Category Archives: children as engineers

In Need of Inspiration? Meet Eva.

Last Friday found me at Lincoln Elementary School in Calumet City, Illinois. Lincoln is one of our STEM Institute partner schools, sending eight teachers through last summer’s Introduction to Inquiry. One of the benefits and joys of the program is the relationships we build with each of our teacher participants over the two years of the program, as we visit their classes to support their transition to the NGSS and a more inquiry-based practice.

Evangelina Sfura teaches 4th grade at Lincoln and is on Lincoln’s iTEAM.  I stopped by her classroom to see the STEM Career Fair her students were putting on for each other and for students in other classes. Eva is an extraordinary teacher, and her passion for teaching, and for teaching science in particular, is contagious. I asked her if I could interview her and share her journey. Happily, she said yes.

Eva Sfura in her Classroom

I was fascinated to see the students engaging each other in your STEM Career Fair. They were riveted. How did that come about?

“My class participated in the event ‘Hour of Code.’ Afterwards, I was talking about STEM careers and why they are so important. One of my students raised her hand and said, ‘I know what STEM is but what kind of jobs do people have in STEM?’ That stopped me in my tracks, and I realized what a profound question that was. Students know what doctors, lawyers and teachers are, but they know nothing of engineers, analysts and programmers. How can students aspire to professions that they have never heard of?

I decided to turn that question into a project. We looked up a list of STEM careers. Student pairs were given a chance to look over the list and do some quick research to find a career they were interested in. Once they settled on a career, they used Google Slides to create a presentation. The students were especially interested in salary information, but I wanted to put that information in context so that it would have an impact. We researched 2010 US Census Data for our city to find the average salary of a person living here. We looked at the 2010 US Census Economic Data and found that the average income of a full time worker in Calumet City, Illinois, is $18,900 a year. They thought that was huge until they investigated their STEM careers. The careers the students researched had average starting salaries between $58,000 and $120,000. As one of my students told me, ‘Wow, college really is worth my time!’

During the course of their research, many groups came across the word ‘resume’ and had no idea what it meant. That led to lessons on what a resume is and how to create one. Students used a template on Google Docs to make their own resumes which became part of their presentations. The students asked me if they could present their projects to other classes. Thus, the idea of a STEM career fair was born. The groups made posters announcing their career and other classrooms were invited. My class did an amazing job presenting their information over three days.”

Two Students Learn about Environmental Engineering on STEM Career Day

Can you tell us about the Dyson connection you made, what that was like for your students, and what impact it had on them and on you?

“A colleague told me about the James Dyson Foundation and how they are promoting STEM in classrooms. Any teacher can go on their website and put themselves on a waiting list for a Dyson Ideas Box. This box contains a free month long engineering unit that allows students to explore the idea of product design. They used Dyson products as an inspiration point. My class and I were able to investigate an actual Dyson Air Multiplier to compare it to a conventional fan. This allowed my students to see that many inventions are as simple as taking an already existing product and making it more useful and efficient. By the end of the unit, students were redesigning products that are used in a classroom. My favorite was the group that decided the worst thing about a pencil is how small the eraser is. They came up with a model that had a longer, encased eraser that twisted up as the need for more arose. It was quite ingenuous!

My students loved this unit and begged me not to send the Ideas Box back. I know that it had an impact on my students. The very first lesson in the idea box had the students drawing what they thought an engineer looked like. They all drew men in suits with briefcases. The lesson was repeated at the very end of the unit. This time, without any input from me, they drew themselves, explaining that they realized they could be engineers if they wanted to!”

4th Graders in Ms. Sfura’s Class at Lincoln Elementary in Calumet City, Illinois, Exploring Engineering (Thank you, Dyson!)

What have you learned since completing year one of STEM Institute? Have you changed as a teacher? If so, in what ways?

“I have learned so much that I hardly know where to start. Science was my least favorite subject to teach. I really had no idea how to make it come alive the way I could do with reading or math. That is why I jumped at the chance to be part of the STEM Institute. I feel like I understand Science more than I did before. By learning to make these topics engaging for my students, I understand them better as well.

I love how the STEM Institute presents information. Instead of the usual lectures, everything is presented the way teachers should present in their own classrooms. This made me feel confidant that I could actually implement changes in my teaching immediately. My first science lesson this year involved using glow sticks to understand chemical energy! It was messy and noisy, but now at the end of the year, my students are still talking about that!

If fact, the most productive tidbit I learned is that a little chaos, noise and mess can lead to some of the most amazing conversations and explorations with my students. It is now so important to me that students get a chance to explore, investigate or research a topic before I explicitly teach it.”

What has been the most valuable take away from the program?

“One of the biggest takeaways has been to place more trust in my students. They know and can handle more than I ever gave them credit for. I am so much more comfortable letting them take the lead on investigations and projects. It is an awesome experience to sit back and watch what they are able to come up with without me guiding them step by step.

