Engineering Pollinators (and Next Generation Engineering Curriculum!)

To bolster our curriculum council’s understanding of how engineering will be better integrated into our science curriculum, the focus of today’s extended PD was an agricultural engineering challenge to be implemented into our future 4th grade “Structure and Function” unit. The council meeting’s was primarily designed to immerse teachers into learning experiences designed to integrate life science disciplinary core ideas and engineering integration. The agenda also provided time to give our teachers practice with evaluating correlations between newly adopted state engineering standards and engineering models that are currently in use in our district to encourage adaptation of current engineering challenges to better meet those standards.

Teachers were provided a rough overview of the lesson sequences intended to bring students to the front edge of the engineering challenge. Such lessons include flower dissections, explorations and research through informational text, and careful examination of both plant and animal external and internal structure that facilitate pollination, reproduction, and overall survival of the organism. How these lessons included both disciplinary core ideas and scientific practices was explained, but was not the primary intention of this council meeting.

All of our teachers were familiar with the plight of pollinators due to the light, but steady stream of news, data, and warnings for environmental impact. It was therefore easy for our teachers to identify the problem requiring an engineering solution: How to pollinate plants in the face of rapidly declining pollinator populations!

Teachers were provided engineering limitations through materials available and the time provided to build. Before construction could begin, teachers needed to test the materials to determine pollen pick-up and drop-off effectiveness for each. They also studied the shape of the flower they had been charged with pollinating. After planned investigations had been executed and results shared, design and construction began. Prototypes were tested as instructed by the Science Center and results were communicated to determine which designs worked best.

Transporting the pollen from one flower to another. #elemscience

A video posted by Burlington Science Center (@burlingtonsciencecenter) on Mar 2, 2016 at 1:15pm PST


In the final 20 minutes, teachers analyzed their grade bands engineering standards and the lessons as described and conducted, looking for examples of where the standards had been worked towards and gaps in the lesson sequence that had to be addressed. Because the lesson was a model of engineering application, life science core ideas were also checked to determine that the performance expectations put forth by the life science standards had also been met.

Overall, the experience was a bit of a scramble as teachers were initially hesitant to dive into the challenge given the lack of actual classroom experiences that building up to it. This also led many teachers to share concerns about translation to elementary students in the vision vs. practice discussions that took place during the investigation and in our teachers, “tickets to leave.” Fortunately, the vision for a next generation science and engineering curriculum goes beyond more than one rushed engineering experience in an after school council meeting. Teachers were reminded that as a part of our curriculum revamp, engineering would be included to play a significant role in the curriculum at each year, so the challenges being poised and the practices required to complete them would grow in complexity over time and not simply pop-up. This message was the same for science practices, particularly as teachers worked to determine what a “fair test” looked like and worked like in the stage leading up to the construction of the pollinators.

Photo Mar 08, 11 00 23 AM

Capturing teacher thinking during the council meeting has immediate impact on ways to improve the design of our curriculum and helps us identify the thinking they are walking away with. Such remarks also help us as coordinators identify possible partners in piloting and reviewing curriculum.

Almost all teachers agreed that the engineering projects would engage students and lead to stronger outcomes of understanding and participation. Many also cheered the collaborative nature of the challenges despite acknowledging openly that such work can be difficult for students. Several wondered aloud what such work would look like at their specific grade levels, leading us to assume they are excited to engage in such experiences with their students (or wary that such lessons may descend into chaos!) Either way, I am excited to bring more engineering to the curriculums at each grade level so our students may apply their scientific thinking and learning to problems that demand solutions in the 21st century!

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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