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Building Math
Institution Museum of Science
Science Park
Boston, MA 02114
Tel: (617) 589-0230
Fax: (617) 589-4448
E-mail: eie@mos.org
Web site: http://www.mos.org/eie/index.php
Leaders Peter Y. Wong, National Center for Technological Literacy
Barbara M. Brizuela, Tufts University
Funding GE Foundation
Grade Level 6-8
Espoused “…to involve math students in collecting and analyzing their own
Mission data in hands-on investigations integrated with engineering design
activities.”
Organizing The curriculum features the following three units of instruction:
Topics x Everest Trek is a sixth-grade unit presented in the context of
scaling the world's tallest peak. It engages students in
designing a well-insulated coat, a ladder bridge to span a
crevasse, and an emergency zip-line transportation system.
x Stranded! is a seventh-grade unit presented in the context of
being marooned on a deserted South Pacific island. It engages
students in designing a shelter, a water collection device, and a
strategy for loading and unloading a canoe.
x Amazon Mission is an eighth-grade unit that is presented in the
context of helping indigenous people in Brazil. It engages
students in designing an insulated carrier that will keep
medicine cool, a water filtration system, and a strategy for
tempering the spread of an influenza virus.
Format The Building Math program comprises three spiral-bound books.
Each book represents a unit of instruction for a given grade level
that features three distinct design challenges. Every design
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challenge features a series of lessons that follow an eight-step
engineering design process that is outlined at the beginning of each
unit. The books have reproducible handouts, rubrics, and self-
assessment checklists for students.
Pedagogical The following pedagogical elements can be found in each unit.
Elements x All the units and their design problems are framed in authentic
sounding contexts that middle school students should find
interesting and challenging.
x Every unit begins with a series of exercises that can be used to
assess or address prerequisite knowledge and skills.
x Each unit also begins with a team-building activity that asks
small groups of students to complete a task that cannot be
achieved without benefit of cooperation.
x Each design challenge includes a series of lessons (or tasks) that
use an engineering design process to construct knowledge in
small and sequential increments.
x The lessons (or tasks) feature objectives, implementation
procedures, guiding questions, possible answers, and support
materials for students.
x The instruction is very Socratic in nature (i.e., posing questions,
addressing questions).
x Most of the learning activities involve inquiry. More
specifically, developing solutions to the problems posed
involves making observations, taking measurements, gathering
data, interpreting data, generalizing patterns, applying patterns
to the solution, building and testing models, and reflecting on
the quality of the solutions as well as the learning process.
x Each unit includes a very detailed and comprehensive rubric for
facilitating student assessment.
Maturity The GE Foundation funded the project for three years. The
materials underwent two years of pilot testing and refinement
during that period of time. The final units are currently available
through Walch Publishing. Stranded and Everest Trek bear a 2006
copyright and Amazon Mission shows a 2007 copyright.
Diffusion The series was pilot tested with hundreds of students in ten
& Impact Massachusetts schools over the course of two years. This process
produced positive testimony from pilot-site teachers. For example,
Joseph McMullin at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in
Malden, Mass., was quoted as stating: "In addition to relating math
concepts to the physical world, my students improved their
communication, graphing, critical thinking, and problem solving
skills. Students especially enjoyed designing their own test."
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An analysis of teacher testimony, samples of student work, direct
observations, and videotape data supported the underlying premise
of the curriculum. More specifically, the study of mathematics can
be enriched with contextual units of instruction that employ hands-
on learning activities that require students to apply a variety of
math concepts and skills while following an engineering design
process to solve problems. The collection and analysis of their
data during engineering design activities helped math students
develop and demonstrate algebraic thinking skills.
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Initiative Building Math
Title Amazon Mission
Broad Goals During Design Challenge 1: Malaria Meltdown, students will:
x Calculate and interpret the slope of a line.
x Graph a compound inequality.
x Conduct two controlled experiments.
x Collect experimental data in a table.
x Produce and analyze a line graph that relates two variables.
x Distinguish between independent and dependent variables.
x Determine when it’s appropriate to use a line graph to represent
data.
x List combinations of up to five layers of two different kinds of
materials.
x Draw a three-dimensional object and its net.
x Find the surface area of a three-dimensional object.
x Apply the engineering design process to solve a problem.
