Integrating Engineering into Elementary Science Curriculum

For the fourth installment of the Science Center’s “Next Generation Science Methods” course we modeled with our elementary educators how to effectively integrate the grades 3-5 engineering standards into a 5th grade earth systems and human activity unit. Before beginning teachers were asked to analyze the elementary engineering NGSS (MA) standards and compared them to the steps outlined in three different models of the “design process.”

Which Model Would You Use?

To reinforce the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning strategy for argumentation through evidence, teachers had to “claim” which model was best and provide reasoning for their answer by pointing out where alignment between the standards and the models as evidence. Most lower level elementary teachers preferred the “Engineering is Elementary” model for its simplicity and action verbs while upper elementary teachers appreciated the “recycle” illustrated in the build-test-redesign model from PBS’ Design Squad.

From there we dropped ourselves into the middle of a 5th grade earth systems / earth and human activity unit. Assuming students had previously recognized the limited availability of fresh water and obtained information about how humans have polluted fresh water reservoirs over time, our teachers were now charged with exploring water filtration systems and “how individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.” Using the 5E constructivist approach to lesson sequencing, we proposed engaging activities such as visiting the local water filtration plant in Burlington as a field trip (something we’ve done with our summer programs in the past!) to using Magic School Bus or the EiE story “Saving Salila’s Turtles” as an engagement tool. Through these engaging activities we decided on some criteria to evaluate our filter systems on:

Water Filter Criteria

From there it was time to explore different kinds of filtration materials to determine which worked well or not. Using procedures outlined in the EiE “Water, Water, Everywhere” unit teachers tested mesh materials, coffee filters, sand and gravel.

NGSS-WaterFilter1  NGSS-WaterFilter2

Group’s of teachers added the results of their tests to those of others on a projected data table and analyzed the results together, drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of the different materials in regards to how well they removed debris, improved water clarity, and how much time it took to filter the water. All teachers then participated in a classroom discussion where they were asked to explain their conclusions before planning and constructing their full blown water filters.

Our community data table.

Our community data table.

Teachers adding to our community data table.

Teachers adding to our community data table.

Elaborate: With the introduction of some “super filthy” water and the added wrinkle of applying a cost to each material used teachers went to work. In true science classroom fashion, time was running short so construction was frantic and testing was done in haste. This turned out to be ok for our purposes as teachers were able to compare “cleaned” results with one another and draw qualitative results in comparison to one another.

NGSS-WaterFilter5   NGSS-WaterFilter4

To encourage our teachers to aim higher when it was time to evaluate themselves and their own students, we provided scoring rubrics but also shared this video of 14 year-old, Deepika Kurup who won 3M’s “America’s Top Young Scientist Award” in 2012 for her invention of a solar-powered water filtration system. Her creation harnessed the sun’s energy to kill off harmful, invisible bacteria. “Now THAT is an authentic learning experience” and powerful imagery for students to see kids in action as well!

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
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