Roots of STEM: Books and ideas for real world problem solving in your classroom

Problem Solving in Lower Elementary

What might STEM look like in the primary grades? Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1

The teacher in a kindergarten class has a “tinkering” center in the classroom where students can use explore time (or centers) to take apart gadgets and old machines and appliances to try to understand the way things work. She also has a “maker” station with all sorts of supplies and found objects for making and building things: paper, cardboard tubes, packing material, string, beads, buttons, and lots of other scavenged, salvaged, and donated items. Students are encouraged to create something and share how they made it and why during Morning Meeting or at a weekly share time.

Early in the year, this teacher establishes a culture of inquiry, posing many questions throughout the day. This encourages students to ask questions, and gives them an opportunity to investigate answers. In addition to informational texts for their science and social studies themes, there are books in the classroom library about inventors, innovators, building, structures, the way things work, numbers, patterns, math concepts, and how things are made. These become read-alouds when appropriate. An anchor chart keeps track of student thinking about what scientists, inventors, and engineers do, the “big ideas” they are learning throughout the year, and cross-cutting concepts—all from the Next Generation Science Standards

A discussion begins about how engineers have an impact on students' kindergarten world (Of course, you will first have to talk about the difference between train engineers and “regular” engineers!). In a science lesson about structure and function, the teacher has students use the engineering design process to design, build, and test a tool (structure)—a working paintbrush—from materials in the classroom.  They then cycle back through the process again to improve upon their first design and reflect upon whether or not they found a reasonable solution. The teacher scaffolds the process with support materials to help them collect their data and represent what they learned graphically. 

Scenario 2

First graders in a classroom notice that there are a lot of annoying fruit flies buzzing around whenever they tend to their job as compost managers. Their teacher is happy to ask them, “What could we do about that?” and allows a discussion to unfold. As a group they decide that the building of a trap for the fruit flies is necessary. The teacher uses this as an opportunity to allow teams of students to create a fruit fly trap, engaging in the engineering design process (Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve) over several class periods. 

Scenario 3

A second grade teacher builds upon concepts begun in first grade. In first grade, the students studied the life cycle of butterflies by raising caterpillars and releasing the adults into the school's butterfly garden. In second grade, the students are responsible for supplying the plants for the garden. They study what plants need to survive, their attributes and structures, and plant life cycles. They conduct short, focused, research (CCSS) projects to determine what types of plants to put in the garden based upon the types of butterflies they want to attract. 

During the course of the project, the students make sketches and diagrams for their science notebooks. They read both fiction and informational texts about plants and about butterflies. They write letters soliciting supplies from local nursery and garden centers, and use math to calculate amounts needed for the garden plot, and to “buy” these donated supplies from the school garden store (staffed by older students working on other objectives). They submit designs for the garden taking into account the height of the plants, colors, etc. and the class votes to choose one design.

Planting Week arrives and students work as a team to prepare the soil, put in the plants, document the process with digital cameras and iPads, and share highlights of the project on their classroom Google Site. (For more about school gardens, see this read-aloud collection.)

Reading suggestions for lower elementary students

Visit TeachersFirst for resources related to inventors and inventions.

In addition to these books recommended by TeachersFirst, consider the ones below as you create STEM text sets at this level:

Beaty, Andrea.  Rosie Revere, Engineer.  ISBN: 978-1-41970-845-9.  Lexile: not available.
From the author of Iggy Peck, Architect, this story is a tale of an imaginative thinker. The overall message works beautifully with teaching the engineering design process, as Rosie comes to realize that even though sometimes her contraptions do not work the first time, the only true failure is in quitting.

Johnson, D. B. Palazzo Inverso.  ISBN:  978-0-547-23999-6.  Lexile: 450.
Inspired by the work of M.C. Escher, this story is read in the traditional way, but continues once the book is turned upside down until looping back to the beginning. Students will love poring over the illustrations and trying to figure out “How did he do that?”

Steltzer, Ulli.  Building an Igloo.  ISBN:  0-329-21161-7.  Lexile: 720.
This photo essay with concise text offers step-by-step instructions for the construction of an igloo.

Underwood, Deborah.  A Balloon for Isabel.  ISBN:978-0-06-177987-9Lexile: 510.
Isabel desperately wants a balloon for Graduation Day like all the other animals will receive. But that can only mean trouble for a porcupine! Students will delight in Isabel's problem solving attempts and final solution.


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