Science is Reality: Seeing 6th Grade as the Foundation
These two phrases in the title are posted in the front and back of our 6th grade science classroom and are the basis for my investment strategy. Sixth grade science is a survey course covering life science, physical science, and earth science as well as experiment design and engineering design. While covering so many topics means each student usually finds at least one unit they truly enjoy, it also makes cohesiveness challenging. To help make the varied units and projects tie together I use a three-pronged approach: make it relevant, make it about the students, and show progress. Here is an example of how I embodied this approach in a engineering design project.
The Bridge Project Overview
The first design project students completed was to build a bridge and create children’s book about bridges. This project was adapted from Keith Sevigny’s Building a Bridge project.
Day 1: Define the problem
Students received their materials with the problem and constraints. They gathered information from Ms. Emily, the day care provider, about what needed to be included in the bridge.
Day 2-8: Design and Build
Each day, students had the entire class to work on their bridge. Within the first 15 minutes, each group had to complete their daily budget (below) and purchase supplies from the store to avoid the overtime fee.
I circulated and interviewed students about their design and there were testing stations where groups could test as frequently as they wished (see videos below).
To test the bridges, the entire 6th grade met in the basement. Each class had a corner with a testing station and directions. The day care staff brought all the children down—even some who didn’t walk—to be part of the community event. One group’s even held a 6th grader!
Making It Relevant
I use the phrase “science is reality” to emphasize the relevance of everything we do—we study cells because we are made of them and microscopic organisms can cause international issues (Ebola). When talking about the bridge, the relevance came from the fact that at the end of the week the day care students (all children of teachers at the school) would be walking across their bridge. Having a clear audience and real purpose for the bridge kept students motivated through the inevitable mishaps and failed designs of engineering. It also provided a focus. Students were not building just because they had to finish the project, they were discussing if their bridges were wide enough for Mr. Sipe’s daughters to crawl across or if a gap in the popsicle sticks was too wide and a child’s foot could go through it. The whole project became much more relevant when their grade level teacher’s sons and daughters needed to successfully walk across the bridge they designed!
Make it About Them
When we talk about what “6th grade is the foundation” means, we focus on how being successful this year lays the groundwork for being successful in college and beyond in your career. Students’ dream jobs range from video game designer to secret service agent to chef to professional sports player (even a fire safety specialist a.k.a arsonist). Despite their wide ranging interests, I wanted to make it clear to students that this project could help all of them be successful. By maintaining a budget and working with a deadline students developed life skills of money management and time management which are beneficial regardless of their chosen career.
Show progress to me means showing students what they are capable of. The engineering design process inherently involves students making progress; students tested their bridges and tracked their budget daily. Each group had to start with a 6 inch long piece of their bridge and test that before making the whole 2 foot span. As they added to their bridge, students tested and revised their design. Having students track their spending also allowed me to monitor progress of the group and subsequently make adjustments to the budget.
NGSS Practice Standards
Not only does the project help students engage with science and get them excited, it also ensures that we are implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Scientific and Engineering Practices in a meaningful way. With engineering projects like the bridge project, students are defining problems (NGSS Practice 1) and designing solutions (NGSS Practice 7). They are using these practices in a natural way—we do not have a lesson on how to define a problem, instead students seek out clarifications and constraints in the process of completing the project because that is what they must do to be successful. Designing a solution isn’t a standard to check off, it is the inherent product of their work. Using engineering projects to build these skills helps students when we switch into more content based lessons, particularly in the form of persevering through challenges.