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

Problem Solving in Upper Elementary

What might STEM education look like at the upper elementary level? By fifth or sixth grade, teachers may be concerned that learning has become compartmentalized and that students do not see connections across content areas. Using a problem solving approach for a real world problem can blur curricular lines and make learning more meaningful. Planning as a grade level team and being deliberate about providing authentic experiences that work toward standards is key. Perhaps these scenarios will inspire you.

Scenario 1

Fifth grade teachers in Malden, Massachusetts team up with their technology specialist to revamp and integrate parts of their curriculum by taking a project-based approach. With help from an engineering graduate student at Tufts University, they create learning opportunities that combined science with colonial history. (Check out these Pinterest resources compiled by their tech specialist Robert Simpson.) Students conduct research, use primary sources, complete small projects centered around colonial life, simple machines, and the relationship of rocks and minerals to an iron works. Their ultimate design challenge is to create an efficient water wheel that harnesses the power of water, which mimics the challenge of colonists in the 1640s. They must learn about torque and apply other complex math concepts to complete the challenge.

Each completed task earns students a stamp on a “passport,” which was their ticket for a field trip to a regional landmark of interest—the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site. Student engagement is high as they work toward this goal, and they have a much greater understanding of what is shared by the guides at the iron works.

Scenario 2

In the early 1990’s, the city of Cincinnati proposed the building of a new bridge across the Ohio River.  Teachers and students across the river in Kentucky at Southgate Public Elementary School take on a six-week project to study the matter. They conduct a survey in the community and compile results using a spreadsheet, delve into the geometry of bridges and then create models, and do research about historic bridges in and around the city of Cincinnati. After monitoring rush-hour traffic using video cameras on existing bridges they obtain statistics on the number and speed of people and vehicles on the bridges. They then use these numbers as the basis for simulations of their own proposed designs for a new bridge. They later test their designs (built with straws). They meet with an architect in the field who answers questions that they still have. Ultimately, they submit a report with their findings and ideas to the city of Cincinnati.

Scenario 3

As part of a grant from Hewlett Packard , middle school students in Stamford, Connecticut conduct genuine research about water pollution collaboratively with students in a middle school in Jinan, China. The American students gather data on water quality, drainage, and plant and animal life by partnering with community groups in their region who investigate the impact of urban development on local waterways. The Chinese students are studying one of China’s most polluted waterways—the Huangshui River Basin. Together, the students have access to virtual science labs and scientists and engineers who can answer their questions and help them to document and share what they learn with each other, while at the same time highlighting to the public a global issue.

Reading suggestions for upper elementary students

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

Arbogast, Joan Marie.  Buildings in Disguise:  Architecture that looks like Animals, Food, and Other Things.  ISBN:  1-59078—099-X.  Lexile: 980.
Students will enjoy browsing this book of mimetic architecture, with photos, dimensions, and a brief history of eye-catching buildings from all over the United States (map included). 

Bingham, Caroline.  Invention.  ISBN: 0-7566-0619-5.  Lexile: 848.
Part of DK Publishing’s Eye Wonder series, this volume discusses inventions by over thirty familiar and lesser known inventors. Categories include: early technologies, steam-powered inventions, medicine, computers, space, vision, kitchen appliances, etc. Excellent photography of artifacts appears on every page, and a timeline throughout gives students an historical perspective.

Enz, Tammy.  Engineering a Totally Rad Skateboard with Max Axiom, Super Scientist  (and others in the series from Capstone Press).  ISBN: 978-1-4296-9935-8.  Lexile: 620.
This book presents the engineering design process in popular graphic novel format. Max Axiom, the uncle of one of the book’s characters, helps with the design of an improved skateboard. His superpowers include the ability to shrink to the size of an atom and travel through time and space with a special lab coat.

Rusch, Elizabeth.  Electrical Wizard:  How Nikola Tesla Lit up the World.  ISBN:978-0-7636-5855-7.  Lexile: 809
Non-fiction writer Elizabeth Rusch never disappoints with her choice of topics and writing style. This picture book tells the story of Serbian-American Nikola Tesla, who invented alternating current and forever-changed American households. Back matter includes further readings, an extensive bibliography, a discussion of the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, some Q&A, and diagrams explaining some of Tesla’s experiments.



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