We start every topic in Science with an inquiry lesson. I often just give them the supplies and let them explore before I teach anything. By the time we get to the textbook, they already have a real world understanding of the concepts, and it makes the reading less confusing and dry. This has also changed the way the students take their science tests. I leave out any materials or equipment we used during the unit. During testing, they will often get up and repeat an experiment quickly to make sure their answer is correct! I love it!

I am using this exploration time in other subjects as well. For example, in math, I will display a problem for the students on a topic they have never seen. I have them work in groups to try to figure out the problem using what they already know. At first this scared my students. I heard a lot of whining and complaints, but I just kept reassuring them that they could figure out something and to keep trying. As they explored, they got more confident, and it was exciting to watch their enthusiasm grow. Now, they love new problems and can’t wait to tackle them. They view it as a challenge rather than a chore. My scores in math have improved dramatically as well!”

Experimenting with Circuits in the Dyson Engineering Lab Ms. Sfura Brought to Her Classroom

How has your thinking about STEM changed over the past year?

“I was mostly drawn to the technology aspect of STEM. I, personally, love technology and have enjoyed implementing it in my class where I am lucky to have one-to-one computing. My school has provided me with a large amount of math professional development. It was the engineering and science that I was having trouble incorporating. I will admit that I made a lot of excuses. My students were too young or too noisy. The students would act up if I tried it. They probably wouldn’t get it anyway. The truth was that I lacked the confidence to try.

Being part of the STEM Institute changed that, and not one of my excuses came to pass. My students rose higher than my expectations most of the time. Sure it was noisy, but the students were on task and excited about what they were doing. They understood what we were doing and could articulate why. I didn’t have any behavior problems during these lessons because they were so intrigued and engaged! STEM and by extension inquiry-based learning has become a large part of classroom routine. I would never revert to the way things were.”

Is there anything you want to share with other teachers who might be considering an inquiry-based approach or a more STEM-based curriculum? Any words of wisdom based on your own experience?

“My first bit of advice is to learn to be more comfortable giving up some control to your students. Set the expectation and then trust them to accomplish it. Not only will learning improve, but it has the side benefit of improving your relationship with your students. When trust is running both ways, you can accomplish more than you can imagine. I am so bonded to this class and I think it is because they feel safe, heard and trusted. They have made me so proud that on a few occassions I have teared up!

The second bit of advice would be so stop being afraid of chaos. There is such a thing a purposeful chaos. Loud is okay if students are on task and collaborating. Messy is okay if it leads to better understanding. The world will not end if students are out of their seats, exploring concepts together.”

What has been the impact on your students of your more STEM focused and inquiry-based approach? Do you see any changes in them compared with previous years’ students?

“Several times a year, I send a survey to my students asking questions about the classroom, their likes and dislikes, any changes they would like to see, etc. Every year, when I asked about their favorite subjects, science was dead last. No one really liked it. This year, however, most of the class put science first! I am really proud of that because it means the students and I both agree that changes I have made are positive ones.

I can see a change in the students themselves. They are not afraid to explore topics. In fact, they have no problem asking me if we can extend a topic or take it in a different direction than I intended. They really enjoy a challenge instead of shying away from it. I have heard conversations where my students have discussed and debated the best type of engineer to be. They discuss the best ways to code on computers and even now suggest experiments they would like to try! They are so much more involved in their learning than any group I have previously taught.

I teach many ELL students who are typically shy and do not like to speak. It has been particularly gratifying to see those students gain more self confidence. I was so proud to see all of them talking to groups during the STEM career fair as much as the students who are native English speakers!”

You Simply Can’t Make Up This Level of Engagement

Eva, it is so inspiring to hear about your evolution as a teacher. I’m curious about how long you’ve been teaching and what brought you to this profession.

“I am finishing up my 11th year of teaching! I have only taught at Lincoln. Teaching is my second career. I was a marketing executive for five years before I realized that I was very unfulfilled. I was influenced by my father who had been a teacher in East Chicago, Indiana, for 42 years. We couldn’t go anywhere when I was child without running into his former students. Once we went to Atlanta, Georgia, and we still ran into a former student! All of his students adored him. He died when I was 19, and his funeral was packed with former students from all over the country. I couldn’t help thinking that he died having made a huge impact on so many people, while I was sitting in front of a computer all day. I got laid-off from my job, found a program at Roosevelt University that allowed business professionals to obtain a teaching license and never once looked back!”

What a legacy! And how proud Eva’s father would have been.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.


1 Comment

Filed under Calumet City, children as engineers, children as scientists, Dyson Education Foundation, inquiry science, professional development, resources, science teaching, STEM education, Uncategorized

A New Tool for Teachers and Principals from STEM Institute

If you are looking for clear evidence that a classroom, including your own, is on its way to becoming inquiry-based, NGSS aligned, and just plain supportive of students developing their science and engineering skills, ask yourself these questions

  • Are the students seen as scientists and engineers by themselves and by adults?
Sending a Clear Message That Students are Engineers

Sending a Clear Message That Students are Engineers (Kozminski Elementary Community Academy, Chicago)

  • Are the students gathering, organizing, and analyzing data and in other ways experiencing the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (SEP)?
NGSS Science and Engineering Practices — Are Students Using Them?