During Design Challenge 2: Mercury Rising, students will:
x Calculate the surface area of a sphere using a formula.
x Solve a multistep problem.
x Convert measurement units (within the same system).
x Use proportional reasoning.
x Write a compound inequity statement.
x Graph and analyze the relationship between two variables.
x Design and conduct a controlled experiment.
x Apply the engineering design process to solve problems.
During Design Challenge 3: Outbreak, students will:
x Identify and extend exponential patterns.
x Generalize and represent a pattern using symbols.
x Graph simulation data and describe trends.
x Calculate compound probabilities.
x Use a computer model.
x Apply the engineering design process to solve a problem.
Salient Math Science Technology
Concepts x making line graphs x climate zones x shabono
& Skills x heuristics (rules of x tropical x model
thumb) x subtropical x prototype
x independent x temperature
variables x cold
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x dependent x polar
variables x rate of heat
x X-axis transfer is based
x Y-axis on differences in
x scale temperature
x scaling axes x controlled
x proportional experiment
reasoning x extinct
x exponential x endangered
patterns x indigenous
x linear patterns x virus
x rounding up x mercury
x rounding down x malaria
x interpreting line x rain forest
graphs
x ratios
x converting units
x equivalent
fractions
x cross-multiply
x recursive equations
x Cartesian plane
x calculate the slope
of a line
x graph a compound
inequality
x sphere
Engineering The materials introduced the following ideas about the nature of
engineering.
x Engineers play a part in the design and construction of things
like houses, roads, cars, televisions, and phones.
x Engineering is “the application of math and science to practical
ends, such as design or manufacturing.”
x All engineers use the engineering design process to help them
solve problems in an organized way.
x The engineering design process includes defining the problem,
conducting research, brainstorming ideas, choosing the best
solution, building a model, testing and evaluating a prototype,
communicate the design to others, and redesigning the solution.
x The engineering design process “is meant to be a set of
guidelines” for solving technical problems.
x Engineers may not always follow all the steps in the design
process in the same order every time.
x Engineers communicate their designs to others to solicit
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feedback and ways to improve the design.
x Engineers often go back to an earlier step in the design process
during the “redesign” process.
x The solution to a problem might go through several cycles of
the design process before it is ready for “real-world use.”
x A full-scale working prototype may be constructed once the
design has gone through several cycles of the design process.
x Constraints are “limiting factors” that engineers need to
consider during the design process.
x Criteria are the specifications that need to be met for the
solution to be successful.
Prominent The unit starts with a team-building activity and a review of
Activities prerequisite math skills.
1. Read and analyze a poem (The Law of the Wolves) and discuss
how it relates to working in teams.
2. Review basic mathematics skills that will be utilized during the
unit (e.g., make a line graph, find the slope of two points,
calculate surface area).
3. Review basic math skills related to converting units of
measure.
4. Compose and use heuristics or rules of thumb.
Introducing the Engineering Design Process engages students in
the following activities to develop a basic understanding of the
nature of engineering.
1. Read background information about the Yanomami people
(i.e., their way of life, the threats to their existence).
2. Discuss the questions: What is an engineer? What does an
engineer do?
3. Put cards describing the basic steps of the engineering design
process into a logical sequence.
4. Match a series of events related to making and testing sails for
a boat race with the basic steps in the design process.
Design Challenge 1: Malaria Meltdown engages students in the
following activities to design a container for transporting medicine
that has to be kept cool in a tropical climate.
1. Read a scenario that contains the problem to be solved, the
criteria that needs to be met, and the material constraints.
2. Analyze a graph containing data (temperature over time) that
depicts the performance of the current container for
transporting the medicine.
3. Gather, graph, and interpret data regarding the rate of heat
conduction for specific materials (corrugated cardboard, foam
board, bubble wrap, aluminum foil).
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4. Gather, graph, interpret, and present data regarding the rate of
heat conduction for combinations of multiple materials.
