In order to best prepare our young scientists with the best chance of success in the S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses, a style that is open-ended and looks for diversity in solutions is always key to student enjoyment. An approach of empowering students to make their own choices rather than a structured and uniform path often leads to creative and innovative solutions to problems presented in the classroom.
I teach 6th grade Environmental/Earth Science and 8th grade Conceptual Physics at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, NY. In both courses, engineering is a powerful conduit for teaching math and science and should be introduced as early as possible. K’Nex has become one of my favorite pieces of lab equipment. In combination with other equipment, the 8th graders created their own pan balances, which are scales with two flat surfaces, made completely out of K’Nex. With string, pennies and a set of metric balances, students construct their own lab apparatus to accomplish the task of experimenting with mechanical advantage and levers. Once their scales were built and ready to go, the students measured out pennies and recorded the weights, putting their scales to the test. I enjoy how it brings out many elements of the education process; fine motor skills, precision in construction, teamwork, constructive criticism, and full student engagement. Students then were challenged to create a “better” scale, and more collaborative work was set into motion. K’Nex even has a great place for educators to find lessons plans to get those creative juices flowing.
For an 8th grade physics course, play in easily incorporated with every lab. From engineering race cars powered by a single rubberband, to creating an egg drop contraption to learn about free fall and air resistance, students have authentic learning experiences through success and failure. As a teacher, I’ve set a new goal for myself to toss out the labs that have a finite set of instructions with a predicable result. I am sure there is a time and place for that sort of activity, but in my classroom, I would much rather see the students tackle problem solving, risk, failure, and most importantly, resilience.