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices — Are Students Doing These Things?

  • Is the science instruction inquiry-based and hands-on rather than textbook based? (You know, the old memorize the vocabulary, read the book out loud, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter?) How often are students engaged in hands-on, minds-on work? (This should be frequent, not once or twice a month.)
  • Are the students keeping science journals/notebooks, recording their observations, doing scientific drawings or designing solutions to engineering challenges, and reflecting on their observations and experiences, and is this a consistent practice? (For example, “Three months into the school year, when I look at their science notebooks, do I see pages and pages of recorded experiences of the children doing science rather than simply content notes, vocabulary, or pasted in worksheets?”)
  • Are the students using the Wheel of Inquiry to develop investigable questions? Are they asking, “How does ________ effect ________?”
Student Developed Wheels of Inquiry (Steven Taylor, Crowne Community Academy, Chicago)

Student Developed Wheels of Inquiry (Stephen Taylor, Crowne Community Academy, Chicago)

  • Are there photos in the classroom of students doing science? Are students’ scientific drawings posted? Are their engineering solutions on display? In other words, is there a visible documentary record that these are valued activities and engaging to students and that the students are doing hands-on, inquiry-based science/engineering on a regular basis?
At Tonti Elementary in Chicago, Photos of Students Doing Science are Nested Among those of Adult Scientists, Answering the Question "Who is a Scientist?

At Tonti Elementary in Chicago, Photos of Students Doing Science are Nested Among those of Adult Scientists, Answering the Question “Who Is A Scientist?”

  • Is the science/STEM question-driven? Is there a central question being explored through the activity? (This might be called the framing question, essential question, or focus question.) Are there more high-order questions (Bloom’s Taxonomy) being asked? Are students asking high-order questions too? Is there appropriate wait time so that all students have the opportunity to reflect and respond? Is the classroom management conducive to the questioning process and to students conducting scientific investigations or responding to engineering challenges?
  • Are the lessons based on the 5 E approach? Are they Engaging the students in an intriguing observation or question, giving the students ample time to Explore the materials up front before proceeding to have them conduct an investigation and Explain what they observe? Are students given opportunities to Extend their investigation (possibly by using the Wheel of Inquiry and reflecting in their science notebooks) and Evaluate their results and understanding?
  • Are the students excited when they hear they are going to be doing an investigation? Do they know what to do and immediately spring into action? Do they clearly understand the process and procedures because they are doing science and engineering on a frequent, preferably daily, basis? How much ownership do you see students taking for their own learning? Are students framing questions? Are students suggesting other possible investigations? Can students discuss their learning or communicate their understanding in a variety of ways?
Tonti Children

Tonti Elementary Students Learn about the Properties of Water by Building Pencil Rafts … Hands On and Engaged!

  • Was the lesson or unit constructed using backward design? Is there evidence of a clear instructional goal, an assessment, and something to hook the interest of students … rather than simply an activity? Are the NGSS and CCSS clearly identified and tied to the lesson or activity in a meaningful way and with multiple standards addressed? Are the subjects integrated in such a way that more science and engineering can be done because language arts and math support them and vice versa?
  • Are students generally working in groups with clearly defined roles for each student in the group? Is it clear that the students know what to do, the protocols and procedures, when it’s time to conduct an investigation or meet an engineering challenge? Are materials managed in a timely and efficient way?

Using an inquiry-based, constructivist approach takes time because it’s a new way of teaching for many teachers. Seeing four or five of these success indicators in a classroom is a good sign. With enough time and encouragement, teachers are likely to build out their repertoire of inquiry-based activities and lessons into entire units of study and to increase student ownership of learning. Getting to that point is a multi-year process even for highly talented, committed, and experienced teachers. So be prepared to give it time and patience. Working with colleagues as a team to develop a lesson or unit can help speed the process along. To assist you along the way, our Partners in Inquiry website includes many activities from our summer institutes and school year follow-up sessions that teachers are free to use, activities that are already aligned with the above principles.

To make it even easier to gauge whether or not the principles STEM Institute promotes are present in a classroom, we’ve developed an infographic that can serve as a reminder of the things we think you should see.

Our New Info Graphic Reminder of What to Look For

Our New Infographic Reminder of What to Look for in a Great STEM Classroom

I hope it proves useful to you. I’d love to hear from you if you do use it or have suggestions to make it better.

Have a great start to your new school year!


You can learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute here.

Leave a comment

Filed under 5 E Model, children as engineers, children as scientists, Crowne Community Academy, inquiry science, Kozminski Elementary, NGSS, professional development, resources, science teaching, STEM education, teacher resources, Tonti Elementary School, Uncategorized

Hooking Students on STEM: Going Gaga (Part 3 of 4)

If you’re looking for a project sure to engage your middle school students, you might want to think about going gaga. Nope, not going crazy or impersonating a certain singer, but hooking your students with a new old game that was imported from Israel to the United States in the 60s.