5. Utilize research findings and material costs to develop a
dimensioned sketch for a potential medicine-carrier design.
6. Select the best design from those developed by the members of
the team through discussion and consensus.
7. Sketch a three-dimension representation of the selected design
that includes dimensions and labels the materials used.
8. Sketch a “net” (a.k.a., development) of the selected design (a
drawing that illustrates what a three-dimensions object would
look like if it were spread out in the form of a two-dimensional
layout).
9. Calculate the area of the materials needed to construct the
selected design and use the results to determine the cost of
making the final product.
10. Build a prototype for the selected design.
11. Use pieces of scrap to test the heat transfer rate of the materials
used to make the container.
12. Test the ability of the container to protect a fragile object (an
egg) by dropping the container to the floor from a height of one
meter.
13. Determine the cost of making the actual container (a scaled-up
version).
14. Present the final design to the class (e.g., how it performed in
relation to the design constraints and criteria, the advantages of
the design, the disadvantages of the design, the cost and profit
potential of the design).
15. Reflect on the design and describe how it might be improved
through redesign.
16. Conduct a self-assessment of the contributions made by each
member of the team.
17. Reflect on how well the team worked together on the project
(e.g., what went well, what did not work well, what can be
improved).
Design Challenge 2: Mercury Rising engages students in the
following activities to design a water filtration device that removes
mercury from river water.
1. Read a scenario that contains the problem to be solved, the
criteria that needs to be met, and the material constraints.
2. Calculate the surface area of spheres with different diameters.
3. Determine the most cost-effective package of spheres to
achieve a desire amount of total surface area.
4. Convert the units of measurement for minimum flow rate from
540 liters per day to the number of seconds need to filter 250
milliliters.
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5. Convert the units of measurement for maximum flow rate from
one liter per minute into the number of seconds need to filter
250 milliliters.
6. Gather, graph, and interpret data for the amount of time
required for 250 milliliters of water to pass through different
diameter holes.
7. Conduct a controlled experiment to gather, graph, and interpret
data regarding another factor that could affect the amount of
time required for 250 milliliters of water to pass through a
filter.
8. Sketch a potential design for a water filter that shows where
water will enter, be filtered, and subsequently exit. Use the
research results to define how large the exit opening needs to
be.
9. Select the best design from those developed by the members of
the team through discussion and consensus.
10. Develop a drawing for the selected design that shows
dimensions, identifies the materials used, and describes the role
that each material plays in the filtering process.
11. Build a model filter based on the selected design.
12. Test the amount of time it takes for 250 milliliters of water to
pass through the filter.
13. Present the final design to the class (e.g., how it performed in
relation to the design constraints and criteria, the advantages of
the design, the disadvantages of the design, what materials
would be used to make a real filter).
14. Reflect on the design and describe how it might be improved
through redesign.
15. Conduct a self-assessment of the contributions made by each
member of the team.
16. Reflect on how well the team worked together on the project
(e.g., what went well, what did not work well, what can be
improved).
Design Challenge 3: Outbreak engages students in the following
activities to design a virus intervention plan to contain the spread
of the flu.
1. Read a scenario that contains the problem to be solved, the
criteria that need to be met, and the material constraints.
2. Conduct a simulation to illustrate exponential rate at which a
virus can spread and infect a population.
3. Calculate the rate at which a virus would spread if a doctor
were able to treat one member of the population per day.
4. Determine the rate at which a virus would spread if every
member of the population wore a filtration mask that reduced
the risk of infection by 50 percent.
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5. Use the results to graph the rate at which people become
infected if there is no treatment, if there is one doctor, and if
everyone wears a mask.
6. Calculate the chance of infection based on different
combinations of interventions (e.g., the use of air filtration
masks and antiviral hand gel, the use of antiviral hand gel and
vaccinations).
7. Develop intervention plans that will reduce the rate of infection
to less than 25 percent during a 30-day window of time.
8. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages associated with each
team member’s intervention plan.
9. Identify the best intervention plan by determining what the
individual plans have in common, identifying the best parts of
the individual plans, and combining the best parts into one
design.
10. Test the final intervention plan using a computer simulation
model (an applet).
