      As always, thanks for taking the time to comment! I appreciate your thoughtful ideas and encouragement!

    2. Thanks, Nancy! Best wishes on this next round of STEM. I'm sure it helps "STEM" the tide of spring fever. Have fun!

  4. Hi Nancy,

    Awesome post. I am a 5th grade science teacher always looking for ways to make my lessons more engaging and interesting for students. While time and other limitations do not allow me to make every lesson using STEM resources, I definitely notice student engagement skyrocket and participation/discipline becomes a breeze when using projects similar to these that are aligned to my content standards. I want to mention that I also have to deal with the disappointed faces when we must take a break from working on our STEM projects. Students really do enjoy them and when they are aligned to my content standards they really help my tactile learners remember the knowledge and skills they needed to master.

    Thanks again for the insight you shared in implementing STEM projects in the elementary classroom.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I concur that the engagement level is high when these types of activities are used. They are also great for the tactile learners too! But, time certainly is a limitation and we need to somehow find the time for these worthwhile activities. Thank you again for commenting.

  5. Thank you for sharing. Art and craft are an essential part of today's education curriculum in private elementary schools. It helps kids in creative development rather than just learning from textbooks.


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