Essentially, gaga is a variation on dodge ball that has been called a kinder version of that favorite childhood sport.

Here’s a description from Wikipedia:

Gaga is played in a large fenced in area (usually an octagon or hexagon) called a gaga pit. The gaga pit generally consists of flat walls atop a smooth dirt, turf, or sand surface. The gaga ball can vary in size and form, generally ranging from a foam dodgeball to a rubber kickball. The game begins when one player throws the gaga ball into the air; while their backs are against the wall, the players shout “Ga” on each of the first three bounces. After three bounces, the ball is in play, and the players may leave the wall and “hit” the ball at each other in the pit. A player who is hit by the ball or breaks a rule is eliminated and must leave the game. Players may not “hit” the ball twice in a row, and a player who causes the ball to leave the pit is out. When the ball is caught in the air on a fly, the last person to hit the ball is out.

You can see a video clip of gaga with the rules explained here.

So, let me introduce you to STEM Institute faculty member Howie Templer and his 5th grade students and share some of his ideas for how you can replicate their very cool project. The local paper, The Highland Park Landmark, described what happened:

“When Howie Templer’s fifth-grade class was denied construction of an outdoor game court due to “maintenance and liability” issues by District 112, they didn’t take no for an answer.

Instead, the fifth graders took matters into their own hands and constructed a presentation that was brought before district board members on a special meeting on May 26 for a gaga pit, which is a dodgeball-like game played within a gated area.

From architectural design to budget costs and even a thorough explanation of specific benefits, the Oak Terrace fifth-grade class’s presentation to the District 112 board of education was conducted with the idea in mind that they would be able to reverse an earlier decision of the board. And they got their wish, plus one additional gaga pit – doubling the students’ expectations.”

The GAGA TEAM with Howie Templer at the back in front of the screen.

The Gaga Team with Howie Templer (back row, front of screen)

When his students approached him with the idea of getting the school board to change its mind and approve the construction of a gaga pit, Howie Templer’s response was, “That’s great. I can connect a lot of math concepts to it. I’m always looking for application opportunities for math.” From using the Pythagorean theorem to design the pit to calculating the costs of doing so, Templer was able to incorporate many core concepts of the fifth-grade curriculum in the project. He relished the opportunity to provide his students with a real-world problem to attack, and they rose to the occasion, with each student assuming a different role in seeing the project through to completion. Clearly, there was more than math involved. The project honed the students’ entrepreneurial skills as they researched gaga pits at other schools, created a poster presentation, acquired financial donations for the project, and marshaled support in the community prior to pitching the idea to the previously resistant board.

I interviewed Templer about the gaga pit project, so that other teachers interested in replicating it or doing a similar project would have guidance from someone who has already traveled that road.

Other than using the Pythagorean theorem and calculating costs, what other math and science concepts were you able to incorporate in the project? How about engineering and technology? Was this a full-fledged STEM activity?

The project connected and enriched all of the geometry concepts I already planned to teach and incorporated many STEM components. The students already knew the names of different shapes, based on number of sides and angles, and could find the area of rectangles and triangles. When this project began I handed students a large octagon designed using K’Nex and asked the students to find the area of the shape. The location of the gaga pit was already determined by our principal, so it was important to develop strategies to find the area in order to determine what size gaga pit would work best. Groups used different strategies, including dividing the shape into eight triangles and adding the area of each triangle and creating a rectangle and subtracting the four corner triangles that would need to be removed in order to result in an octagon. We shared different strategies and then used an online octagon calculator to find the actual area of an octagon with the dimensions provided. The students found their percent error from the actual area (all groups were within 1% error). We were able to connect this to find the area of many irregular shapes by breaking them into rectangles and triangles.

After that, I challenged the students to develop their own formulas to find the area of an octagon given the width and length from one end of the octagon to the other and the side length. The students tested each other’s formulas and compared answers. Some of the successes included n^2 – ((n-r) ÷ 2) x 4 where n = length/width and r = side length. Another unique discovery was .8284n^2. A group of students discovered that a regular octagon is always 82.84% of a square that has the same length/width.

The next important teaching concept was to determine the sum of the angles of an octagon and how many degrees are in each angle of a regular octagon. The students would need to use this information to order brackets with the right number of degrees. I challenged students to determine each angle measure without using a protractor. Strategies included connecting the vertices to make triangles, making triangles from a center point and subtracting 360 degrees (the sum of the interior angles) or dividing the corners into triangles. The students found that each angle is 135 degrees and the sum of the angles is 1080. We practiced these concepts on several different shapes to develop a deeper understanding.

The students learned about the Pythagorean theorem in order to help find the area when only the side length of the octagon was given (and not the end to end width/length). In the case of the gaga pit, we needed to determine whether to purchase a pit with 8-foot sides or 10-foot sides. The students needed to calculate the area to find out how much space would be required for the pit and how much space would be needed from end to end. The students measured the length of the field where we will assemble the pit: it is 25.5’ x 56.5’. Each group decided which pit they thought would work best and created a scale model of the field with the pit using protractors and T-squares. We decided to purchase a pit with 8-foot sides. An octagon with 10-foot sides is over 24 feet from end to end, and that left very little space.