11. Use the results of the computer simulations to redesign the
intervention plan and make it as cost effective as possible.
12. Present the refined intervention plan to the class (e.g., how it
performed in relation to the design constraints and criteria, the
advantages of the plan, the disadvantages of the plan, how
would it be different if more money were available, how would
it work with a larger population).
13. Reflect on the design and describe how it might be improved
through redesign.
14. Conduct a self-assessment of the contributions made by each
member of the team.
15. Reflect on how well the team worked together on the project
(e.g., what went well, what did not work well, what can be
improved).
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Initiative Building Math
Title Everest Trek
Broad Goals During Design Challenge 1, Geared Up, students will:
x Interpret a line graph.
x Locate and represent the range of acceptable values on a graph
to meet a design criterion.
x Extrapolate data based on trends.
x Conduct two controlled experiments.
x Collect experimental data in a table.
x Produce and analyze graphs that relate two variables.
x Determine when it’s appropriate to use a line graph or a scatter
plot to represent data.
x Apply the engineering design process to solve a problem.
During Design Challenge 2, Crevasse Crisis, students will:
x Use proportional reasoning to determine dimensions for a scale
model.
x Use physical and math models.
x Conduct two controlled experiments.
x Collect experimental data in a table.
x Produce and analyze graphs that relate two variables.
x Compare rates of change (linear versus non-linear
relationships).
x Distinguish between independent and dependent variables.
x Apply the engineering design process to solve a problem.
During Design Challenge 3, Sliding Down, students will:
x Conduct a controlled experiment.
x Measure angles using a protractor.
x Compare and discuss appropriate measures of central tendency
(mean, median, mode).
x Apply the distance-time-speed formula.
x Produce and analyze a graph that relates two variables.
x Locate and represent the range of acceptable values on a graph
to meet a design criteria [criterion].
x Distinguish between independent and dependent variables.
x Apply the engineering design process to solve a problem.
Salient Math Science Technology
Concepts x making line graphs x icefall x insulator
& Skills x equal intervals x controlled x thermometer
experiment
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x cross-multiplying x temperature x materials for
x heuristics (rules of x hypothermia clothing (wool,
thumb) x compression fleece, nylon)
x data extrapolation x tension x layering materials
based on trends x strength x prototype
x complete data x modulus of x model
tables elasticity x beams (e.g., T-
x application for line x tensile strength beam, I-beam,
graphs versus x ultimate tensile square channel)
scatter plots strength x bridge
x identifying x altitude x ladder bridge
variables x density of air x zip-line
x independent x altitude sickness
variables x gravity
x dependent x acclimatize
variables x altitude sickness
x X-axis x insulator
x Y-axis
x proportional
reasoning
x scale
x non-linear patterns
x linear patterns
x measuring angles
with a protractor
x interpreting line
graphs
x ratios
x measures of central
tendency (mean,
median, mode
x Cartesian plane
x calculate the slope
of a line
x calculating speed
x centimeters
Engineering The materials introduced the following ideas about the nature of
engineering.
x Engineers play a part in the design and construction of things
like houses, roads, cars, televisions, and phones.
x Engineering is “the application of math and science to practical
ends, such as design or manufacturing.”
x All engineers use the engineering design process to help them
solve problems in an organized way.
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Pedagogical x Hands-on science inquiry projects.
Elements x Teachers guide children's explorations to deepen their
understanding of the physical science of building structures.
x Teachers encourage the students to focus their observations
and clarify their questions.
x Open explorations that get the students to play with various
building materials.
x Focused explorations that give students more guidance in the
context of solving a problem or meeting a challenge.
x Teachers are trained to monitor student activities and asked
questions about their work.
x Teachers encourage students to discuss, express, represent,
and reflect in order develop theories and understandings
from their active work.
x Teachers encourage students to learn from each other
through “walkabouts” and “science talks.”
Maturity The materials were field-tested across the nation in 2001 and
2002.
The books were copyrighted in 2004
The video’s copyright is 2003.
Diffusion A team of early childhood educators at the Educational
& Impact Development Center, Inc., developed the Young Scientist
Series. This project was nationally field tested from 2001-
2002.
