4th Grade Teams Bring Incredible Machines (and Physics) to Life with Next Generation Science Standards

June 11th, 2015 by Deborah Fike

Last week, I wrote a blog post about how elementary school teachers at River Road/El Camino del Rio Dual Immersion Elementary School were using Contraption Maker to teach 4th graders physics.  Specifically, they had created a project to enforce Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) 4-PS3-3: Ask questions and predict outcomes about the changes in energy that occur when objects collide.  In the previous post, I wrote about the first day of a seven day collaborative learning project.

On Monday, those kids invited me back into their classroom to witness the project’s conclusion.  While I was gone, the teachers had grouped students into teams of 3 and given them a real world physics challenge based on what they learned playing Contraption Maker.  Using a wide assortment of materials (e.g. cardboard boxes, tubes, plastic forks, toothpicks, playing cards, tape, etc.), the kids had to create a machine that:

  1. Featured a marble rolling down a slope at least 100 cm off the ground,
  2. Traveled at least 50 cm without touching the table it stood on, and
  3. Create a series of collisions that would slow the marble down.

The “best” machine would be the one that allowed the ball to travel the longest amount of seconds before hitting the table.

Working in Groups to Solve an Engineering Problem

During this last session, the 4th graders scrambled to finish their machines.  Out of 22 kids, I only saw two students not thoroughly engaged making last minute improvements.  (I was told by the teachers that in previous sessions, all kids stayed 100% engaged throughout the project.)  When it was time to record the results of their machines, almost every team volunteered to go first, and if not chosen, begged to be next.  Even the shy kids from the first day were eager to see how their machines stacked up to the rest of the class.

Behold some of their crazy inventions:

The Winner: With a run time of almost 7 seconds, this machine won the challenge. The ball started rolling down the black tube, through a playing card maze, and around two sharp turns before finally falling into the cup.

slow burn contraption small


Runner-Up #1: With a 3.5-second course, this contraption featured a long-winding tube path that the inventors told me was inspired by a water slide. They used a variety of toothpicks and forks to create collisions and slow down the marble.

winding contraption 2


Runner-Up #2: Also at 3.5 seconds, this course featured a red felt entryway with eating utensils that slowly guided the marble down into a series of black tubes.

fork obstacle contraption small 2


What Students Learned by Building Real World Machines

After timing the machines and announcing the winners, the teachers once again had students reflect upon their learning experience.  Perhaps most surprising to me was not the science concepts they learned on their own (because I had already seen that during the kick-off lesson), but the lessons they learned about teamwork and social emotional learning.  Here’s what they said about the experience:

  • “The felt material helped slow down the ball more than the forks and spoons, which we didn’t think would happen.”
  • “We took ideas from all 3 team members, and instead of choosing just one idea, we smashed them altogether to make a better idea.”
  • “Sometimes we had something working better the first time, and trying to improve it made the contraption worse.”
  • “Now I understand why water slides have high walls around curves.  You need them so the people don’t fall out!”
  • “Watching other teams try out ideas and then improving on those ideas helped us make a better contraption.  So thank you, everyone.”
  • “My team didn’t try to include me [into the design process] at first, but when they did, I felt good, and the contraption became better.”


Improving the Curriculum for Next Year

Overall, the teachers were pleased with this project, and said as they prepare to run it again for next year, they plan on bringing Contraption Maker back at the end of the lesson.  “Having the kids see the physics in the real world will make exploring in the digital world that much more richer,” one of them told me.

Once this lesson plan has been completed for the STEM grant, we will be able to share it with you in the educational hub.  But for now, we hope this example can inspire other teachers who want to merge digital and physical learning, not only for science, but for teamwork as well.

-Deborah Fike


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