Using the program SketchUp, students designed a digital model of the space after the gaga pit was installed with the school in the background. In order to accurately create the school, the students needed to know the height. We used laser protractors at a certain distance and figured out the angle to the top of the school. Then students created scale models of the scenario to find the corresponding height of the school.

Digital Design Using Sketch-Up

Digital Design Using SketchUp

Were you doing this as part of the regular class time? How did you manage to work it into an already busy schedule? How long did students work on this project?

This was part of my math class. I taught a lot of concepts that connected to the core content I already planned to teach. It just took a lot of flexibility and creativity to reorder the material to connect with the needs of this project. The students all had unique jobs that they were responsible for preparing and executing at the board meeting; a great deal of that work was their responsibility outside of school. I didn’t give any traditional math homework during this project. Instead they were responsible for managing their time to create and prepare their scripts for the presentation, become experts on their topics, and know all of the content we worked on in class. We worked on this for over two months and regularly checked in on each other’s progress. There were lots of emails that were exchanged.

I see in the photos you sent that the kids designing on computer, Howie, and also using the telephone. What were they doing?

On the computer the students used SketchUp to create a digital model of how the space would look when it was finalized.

On the phone, students did a lot of tasks: The census collector cold-called schools in our area to find how many schools had gaga pits. He called 30 schools and over 25% of them had gaga pits!

Another student in charge of interviews spoke with two superintendents of surrounding school districts that had gaga pits to ask about their experiences, and he also interviewed a school nurse to find out about injuries and how we could help reduce them.

Other students called local businesses and explained the project. They were trying to get sponsors using a tier system. Businesses could get their name on a plaque and logo on a wall. The students raised 1,300 dollars — enough to cover all of the expenses of the gaga pit.

A good STEM project by definition includes technology applied in real world contexts.

A good STEM project, by definition, includes technology applied in real world contexts.

Were there any challenges that other teachers should know about beforehand?

There are a lot of moving parts and constant challenges. The biggest obstacle was when we found out that a gaga pit wouldn’t be approved at our school because of liability and maintenance concerns. I had already started incorporating the gaga pit project into math. This particular obstacle presented us with the most outstanding learning opportunity when my students used their voices to contact the superintendent and convinced him to reconsider. That made this project immensely more powerful. I will never be able to do this project again because it was responsive to a unique circumstance and opportunity, but it was one of the most fun and rewarding projects I have done. The students had total ownership over it and were completely invested.

As a teacher nothing is more exciting than when you can completely become a facilitator. I will seek out more authentic learning opportunities that can be woven into the classroom.

What were the highlights of the project?

It had a happy ending. The students prepared for an audience and executed beautifully. The school board members were so impressed with their work and are buying us a second gaga pit (based on the scale models my students developed, they noticed that we had room). No one saw that coming and it was such an exciting moment.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with other teachers on doing real-world projects like the gaga pit?

Organization at the front end is very important. All of my students had unique roles that they helped create, and they selected their own roles. That really helped with their investment. My goals are to keep my eyes open and listen to what is happening in the community to see if I can connect it somehow.

On Saturday, June 18, several students and their family members gathered to construct the gaga pit, with the help of an Oak Terrace parent who owns a local landscaping company. Howie reported, “it took some time and hard work, but the pit is officially assembled!”



Thanks to Howie Templer for responding to questions about this fantastic project and providing the photos that illustrate it.

Please leave any question in comments, or share your own experience connecting your students to real world problem solving with STEM.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

Leave a comment

Filed under children as engineers, engineering, gaga pit, math, Pythagorean Theorem, STEM education, Uncategorized

This Works!

The Finns woke up one day in 2007 to discover, much to their collective surprise, that they led the rest of the world in education. When they embarked on education reform some 40 years earlier, they hadn’t set out to beat anyone in that arena but only to improve the educational opportunities for Finnish children. However, by emphasizing equitable access to a high quality education for all children regardless of either their socio economic circumstances or their inherent capacity and by fostering collaboration in schools and in teacher preparation, they wound up outscoring everyone else on the PISA and other measures of student achievement — all of this without going the route of incessant standardized tests and an obsessive focus on student achievement in a narrow range of subjects. By the way, teaching is a highly sought after profession in Finland thanks to the vision the Finns had for their schools.

As a result of that vision and their singleminded pursuit of it, education has become Finland’s oil, a new natural resource that they are exporting to other countries. And we can learn a lot from the Finns.

In this blog over the past years I’ve reflected several times on how we Americans do Science Fairs. If you’ve read any of those entries, you know that I’m not entirely thrilled by the way ours are constituted, although I do see potential in having children conduct scientific investigations and meet engineering challenges, presenting their results to their peers and to knowledgeable adults who can both positively reinforce their efforts and stimulate further thinking by the child scientists and engineers.

