Two elementary school teachers explain how they infused literacy and STEM to create an engaging lesson that improved their students problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
Last year, Lake Lehman School District (Lehman, PA) created an innovation team that consisted of a group of lead innovative teachers responsible for working with classroom teachers to implement collaborative projects that connect innovation to classroom content. Fourth-grade teacher Donna Richards partnered with an innovative teacher, Heather Wertman, to complete the first project. These teachers worked in the same building but never had the opportunity to work side by side, so this project led to an excellent opportunity for collaboration and shared best-practices.
The objective of their project was to help students conquer the skills of understanding character traits, improving comprehension, and making inferences within a novel. Donna Richards explains, “I wanted to have the students read a chapter book and do a performance task to show how real world connections can lead to mastery of skills and an overall great learning experience”. We chose the book Because of Winn-Dixie and a performance task from Defined STEM, an online STEM curriculum resource, titled Backpack Designer – both relevant interests to fourth-graders.
To introduce the project, the teachers defined character traits and set the stage for the necessary work to complete the task. They gave the students some background knowledge of the meaning of character traits and inferencing. The students had to distinguish the differences in character traits such as emotional, physical and personality. Students explored what words and feelings they believe are traits. They were split into groups of three to create a chart of traits by category. The class then got together and shared their lists. The students were given the task of drawing their personal silhouette and adding character traits to describe themselves. They shared out with the entire class upon completion.
The next step of the project involved students reading the novel, Because of Winn-Dixie. As students read they kept a journal of the details of each story character as they were introduced and developed. Once the students had enough details in their character journal, the teachers showed them how to use Google Slides to create a character web, which would be used to help create their character led backpacks. Students then worked in small groups (3-4 students) to create their webs. Once this was created they dove into the products using the Defined Stem website and task.
Steps the students took to complete their backpack project:
1.) To set the stage and get them excited about their STEM adventure, the students watched a video of a backpack designer on Defined STEM. This motivated them to start researching what components they would need to meet the needs of their Because of Winn-Dixie character.
2.) They went on to complete a blueprint design product with specific measurements, colors, shapes, and all detailed features they would need to have a well-designed and marketable backpack as outlined in their rubric.
3.) Once the blueprint was completed they began to complete a cost analysis product for their backpack. The finest details were researched right down to comparing whether to use leather vs. nylon or velcro vs. zippers.
4.) After the blueprint and cost analysis were completed and approved students began working in their groups on a prototype.
5.) Upon completion of the prototype they presented their final product presentation to the “marketing team”. Each group was scored based on the rubric provided and given feedback. Finally, the backpacks went on display at the Annual Academic Fair.
Watching students take their blueprint to prototype was a most interesting experience for us to watch. They were excited, engaged, and motivated to succeed with their blueprints. It was most rewarding to watch them problem-solve and tackle challenges within their team instead of relying on us to solve problems.
This experience led to a deeper understanding of the novel, character traits, mastery of inferencing – knowledge necessary to succeed in fourth grade. The problem-solving and critical thinking skills they improved upon through the process will help them through their school years and beyond.
About the Authors:
Donna Richards is a fourth-grade teacher in a self-contained classroom. She has been teaching for 21 years in the Lake-Lehman School District (a small rural public school system). Mrs. Richards was thrilled with the growth of her students regarding character traits because this has always been a struggle to get across to them. Defined STEM provided an engaging hands-on task to help bring the characters to life for the students. She will be tackling more project based learning opportunities in the coming year.
Heather Wertman has been teaching for 16 years with the Lake-Lehman School District. She has taught in grades K-6 prior to becoming an innovative team member this past school year. During her time teaching Heather has often used authentic and project-based learning experiences to bring the real world into the classroom for students. Watching the students excitement and engagement through these experiences led Ms. Wertman to pursue this new opportunity across the school system. Heather believes Defined STEM was a great way to provide authentic learning experiences aligned with classroom content.