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Initiative Young Scientist Series
Title Building Structures with Young Children
Grade Level Pre-kindergarten through kindergarten
Broad Goals Building Structures with Young Children guides children's
explorations to deepen their understanding of the physical
science present in building block structures—including
concepts such as gravity, stability, and balance. Children will
do the following:
x Learn to build with a variety of different materials.
x Experience the ways forces such as gravity, compression,
and tension affect a structure's stability.
x Build an understanding about how the characteristics of
materials affect a structure's stability.
x Develop scientific dispositions including curiosity,
eagerness to explore, an open mind, and delight in being a
builder.
Salient Math Science Technology
Concepts Describing objects Science concepts x building
& Skills in terms of their taught to teachers x structures
x shape include x tower
x size x gravity x walls
x quantity x tension x foundation
x patterns x compression x roof
x standard x balance x materials
measurements x stability x stories (of a
x non-standard x observations building)
measurements
x directionality
x order
x position
Engineering The curriculum is intended support the study of science.
However, under the auspices of science, the materials focus on
building structures for reasons that include strength, safety,
durability, and stability. The teaching and learning process
includes planning a structure, building the structure, observing
the structure, collecting information about the structure, and
using sketching to record their designs.
Prominent The curriculum features “open” and “focused” explorations.
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Activities The open explorations serve as introductory activities that are
designed to help students become familiar with the various
building materials and to discover how they work together to
make structures. The following learning activities fall under the
open explorations:
1. Discussing prior experiences with building blocks and
other construction materials.
2. Explaining the rules for building structures (e.g., how to
take building blocks off shelves, how to take structures
apart, how to put building blocks away).
3. Engaging in “block play” to learn how to use the building
materials.
4. Acknowledging the structures built during block play,
talking to children about their structures, and introducing
new vocabulary during discussions (e.g., upstairs,
downstairs, walls, roof, foundation).
5. Sharing building experiences through questions (e.g., Do
you remember when you rebuilt it here at the bottom?
How did you change it?).
6. Introducing new building materials (e.g., new blocks) and
new props (e.g., toy horses that need a home).
7. Engaging in additional block play and acknowledging the
children’s structures.
8. Conducting a “walkabout” where children study and talk
about each other’s structures.
9. Conducting a “science talk” where children share their
thought about making structures in response to questions
(e.g., Tell us about your building? Which parts of it
wiggled or fell down? How did you keep it up?).
The “open explorations” are followed by “focused
explorations.” During this phase of the curriculum students are
given more guidance and the building activities are designed to
address a challenge or problem.
10. Discussing prior experiences with building something that
is tall.
11. Introducing children to the challenge of building a tall
tower.
12. Discussing the safety issues associated with making
something tall (e.g., wearing hard hats).
13. Observing and acknowledging children’s work while
building tall towers (ask questions about stability and
balance).
14. Conducting a “walkabout” where children study and talk
about each other’s towers.
15. Conducting a “science talk” where children share their
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experiences while making towers (e.g., Tell us about your
tower? Could it be taller without falling down? What
would happen if you used the thinner side of each block?).
16. Examining and discussing pictures of tall buildings.
17. Conducting a “walkabout” around the school to uncover the
features of tall structures.
18. Making representational drawings of their towers.
19. Using different strategies and objects to measure their
towers (e.g., counting blocks, using string, photographing
students next to their towers).
The same pattern of activities is used to engage students in
making structures that are essentially enclosures (e.g.,
discussing prior experiences, challenge children to make
enclosures, observing and acknowledging children’s work,
conducting walkabouts, conducting science talks).
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Salient The audience for this curriculum includes pre-school teachers,
Observations kindergarten teachers, and teacher trainers. Over half of the
documentation is directed toward the teacher trainers that conduct
workshop on how to implement the curriculum. The workshop
materials include outcomes, objectives, timelines, handouts,
activities, and reproducible masters.
The balance of the documentation is directed toward the teachers
that will implement the curriculum in their classrooms. It features
teaching plans, recommendations, examples, questions, assessment
tools, learning outcomes, and information about additional
resources.