So when I was in Finland week before last, I was delighted to encounter a student science fair of sorts, Tämä toimii!, at Tampere University of Applied Sciences in Hervanta, Finland. Tampere is Finland’s second largest university in engineering sciences, and its statutory duty is to pursue research and give the best possible education in its field. Tuition is free to students from Finland and other EU countries. Let me repeat that. Finnish students receive a world class education in engineering without incurring any student debt. That day, Tampere University was playing host to children from local schools who were sharing their work with judges.

Translated: This Works!

Translated: Hey, brought the toy moves (moving toy?)! This Works!

As with other aspects of Finnish education, there are some things we can learn from Tämä toimii!, which means “This Works!”

Tämä toimii! is an annual competition (since 2013) for children grades 4-6, so around 10 years of age, to design a toy with moving parts. In the fall, schools register their desire to participate and by November receive confirmation and the schedule of spring events. In early December, participating schools receive a list of approved materials, so that they can begin gathering them from around the school and from children’s homes. Finland places a strong emphasis on recycling and has for years, so most of the materials the children will be using for their toy inventions are materials that they are repurposing or recycling. The children keep a diary of their work, and their final product is a toy that will be judged for its success in movement over repeated tries, its delight as a plaything for children, and its inventive use of recycled materials. They must also produce an ad for their toy and demonstrate the toy to various groups —from other children to adult judges.

Presented to spark your creativity, here is a list of suggested materials from the 2016 competition:

Permitted building:
A disc (e.g. wood, metal, plastic), max. 50cm x 50cm x 1cm
Cocktail, dental or barbecue sticks
Juice whistles
CD discs
A tube (e.g. Pringles)
Plastic pipe, max. ⌀ 2cm
Beverage cans / plastic water bottle
Plastic box / jar (e.g. Margarine tubs) and a plastic cover
Clay (also hardening modeling clay)
Craft Beads (all types)
Egg carton (max. 12 egg cell)
Fabric (e.g. A blanket, cotton, oilcloth etc.)
Carto, max. 50cm x50cm x50 cm; paperboard, max. 100cm x100cm; copy paper
Rope or fishing line
Screws (all types / all sizes)
Nails (all types / all sizes)
Rubber loops or equivalent (e.g. Hair elastics)
Clothes pegs
Ballpoint pens
Empty pump soap bottle or equivalent
Ball (glass / metal / plastic)
Plastic test tube
Magnet (diagonal / diameter max. 3cm)
Light bulbs or LEDs
Connection conductor / winding wire
A recycled solar cell

However, some of the materials may also be purchased.

Children begin their work in January and by March they are presenting in regional events, leading up to the finals.

Spend a few minutes watching some of this video from 2014, and you’ll get the idea … and as you do, think about the science fairs you’ve attended.

To help you visualize further, here are some photos I took of the groups of students with their toy creations who were presenting that day at Tampere University.

Students being interviewed by media, by judges, and (in English) by my colleague Rozy Patel.

Students being interviewed by media, by judges, and (in English) by my colleague Rozy Patel.


The Genius of Children with Everyday Recyclables ... Note the Houseboat Which Moves in Water ... Inside the Table is Set.

The genius of children with recyclables. Note the houseboat in the top half — it moves in the tub of water and inside it the table is set.

I know I haven’t captured all of the details of this program, my Finnish being nonexistent and Google translator having its limits, but several things struck me that day that were distinctly different from what I’ve observed judging science fairs in the U.S., six to be precise, and I think they could give us some things to think about in considering how to improve our science fairs.

  1. Rather than one or two student limits on a project, This Works! requires that 4 children collaborate. If a class doesn’t divide evenly into groups of 4, a group of 3 or 5 is allowed.
  2. Each group must include both boys and girls; they are equal partners in the work.
  3. By definition, each project is a STEAM project because the design of the toys, the color choices, the decorative elements, and the required ad for the toy all demand attention to design and artistic expression.
  4. There are none of those ubiquitous and boring boards … sorry Staples … and no evidence of a formula the children must follow in presenting their toy to the judges.
  5. Most of the materials are repurposed or recycled, encouraging children to be imaginative about things that would otherwise likely be discarded. This also levels the playing field because parental income doesn’t matter at all in the outcome of the finished product. It also fosters and participates in the strong eco-minded culture of Finland, something we could certainly improve on.
  6. Creating toys clearly matters to children. A program like this respects children’s innate desire to play and the fact that they learn through play. This is a powerful real world connection that most American science fair entries I’ve seen simply don’t have.

And the icing on the cake for me was that the children were able to respond to my questions in English and present their toy in English as well as in their native Finnish. I know you can’t tell this from the video and pictures, but I saw it with my own eyes. How many American students could do the same? These children are ready for the 21st century and for contributing the products of their imaginations to their own society and to the global economy. Even the name of this program builds confidence in children … “this works!” There’s a sense of exaltation in that phrase!

Until next time, Hyvää kevättä! (Happy Spring!)

