4th Graders Learn Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in Physics using Contraption Maker

June 4th, 2015 by Deborah Fike

For the last few months, Spotkin has been a participant in an educational initiative spearheaded by our neighbors at the University of Oregon.  The university’s STEM CORE (Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers through Outreach, Research and Education) office was awarded a grant to support science and math curriculum development at high-need schools in Lane County.  By partnering with local STEM-based industries, the grant aims to create project-based coursework for students so they can see the relevance of the science and math standards they use in their everyday coursework.

It’s been very eye-opening for us to watch teachers develop these super lessons.  Working in pairs, these motivated teachers have spent their evenings crafting out lesson plans that not only bring to life Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), but to make these topics engaging in a way that students learn naturally by exploration.  No textbooks, quizzes or tests are involved.  It’s all about seeing science in action by having kids observe, build, and experiment their way through real-world problems.

Teaching Physics to Elementary School Students

Two teachers from River Road/El Camino del Rio Dual Immersion Elementary School decided to focus their lesson plan on 4th grade physics.  They wanted to reinforce NGSS science standard 4-PS3-3: Ask questions and predict outcomes about the changes in energy that occur when objects collide.  They found Contraption Maker to be a natural fit as an introduction to basic collisions.  After helping them get familiar with Contraption Maker, they invited me to their classroom for the introductory lesson. What they did with our Ball Tutorial during this session really blew me away:

Balls: The 3rd Tutorial Puzzle in Contraption Maker

Balls: The 3rd Tutorial Puzzle in Contraption Maker

Spotkin’s original intent with the Balls Tutorial is to get players familiar with the various balls in Contraption Maker: how they bounce, move, interact, etc.  By watching the machine run, you discover that one carefully placed bouncy ball (colored dark green in the above picture) will shoot the otherwise motionless pool ball off the screen, finishing the puzzle’s objective.


The teachers went through this puzzle with their 22 students as normal, and they immediately understood how to solve the puzzle with the bouncy ball.  But then, the teachers asked them a question:  Are all the objects in this puzzle “realistic?”

By discussing the puzzle with each other, the kids realized the bouncy ball wasn’t a realistic object because it gained energy each time it bounced.  (One kid observed that real balls will eventually stop if you let it go, but the bouncy ball will never stop.)  As game makers, we created the bouncy ball knowing it would not react realistically.  Sometimes we create parts because they are fun and will cause interesting reactions.  But these teachers are trying to teach real-world physics, so they felt using the bouncy ball to solve the puzzle was “cheating” for purposes of this lesson.


With the knowledge that the bouncy ball was not realistic, the teachers asked students to solve the puzzle without it.  They could use all the other balls on the screen – bowling ball, basketball, baseball, iron ball, tennis ball, soccer ball, and marble – to knock the pool ball off the screen.  This challenge piqued my interest because I had never solved the Ball Tutorial with this restriction.

The classroom exploded into hypotheses and experimentation.  Most kids tried placing the heavier balls on top of the pool ball, only to get it stuck in the chute.  Several tried to get the “bouncier” balls like the basketball to bounce back up to hit the pool ball.  Discussions between table partners took place.  A few arguments ensued.  Frustration abounded.  The teachers encouraged the frustrated kids to keep trying, reinforcing that in science, “failure” is a natural part of working through a problem.

Collaboration and Discovery

Then someone tried using two balls underneath the pool ball, and although it didn’t work, it brought on a whole new slew of ideas to try.  Should the bouncier balls go on top, or should the heavy balls be there?  How many balls will be needed to discover the solution?  With the idea of trying more than one ball, the 4th graders came up with a bunch of possible solutions without using the bouncy ball, including this one:


One Possible Solution without using the Bouncy Ball

Discussion: What Did Students Learn?

From there, students used the remainder of the hour to solve more tutorial puzzles on their own with an eye to observe what happens when objects collide (as based on NGSS 4th Grade Energy concepts).  Then the kids regrouped as a class and were asked for their thoughts on objects and energy transfer.  Here are a few of their observations:

  • “Energy is moved from one thing to another, especially when a heavy object hits a light one.”
  • “When a light object hits a heavy object, sometimes the light object moves backwards, so not all energy goes to the other object.”
  • “Sometimes when things hit each other, they go in different directions.”

When asked how this information could help them in their everyday lives, they said:

  • “It’s like car crashes, when two cars smash, sometimes the little car gets more crushed.”
  • “When I skateboard, I push the skateboard with my foot, but I can also stop it with my foot.”

Moving Forward: Crafting a Physics Superlesson

From here, the students will go on to build machines in Contraption Maker to further explore energy transfer, then they will build some real-world Rube Goldberg machines to watch these interactions unfold.  Each day will end with student observations and reflection, with the hope that the students themselves will explore the targeted Next Generation Science Standards naturally.  Afterwards, the teachers will write down their findings, and over the summer, revise this original lesson based on their first dry-run.  After a second stab at the lesson with new students next year, they will complete their curriculum development, and the entire 7-day curriculum will be freely available to all interested educators.

Click here if you want to see the incredible machines the kids built as the result of this project.

We will definitely share this curriculum once it is available.  The hard work that these teachers have put into this lesson is commendable.  The most amazing part for me, though, was observing the 4th graders themselves.  Watching them come up with simplified versions of basic physics principles using their own words and observations made me a true believer in learning through experimentation.

-Deborah Fike

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