Fifth Grade STEM Program Makes Tatnall-Strong Houses

Submitted by Heather Brooks
Every Wednesday and Thursday, Tatnall’s Fifth Graders team up to solve a “grand challenge” in their weekly STEM classes. A grand challenge is at once both an issue facing the world today and an invitation to join in the conversation to find solutions. In an environment of co-discovery and acceptance of life’s messiness, our students tackle housing and transportation dilemmas, trade embargoes, and environmental disasters. They work in teams, track down what is already known about a topic, brainstorm new ideas, and put their ideas to the test, again and again.

That’s the nature of a STEM class.  It is not a siloed discipline but a venue to connect all learning. Of course, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are at the forefront of the learning, but students must bring with them the wealth of knowledge they have earned through hard work in their years of schooling. For example, a team will research what is already known about a complex issue by reading articles, conducting advanced Internet searches, and designing lab experiences. They will write proposals, draw blueprints, form valid and supported arguments, persuade their teammates, and perform multi-step mathematical calculations.  Every second of their Early Childhood and Lower School experience affects how they approach the problems they are confronted with in the STEM Lab. Each teacher’s guiding advice and every family member’s love and support informs the decisions our students are making and choices they reach for in solving these “grand challenges.” The STEM class is a continuation of the problem-based, experiential philosophy that underpins the curriculum developed by Tatnall’s dedicated teachers, and it is one of the capstone experiences of the Fifth Grade year.

Three Lower School teachers are developing the Fifth Grade STEM class: science teacher Lauri Leary, technology integration specialist Colleen Hoban, and Lower School librarian Heather Brooks. All three bring a unique perspective to each grand challenge, but all believe in a hands-on, minds-on approach to learning.

Science teacher Lauri Leary notes, “In every aspect of our lives, we need to be able to problem solve. I love how our STEM class provides so many opportunities for our students to solve challenging problems while using their hands and an innovative mindset.”

Technology integration specialist Colleen Hoban believes, “Tatnall’s STEM class teaches the students to look at problems from multiple perspectives and with multiple possibilities for solutions in mind. The Engineering Design Process teaches the students to break big problems into smaller parts which can be applied to all academic disciplines. Giving the students opportunities to solve real-world problems allows them to be innovative, creative, and collaborative."

Lower School librarian Heather Brooks, whose doctoral work focuses on STEM education, believes “Tatnall’s growing STEM program also allows students to develop an entrepreneurial spirit and a stronger understanding of successful business practices and fiscal responsibility. For example, students develop budgets, work to meet client and end-user expectations, and deal with time, financial, and material constraints. Brooks notes that the challenges are designed to inspire innovation and creativity, but also give students some experiences in MacGyver-esque “bootstrapping,” or using the resources you have to solve a problem.

The current challenge being tackled by our Fifth Graders is the design of hurricane-proof houses. Students learn about weather systems, cloud formation, and how the Earth’s air and water move and interact. As background, students bring with them knowledge gained in previous challenges of how shape affects the strength of a structure, as well as ideas learned from analyzing articles about hurricane-prone areas in the United States.
Meeting with “clients,” students note the criteria and constraints that will affect potential designs. In their engineering notebooks, students design houses that could withstand hurricane-force winds and yet have curb appeal. Each designer brings their ideas to their team. Through persuasion, decision matrices, and prioritization, features of the houses start to evolve.  It is time to build.

Pre-construction involves purchasing materials at the “Tatnall Depot,” keeping detailed budgets, and working out who is responsible for the many tasks involved in building a house. Craftsmanship, precision, teamwork, and meeting deadlines are stressed.

When the houses are finished, each team tests their design in “hurricane alley!” Facing category 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 conditions, teams keep notes of damage incurred by the wind. They then meet to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their prototypes. 

A second iteration of the houses is now underway in the STEM Lab! As teams build their second houses based on the data they collect in the first test, they must also contend with a new constraint. Glue guns and glue sticks, normally purchased from their suppliers in China, are under a trade embargo. Not only that, but the shipments they have already ordered are destroyed in a hurricane off the west coast of the United States.

This crisis means that students will have to learn new ways to connect cardboard walls to each other. A two-day workshop on attaching techniques came just in time! Good thing our engineers were already enrolled in this valuable professional development! Each student builds nine types of attachments, including a flange, an L-brace, and a gusset, and they are ready to tackle the new code requirements.

With a reduced budget and the increased time it will take to make custom attachments, our students have some heavy decisions to make in their construction companies!  But critical thinking is always paired with fun and teamwork in the STEM Lab! We trust in our students' problem-solving abilities and know that they will apply everything they’ve got to the task of making their houses “Tatnall Strong!”