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

Leave a comment

Filed under children as engineers, creativity, engineering, Finland, Finnish education, science fair, STEAM, STEM education, Uncategorized

Golden Apple STEM Institute TED Playlist: 10 Inspiring Talks for Inquiry-Based STEM Teachers

If you’re a follower of TED talks you are probably already familiar with TED playlists, TED or curator created groupings of TED talks around a particular theme. You know the power of these collections to spark your thinking about a  topic. If you aren’t familiar with TED, the following short videos will provide you with an introduction to these inspiring and entertaining talks on the cutting edge of human understanding.

By the way, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, but the talks are much more wide-ranging that those three words suggest, delving into science, mathematics, education, and numerous other fields. The talks themselves are given at an annual TED conference. This year’s TED conference was in Vancouver and just just concluded. Attending the conference is by application and invitation and costs $8,500, not including airfare, lodging and food. In the coming weeks, the talks from that conference will be posted online and are free. Cities around the world have created their own TED conferences called TEDex, and those talks are posted on the TED site as well.

STEM Institute has assembled the following ten TED talks that capture the spirit of inquiry, curiosity, and fun that are at the heart of our program. They suggest what we hope students will experience in their STEM classes.


Why we need the explorers

This talk could be subtitled “on the importance of curiosity driven science.”


Three rules to spark learning

A high school chemistry teacher shares insights he learned from his surgeon that changed how he practices the craft of teaching.


Hey science teachers – make it fun

Why textbook driven instruction isn’t the way to go — be playful and use storytelling to awaken your students’ interest.


Science is for everyone, kids included

This talk is on the importance of play; science as a way of being; children’s questioning; and experiments as play.


Math class needs a makeover

Although this talk is about high school math, the takeaways apply equally to elementary math and science – the importance to students of formulating the problems; here’s some great teaching advice to lead students to patient problem solving.


Hands-on science with squishy circuits

Make some homemade play dough for little kids to build circuits.


Kids can teach themselves

Sugata Mitra explores how you can indeed feel confident in turning over more responsibility for learning to kids themselves.


How I harnessed the wind

Inspiring talk by a young man from Malawi that could lead students to explore the maker movement, engineering, and the power of young people to make real world contributions; a good hook for a unit on energy or for Earth Day.


Biomimicry’s surprising lessons from nature’s engineers

Why immerse students in nature? This talk explores the intersection between science, design, and engineering.“Learning about the natural world is one thing; learning from the natural world, that’s the profound switch.”


Do schools kill creativity?

Saving the best for last, I close with the most popular TED talk of all time. It gets to the heart of what is wrong with most schools, the deadening impact they have on students’ creativity, creativity that is essential to success in the STEM fields.


Enjoy! And if you have a favorite TED talk or comments about any of these, please share in a comment below.


You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

Leave a comment

Filed under children as engineers, children as scientists, creativity, curiosity, engineering, innovation, inquiry science, professional development, resources, science teaching, scientist, STEM education, teacher resources, TED, Uncategorized

How A Creative 8th Grade Teacher Kicked Things Up A Notch

(An Interview with 8th Grade Teacher Kelly Harris-Preston, Brentano Math and Science Academy)

When I visited Brentano Math and Science Academy last month for their first annual all school egg drop challenge, I was struck by the level of differentiation that allowed students across grade levels, from Kindergarten through 8th grade, to participate in the same activity with equal levels of both engagement and learning. Creating a protective container into which an egg can be safely dropped is one of the activities that STEM Institute facilitates in Advanced Inquiry to familiarize teachers with how to make engineering an integral part of their science curriculum in the age of the NGSS. Brentano did a variation on this by having students design a vehicle to protect the egg on its descent. But how can one activity fit so many grade levels of students?

Spending a little time after school with teacher Kelly Harris-Preston gave me a glimpse into how a clever teacher can adapt an activity to make it more challenging for older students, while still being essentially the same activity that the primary grades students are doing.

As had the other grades teachers, Kelly had her students working in design teams to create a receptacle for an egg that would allow the egg to survive intact when dropped from the auditorium balcony to the main floor. But Kelly had kicked it up a notch and in doing so helped her students connect the engineering design challenge to a real world scenario.

Teacher Kelly Harris-Preston

Teacher Kelly Harris-Preston

How did you differentiate the Egg Drop Challenge to engage the older students?

“We talked about the mudslides and wildfires that are happening in California right now. I posed a question. ‘How could we help?’ I knew we were doing the egg drop, so I wanted to bump it up for the eighth graders a little more, so we talked about that and they came up with the idea of dropping them food. So we started looking at how would that work, what would that look like? I brought in what if it was in New Orleans? What if it was in California? What are some differences in the geographic terrain that would make it difficult? So we first did a blind drop. They created a map and put an X on it and that’s where the food needed to go. They were up on a chair with a blindfold on with a ball and they had to drop it, just so they could practice or see how hard it is to get something to a specific target. And what if it didn’t get to the target. We had all kinds of discussions about that. So they knew going into the design that they wanted to make sure it hit the target, and if it didn’t hit the target, how could it survive? How could people find it if it were in the snow?