Engineering The materials clearly espouse enriching the study of science. They
do not deliberately target ideas about engineering, invention, or
technology. However, in its treatment of science content and
inquiry the curriculum inadvertently addresses basic engineering
principles and ways of thinking that are appropriate for young
children.
Design The materials do not address the concept of engineering design
directly. However, they do ask children to create solutions to
problems. For example, They may be asked to build a house for a
dog (possibly represented by a plastic toy). In this context, they
would be encouraged to make sure their dog will fit in the house (a
design specification) and their dog will not get hurt by a falling
roof (another design specification). Other potential problems
include building a tall tower, making a house for a turtle, and
erecting a structure that will withstand the wind.
During the course of solving these problems the students are
encourage by their teachers to practice inquiry skills under the
auspices of science. In simple vernacular these skills include
doing things, noticing things, wondering about things, and
questioning things. More specifically, the children are asked to
engage in following activities:
x Explore how things work (tinkering with building blocks).
x Investigate ideas (staking blocks and seeing what happens).
x Collect data (counting the number of blocks).
x Record observations and experiences (drawing pictures).
x Reflect on experiences (answering questions).
x Communicate the results (sharing ideas and experiences).
Even though these activities are presented in the context of
scientific inquiry, they are also consistent with thinking like an
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engineer. How do these blocks fit together? What will happen if
you use this block? Should the big block be on top or on the
bottom? What would happen if you put the big block on top? Is
your tower taller than you or shorter than you? How many stories
did you build? Is that space big enough for your turtle?
Addressing questions such as these can be construed as being more
consistent with engineering than science because most of the
emphasis is on solving problems in contrast to uncovering laws of
nature. The context of the work is more attentive to the human-
made world than the natural world. The approach is consistent
with engineering in the sense that the children address a problem,
gather information, implement and test ideas, document their ideas
and work in the form of drawings, and communicate their work to
others.
Analysis Analysis appears to be highly dependent on the nature of the
dialog between the teacher and the students. The materials clearly
recommend using questions to guide students in noting the nature
of the building materials, making observations about the structures
they build, detecting the features of their structures relative to what
they do or represent, connecting what they have seen with what
they have built, and assessing the ability of their structures to
fulfill their functions (e.g., making a doghouse that will not fall
down).
Constraints Constraints are subliminally imposed on the children by the nature
of the materials that are available for them to use. Very simply,
the size, shape, weight, and strength of the materials intrinsically
influence what can be made. The characteristics and limitations of
the materials would inevitably surface during the course of the
children’s thinking, experimenting, building, and explaining. For
example, they may discover something has to be built without the
benefit of a piece of material that has a given size, shape, or
strength because it is not available, there is not enough, or another
child is using it. During the course of their building the children
will also discover what the materials can and cannot do. These
discoveries would have to be taken into accounted during
subsequent building attempts.
Given the nature of children and the scope of early childhood
programs, the children would be given finite amounts of time to
create their structures. Therefore, time is likely to be another
constraint that may or may not be addressed in an overt manner.
Modeling The concept of modeling is addressed in both indirect and direct
ways. Indirectly, the curriculum clearly engages children in
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making lots of models with simple modeling materials without
addressing the concept. The process of imaging a way to stack
blocks, actually stacking the blocks as conceived, observing what
happens in terms of balance and stability, and reconfiguring the
blocks based on success or failure suggests modeling is informing
the design process. In many ways it is a four-year-old’s version of
an aeronautical engineer gathering data from a model airplane in a
wind tunnel.
In a more targeted sense, the materials suggest both teachers and
children use the word “model” during their interactions.
Furthermore, the materials recommend engaging children in
making models of their models. This step requires the children to
study their models made of relatively large blocks to build a
smaller (table-top) version from easy to work materials (e.g.,
cardboard, pieces of foam). However, this kind of modeling is
being presented in the interest of having children produce multiple
representations of their ideas as a way to deepen understanding.
