Our 5th grade is currently studying the impact on American life that several famous inventors had. When I was brainstorming with Shelley Olin, 5th grade social studies teacher, we began to wonder about connections these standards had to makerspace. It started as an idea seed and grew into a set of experiences for all 5th graders to engage in.
I wanted students to put themselves into the shoes of an inventor so that they could begin to understand the perseverance and curiosity that inventors have. We focused on 3 of the inventors: Thomas Edison (electricity), Alexander Graham Bell (communication), and the Wright Brothers (flight).
I prepared 3 centers on electricity, communication, and flight. Each center included a biography about the inventors, instructions for an activity, and a clipboard to leave wisdom for the next group to learn from.
For flight, I selected some paper airplanes that could be made from a full sheet of paper. I also included books about other paper airplanes.
For communication, I created 2 choices. One was to use littlebits to create a tool for communicating using Morse code. I included a buzzer and LED bit as well as button, pulse sensor, and slide dimmer bits. The other experience was to create a tin can phone. I provided coffee cans and cups and various kinds of string.
For electricity, I copied instructions for making a simple paper circuit using a coin battery, led light, and copper tape. I put materials in Ziploc bags so each group would have what they needed to create a circuit. I added extra led lights for tinkering beyond an simple circuit.
It took a long time to prepare all of the materials for 3 back-to-back 5th grade classes. I had to have everything ready for an immediate turn round between classes.
Before coming to the library to engage in some makerspace activities related to these themes, students read about each inventor in textbooks and on PebbleGo. They gave Ms. Olin their top 2 interests out of the 3 themes so that she could put them in groups.
In the library, we started by looking at the littlebits invention cycle. There’s not just one place to start in the cycle and it doesn’t necessarily follow a linear sequence. We talked about how students could start with “create” by following the directions that I had given. Then they could play with their creation and begin to remix ideas to create an improved version or an alternative invention. By the end, I hoped that they would have something to share with the rest of their class or group. It really seemed like it could be linear in talking about it, but I quickly saw that it is very fluid.
After our quick intro, students sorted into their chosen task and got to work. Luckily, Ms. Olin and other collaborative teachers joined the class during this session. At times, we had me and 3 teachers supporting students around the library. It was 3 very different activities, so having the extra support was beneficial.
What I quickly saw was how much students wanted to just jump in and put things together without reading directions. At paper airplanes, students started folding paper in all sorts of folds and testing them out.
At paper circuits, students were sticking down tape and connecting the led to the battery without reading the instructions or even formulating a plan.
At tin can phones, students immediately started connecting cans.
But…as I stepped back and thought about it, isn’t that really what inventors do? They don’t necessarily have a set of instructions to follow. They just try things out to see what happens.
After some initial tinkering, several students did in fact try to read the instructions and many said that they wished they had read them at the beginning. It was an important lesson that we talked about and learned from. It’s hard to read all the instructions before putting something together when all you want is to see the finished product. I do that myself as an adult.
One thing that was really interesting was when students finished their first prototype and they started remixing. One example at the tin can phone center was when 2 groups decided to combine their two phones and see if they could make a four-way call.
At the paper airplane center, students started combining their planes together to see if a combination would create a better flying plane. They were truly embracing the idea of remixing.
When we came back together at the end, I asked students to think about what it was like to be an inventor. We had some great conversation about perseverance, staying calm through frustration, trying again, problem solving, and taking plenty of time to invent. We circled back to our inventors and considered how much time, frustration, and perseverance they each put into their inventions. I think the experience gave the students a greater appreciation for the inventors they were learning about rather than just passively reading about them.
We even had a moment to talk about continuing inventions in our makerspace or at home and entering them into our school maker faire coming soon. I loved how a simple idea from a social studies standard was able to weave together growth mindset, literature, social studies, and makerspace all into one experience.