They each had a folder with their organization seal on it. There were 7 teams and each team represented a different organization: Marines, Air Force, Red Cross, FBI, CIA, California Fire Fighters, and Navy Seals. I was able to get books on each of those groups. The Oak Park Library is awesome. I have 40 books to take back. I also got books on tsunamis, rescues and SOS, and even small children’s books on survivors.”

How did you organize and pace the activity?

“We took two days to design. In the packet they had their write up, their mission, their objective, their requirements, their constraints. A page on what had to be done. They needed to get their information before they did anything else. Each group had a different location. Some were in New Orleans. Some were in Alaska. Some were dropping in New Jersey, others in California. They had to find out what was the human population. Were they dropping in a populated area? They had to pull all of these things in and account for them before they actually dropped. We went over the operational definitions that would help their design: the momentum, gravity, air pressure. When they sketched out their designs they would have to account for that in the actual designs. I created a sample data sheet for them, and they had to grade their initial drop 1, 2, or 3. 1 indicated a little success and they needed lots of modifications; 2 was for some success, with several modifications; and, 3 was great success, needing very few modifications. Each group had to come up with three designs. They had to write on what were their findings, what happened, how did it change from design to design, what were their failures, what were their successes. They had to account for all of these things, to write up this data to turn in. They had to say what were the modifications that they needed to make?”

Mission Possible

Mission Possible

How long did all of this take?

“The activity lasted a week.”

That seems like a lot to do in a week?

“Our classes are 90 minutes long. I love having that much time for science, larger blocks to work with.”

What happened next?

“So they investigated. They knew where they were dropping. They knew the population around. They knew all these things. And then they started to design. They needed color if they were dropping in Alaska, just in case it would reflect the sun if it got lost in the snow. These were the discussions they were having. And they started building. Two days of just building. Testing out prototypes. Building again. Testing out prototypes again. Talking. And then they spent the Friday presenting their findings. And whatever design, their last design that was a success, that’s the one that they actually dropped. It kind of like made them more excited. I just wanted to get them excited and engaged in something they could actually connect to instead of just we’ve got to drop this.

A lot of the groups had brothers or cousins in the Marines or in the Air Force. Some of them didn’t know anything about the Red Cross. They knew the symbol but they had never heard of it, so it was an opportunity for them to gain some knowledge about those organizations as well. They really enjoyed it. They want new groups. Next time they want to do Italy soccer teams. I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that, but I’ll figure that out. They want each team to be a different soccer team in Italy and to connect that to their next unit.

So they have it. They’re engaged. They take on the role. And I’m like the drill sergeant. I’m like ‘soldiers, double time double time!’ And we were moving back and forth. They have their rubrics. They moved around. They used laptops. No problem. Everyone was engaged. The only thing I remember seeing is safety goggles. And that was the only thing I would have to remind them of. There was no ‘what are you doing? Why are you not doing this?’ We also have three special education students, and they have a 30-minute pull out. When those students come in 30 minutes into the activity, they don’t miss a beat. The other students fill them in, but they know what to do as well.”

What did you do about evaluation?

“At the end they had an evaluation. And each student had to evaluate the engineering practices. And they also had it on the back of a badge, which I laminated. They had their seal on Monday. They created their own special seal. It had their name, and on the back of their badge, they wrote all of the NGSS Engineering Practices out. I would ask them questions. ‘Is that an engineering practice?’ I would always have them referring back to them. ‘What part of the engineering practices are we doing now?’ So they were always referring back to them, so that when it came time for them to evaluate themselves at the end, they evaluated themselves with evidence and their group overall.”

NGSS Engineering Practices Rubric

NGSS Engineering Practices Rubric … Note the Integration of Geography

And I see on this sheet Prototypes and Teamwork? 

“Prototypes = Practice. That was our mantra.”

Prototypes = Practice

Prototypes = Practice

That was the first time I’d heard that equation, and I think it’s a good one. It makes prototyping somehow more memorable as part of the design and development process and drives home the importance of practice, practice, practice. How else will today’s students get to the 10,000 hours needed to develop expertise? “Prototypes = Practice” is a sign worth putting up in your classroom to remind students that practice is essential and that it’s all right to fail as long as you keep working toward a solution.

And what do you want to bet that her students perk up and pay attention when the evening news has stories of food and medicine drops to people caught in wars or natural disasters? They’ve had personal experience with the challenge and therefore a connection to a real world issue.

Kudos to Kelly Harris-Preston for her commitment to her students in going the extra mile to select those library books, in addition to all the other work she did to creatively adapt this into a great eighth-grade activity. Kelly Harris-Preston, YOU ROCK!

Bet You Can Guess Who This Is ... Note the Photos of Kids Doing Science

Bet You Can Guess Who This Is … Note the Photos of Kids Doing Science

~ Penny

You can read more about STEM Institute here.

1 Comment

Filed under Brentano Math and Science Academy, children as engineers, engineering, prototyping, Uncategorized