Regardless of the intent, making models, studying models, and
talking about models constitutes a valid, although subliminal,
treatment of the concept because the blocks, straws, and wires that
the children work with are representing things that are, in reality,
much bigger. Thus, implementing the curriculum as written would
“get students to talk about how the things they play with relate to
real things in the world” (AAAS, 1993, p. 268). These activities
would intrinsically help children realize “a model of something is
different from the real thing but can be used to learn something
about the real thing” (AAAS, 1993, p. 268). However, it is
important to note that these ideas reside between the lines of the
curriculum and they are not represented in the lists of learning
outcomes.
Optimization Optimization is another concept that is embedded in the
curriculum. The materials clearly guide children through multiple
rounds of thinking, building, observing, and explaining. The use
of iterations is presented in the context of scaffolding the teaching
and learning process. However, during this process the children
are also revising and improving their structure to meet a challenge
or solve a problem. If the curriculum were implemented as
written, teachers would implicitly guide and encourage children to
optimize their structures (e.g., make it tall, make it stronger, make
it more stable, make the opening bigger).
There are some modest references to the concept of trade-offs in
the recommendations for learning activities. More specifically, the
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materials encourage the teacher to prepare and ask questions about
the advantages and disadvantages associated with different design
options. For example, in the context of building a model house,
teachers are encouraged to entertain ideas like making the roof
from something light will require less support but it is not likely to
be strong. If children chose to make a strong roof, they might also
need to build in more support.
Systems The materials do not address the concept of systems in an explicit
manner. Nevertheless, by default, students are likely to uncover
the fact that parts work together to do things that individual parts
alone cannot do. Furthermore, they are liable to discover
structures can fail if a part is installed wrong, missing, or removed.
Despite the richness of the materials, the notion of deliberately
looking at structures as systems is not among the recommendations
for engaging students in inquiry or asking questions about their
designs.
Science Building Structures with Young Children espouses helping
teachers guide children's explorations that deepen their
understanding of the physical science of building structures. The
materials were clearly developed with science in mind. The
activities are constantly asking the students to explore, question,
and investigate. Furthermore, they are in a sense, collecting data
through the use of their senses and their observations, and
experiences tell them how to build a better building. They are
recording and representing their data (and ideas) by making
drawings of what they have built.
The curriculum purports to look at science “in a new way” without
giving this methodology a name. Through this novel approach the
curriculum strives to develop “important science inquiry skills
such as questioning, investigating, discussing, and formulating
ideas and theories.” It endeavors to build these skills through
exploring, designing, and building structures.
Given the amount of attention dedicated to exploring the human-
made world, in contrast to the natural world, one could argue it
fosters skills more in the context of doing engineering than doing
science. The instruction targets concepts like gravity, stability,
and balance while teaching children, “…how to make things
strong, tall, or elegant.” The symbiotic blending of science and
technology is, in part, the essence of engineering. The materials
approach science in such a way that one could replace the word
“science” with the word “engineering” with relative ease without
compromising validity. Therefore, one could characterize this
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new approach as “children’s engineering.”
Mathematics The curriculum does not teach math directly but it does apply and
reinforce a variety of foundational concepts and skills. For
example, teachers are trained to use questions to engage children
in dialogs about their structures. These questions are intended to
lead children into describing their buildings using things like
quantities, shapes, features, patterns, sizes, and more. The
materials also recommend using questions to nurture the children’s
understanding of the directionality, order, and position of objects.
Measurement is another theme that can be found in the materials.
The recommended activities employ both standard and non-
standard forms of measurement for the length, height, or area of
objects and structures. Standard units of measurement include
things like “my tower is ten blocks high” and non-standard units of
measurement could include things like “my tower is as tall as me”
or “my tower is as tall as this string.” In these examples,
measurement is being used to assess the extent to which the
structure addresses the problem posed (build a tall tower).
Technology During the course of their activities children are asked to think
about, make, test, and talk about the parts of their structures.
These parts include things like foundations, walls, roofs, supports,
and more. The attention given to the basic anatomy of buildings
enables children to apply, practice, and expand their technical
vocabulary (a.k.a., domain knowledge).
