Prototypes: They’re not just for big kids

Elementary students shouldn’t “go to STEM,” but STEM should be infused throughout their entire educational process, say Dina Dormer and Erin Reichert of the Pennridge School District.

Dormer and Reichert shared the model they have developed at Pennridge School District during a presentation at the SmartBrief STEM Pathways Summit. In developing their model, they focused on helping elementary-age students develop a STEM mindset by incorporating the 16 Habits of Mind into a design loop. 

A role for literacy-based engineering

Dormer and Reichert shared several examples of using literacy-based engineering to help students participate in immersive experiences centered around a book. While using design principles to process their experiences of the books, the students also acquire a mindset that can apply to their lives as individuals, school community members and citizens in general. Each experience is designed to help them comprehend, communicate and problem solve.

With LBE, mentor texts are used to enable the combination of literacy instruction and inquiry-based instruction, said Dormer and Reichert. Books such as "I’m Not Just a Scribble" support STEM learning by building content knowledge, encouraging students to investigate problems, and facilitating the development of models and representations while students are engaging in authentic literacy tasks. 

You may want these kids to build you a house

Fourth-graders who did a literacy-based engineering unit around "If I Built a House" thought through how to create their ideal house. Using the Pennridge Design Loop and Habits of Mind, they also applied imagination and planning to create a vision and blueprint within the identified constraints. Using teacher-provided materials, they built prototypes. During the “experiment and evaluate” phase, they tested their designs. In the “improve and redesign” section, they assessed the testing outcomes to make improvements.

Why reflecting and sharing matter so much

The final step of the loop, reflecting and sharing, is critical, say Dormer and Reichert. It demonstrates how deeply the students are thinking about the issue at hand and how they are building in the ability to consider constraints, to experiment with improvements and to manage imperfections in the process. Fourth graders working with “If I Built a House” created prototypes that envisioned hypotheticals. How do things change if you have a flat roof? What happens if there’s a storm? How about if the entire village loses water? Fourth graders, like all students, are (as Elissa Milto said) “able to do a lot more than we give them credit for.” 

It’s OK for kids to see teachers fail

The program at Pennridge is relatively new, so there has been adjustment on all sides, especially for teachers who may not have a comfort level with STEM. As the technology integrator, Reichert is there to help them incorporate STEM principles into their work. It’s good for students to see that their teachers fail too, says Reichert. “We’re learning right along side of you” is something that is good for students to see, she notes.

Overcoming fear is for everyone

Dormer described the transformation that can take place even in 45 short minutes when a class first starts delving into a literacy-based engineering project. They described students as “immersed in fear” at first, worried about making mistakes. “And yet by the end of that first 45-minute period, they were asking: ‘Can we try it again? Can I change it? Can I improve it?’ They weren't afraid anymore.”

An argument for trying literacy-based engineering

Dormer and Reichert say students are capable of more than we anticipate, and literacy-based engineering is a STEM-based way to elicit that potential. It’s why they teach first-graders to use appropriate terminology, such as “prototype.” If you haven’t explored this option for your classroom yet, it’s worth thinking about. 

After all, one of the 16 Habits of Mind is persisting. Who else better to lead the way than you?

This post is based on a presentation by Dina Dormer and Erin Reichert of the Pennridge School District given at the SmartBrief Pathways STEM Summit on October 24, 2019. 

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Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief's nonprofit sector newsletters, including ICMA SmartBrief, and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She worked extensively in Florida's quasi-governmental children's health insurance program that became a national model, has served as a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion leader, has proofread professionally and has extensive social media experience. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.

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