Roots of STEM: Books and ideas for real world problem solving in your classroom

Problem Solving in Middle Elementary

How might you integrate a STEM/problem solving approach and connect to the Common Core in the middle elementary grades? Consider the scenarios below:

Scenario 1

Early in the year, a third grade teacher establishes a culture of inquiry, posing many questions throughout the day, encouraging students to ask questions, and giving opportunities to investigate answers. In addition to informational texts for their science and social studies themes, there are books in the classroom library about inventors, innovators, building, structures, the way things work, numbers, patterns, math concepts, and how things are made. These become read-alouds when appropriate. An anchor chart keeps track of student thinking about what scientists, inventors, and engineers do, the “big ideas” they are learning throughout the year, and cross-cutting concepts—all from the Next Generation Science Standards.

This teacher works diligently to help students apply the Common Core literacy standards to their work in the content areas. During Reader's Workshop students may choose to read a variety of texts related to STEM themes throughout the year: magazine articles, poems, fiction, and informational text. The teacher frequently searches for complex texts with a STEM focus on sites like Readworks for close reading. There is a balance during guided reading of fiction and informational text, and the teacher continually has students provide evidence from the text to support their thinking.

During Writer's Workshop, students learn how to write detailed procedures and lab reports to capture what happens during hands-on experiments in science. Writing is emphasized during math time as well, as students explain their thought processes for word problems and graphically represent their ideas.

The teacher takes students out into the field monthly to collect samples from the pond near the school, each time focusing on a different aspect of the water: temperature, pH, clarity, etc. Students practice listening and taking notes from guest speakers from the state's agency of natural resources and the local wastewater treatment plant, and from video clips on various topics related to the grade level curriculum units about water and the water cycle.

Scenario 2

A fourth grade teacher continues to build upon skills introduced in earlier grades. Students are comfortable with the design process and understand that problem solving is part of everyday life.  This teacher models the use of technology as a means to an end. To flatten the classroom walls and prepare students for a more global perspective in fifth grade, the teacher partners with a teacher colleague in another part of the country and collaborates on projects that satisfy both of their local curricula. His students use Google Apps in a variety of ways to plan, document, and share learning in real time. Students use other web tools like VoiceThread and Skype in the Classroom to connect with each other or with practitioners in fields related to their studies. ( Since Voicethread, once free, is now fee-based, an alternative would be to use student blogs and to find professionals and other students to comment on the blogs by using your class Twitter account.)

In the spring, these fourth graders compete in a team challenge around an original mechanical design as a culmination of their work with simple machines, electricity, and magnets. Teams reflect upon their process and create videos to share their biggest “takeaways” using iMovie on iPads from the school library.

Reading suggestions for middle elementary students

In addition to these books about inventors and inventions recommended by TeachersFirst, consider the books and article below as you create STEM text sets at this level:

Fleming, Candace.  Papa's Mechanical Fish.  ISBN: 978-0-374-39908-5.  Lexile: 480.
Loosely based on the work of inventor Lodner Phillips (who made a number of improvements to early submarines), this is a delightful tribute to the stick-to-it-iveness of inventors and innovators.

Harper, Charise Mericle.  Imaginative Inventions.  ISBN: 0-316-34725-6.  Lexile: IG800.
With rhyming verse and colorful childlike illustrations, Harper tells the stories behind inventions of interest to children: potato chips, animal crackers, the Frisbee, roller skates, marbles, and more.  Great fun!

Maestro, Betsy and Giulio.  The Story of the Statue of Liberty.  ISBN: 0-688-05774-8.  Lexile: 740.
This simple text will give students new appreciation for the design process and the building process for one of our nation's most powerful symbols. Additional information at the end includes a timeline of dates, facts about a number of the engineers, and subsequent repairs and restorations.

Religion and Architecture: A History of Great Buildings.”  An article for grade 4 from Readworks

Spilsbury, Louise and Richard.  Can Buildings Speak?  ISBN:  978-1-842-34523-8.  Lexile: not available
This book will get students thinking about architecture and the decisions architects make about shapes, patterns, and materials as they relate to the purpose for the building. Students can be invited to apply concepts to their own building projects.


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