The activities also address building techniques that are
technological in nature. This is especially evident in the process of
having student examine buildings and study pictures of buildings
to uncover the techniques that they can use to build their
structures. These include things like overlapping blocks, making
strong corners, and keeping walls from falling down. Their
experiences with stacking blocks will be analogous to the
techniques used to build real structures, especially masonry
buildings. Consequently, the learning activities enrich the
children’s knowledge of how things are done and subsequently,
how to do things.
Treatment of The materials present rich sets of outcomes for science inquiry,
Standards mathematical reasoning, social behavior, learning skills, and
language development. Although they read like standards, no
attempt is made to reference national standards or correlate these
outcomes with national standards. Despite the lack of attention
given to standards, it is very easy to envision using the materials as
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an integral part of an early childhood program that is designed to
address standards.
The learning activities outlined in Building Structures with Young
Children are consistent with standards recommended by the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in
Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993). For example, according
to AAAS, by the end of second grade students should be able to
“make something from paper, cardboard, wood, plastic, metal, or
existing objects that can actually be used to perform a task.”
Making a structure that provides shelter for a toy turtle could make
a valid contribution toward the attainment of this standard.
The questioning and debriefing strategies that are recommended
throughout the materials are also consistent with developing
students’ ability to “Describe and compare things in terms of
number, shape, texture, size, weight, color, and motion.” Similarly,
the role that sketching plays in the teaching and learning process
can help children develop an ability to “Draw pictures that
correctly portray at least some features of the thing being
described.”
Inversely, targeting the following standards about systems could
have added additional ideas and new lines of inquiry that can
enrich the dialog between teachers and students.
x “Most things are made of parts” (p. 264).
x “Something may not work if some of its parts are missing”
(p. 264).
x “When parts are put together, they can do things that they
couldn't do by themselves.”
Pedagogy The materials are well laid out and easy to follow. They ask
teachers to address the study of structures from multiple
perspectives. Attention is given to configuring the learning
environment to encourage exploration, conducting neighborhood
tours that involve examining and discussing real structures, using
books to inspire and inform designs, incorporating guest speakers,
helping students learn from one another, and debriefing students
about their experiences. Attention is also given to establishing
schedules and routines that support learning, facilitating core
experiences, offering suggestions for making connections to
families, surveying the children’s work during classroom
“walkabouts,” conducting group discussions during “science
talks”, using books and pictures to inform designs, and more.
All of the learning activities include the same elements that are
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organized into a logical sequence. The instruction is consistent
with constructivist pedagogy in the sense that it asks teachers to
activate prior experience, introduce new concepts, engage students
in using existing knowledge in conjunction with new knowledge,
employ tactile experience to support active learning, use questions
for acknowledging ideas and guiding the development of new
ones, and ask students to represent their ideas in multiple ways.
The curriculum and instruction is extremely Socratic in nature.
Posing questions is the primary tool used to implement the
teaching and learning process. Emphasis is placed on thoughtfully
observing students, formulating questions based on their work,
using question to access their thought processes, posing questions
to leverage experience and guide the incremental develop of
understandings, and using questions to reflect upon and learning
experiences. In short, questions are used to encourage student to
discuss, express, represent, and reflect in the interest of helping
them construct understanding from their active work.
Implementation Building Structures with Young Children, clearly capitalizes on
materials and supplies that early childhood teachers are likely to
have in their classrooms (e.g., building blocks, craft supplies, toys
representing people and animals). However, the implementation
of the curriculum at the scale described in the materials could
easily require more supplies and manipulatives than teachers have
on hand. Therefore, implementation is likely to require additional
expense for capital improvements (e.g., purchasing additional
maple building blocks) and consumables (e.g., buying craft
supplies).
More than half of the documentation for the program focuses on
facilitating teacher training. Tremendous attention is given to
informing and developing teachers’ abilities to prepare the learning
environment, to observe children building, to use carefully crafted
questions to uncover thought processes and guide thinking, to
engage children in composing multiple representation of their
ideas, to engage children in looking back on their experiences, and
to debrief children about their learning. Therefore, the greatest
challenge associated with implementing this curriculum is
allocating the time and resources needed for the professional
development of teachers.
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