Monday, December 15, 2014

Learning the Engineering Design Process in Kindergarten: Just Add Mud and Sticks

My apologies for not posting lately. Curriculum writing takes a lot of time.  As described earlier,  the first kindergarten unit focuses on "Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems: Animals, Plants, and Their Environment".  The storyline that evolved centered on our native insect, the Baltimore Checkerspot, and its relationship to the White Turtlehead.  Using these two species as the backdrop, the needs of plants and animals are experienced.

Toward the end of the unit, we delve into how plants and animals change the environment to meet their needs.  As the Turtlehead lives in wetlands that are sometimes created by the actions of beavers, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to tie some of the dimensions together.  Reaching back to my previous life as an outdoor educator, I resurrected a lesson I used to do with fifth grade students.  Construct a beaver dam to hold back as much water as you can.  When I first wrote this lesson, I figured on a squeamish response to the traditional materials of mud and sticks.  To this end, I wrote it so students would use clay and wooden coffee stirrers.    You will imagine my surprise when all of the field test teachers insisted on using mud and sticks.

Earlier today, one of the schools in the system decided to give this lesson a try.  I forgot how much fun this lesson was and had fun watching many of these students experience the wonder of mud for the first time.  Beyond the absolute engagement mud and sticks present, it was very clear from the first part of the lesson, that the students understood the connection of beavers to the Checkerspot.  What's more, they applied the engineering design process.

Refinements centered on adding sticks vertically.  Some of the dams looked like porcupines 
Note the tarps on the floor.  Have to keep the custodian sane.  

 Many hands make mud work.

Students had to imagine what their dam would look like in order to develop a plan prior to building.  Shortly after this, the interactive notebooks had to be put away to avoid being encrusted by mud.


  1. Eric,
    I love your blog, so glad you started it and I found it. Do you have anything for sale or review? Do you know of any other blogs about hands on learning and the NGSS?
    Thank you and I look forward to following you.


  2. Glad you like it. Alas, the units we are writing belong to the people of Baltimore County. I can only share the lesson seeds and my other crazy ideas. We are all in this transition together. No sense going alone.

  3. The excitement in this video is infectious! Thank you for sharing! I've been tasked to start similar work this summer in my district in CT. It's my desire to have the curriculum be more reflective of the habitats and species of the CT River Watershed and Long Island Sound. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I've been reading the works of Wendy Saul relating to the Elementary Science Integration Project. Are elements of this project still present or relevant to your current work?

  4. I really focused on the Buck Institute model for PBL. For me everything centers on relevance. We want kids to see themselves reflected in the storylines. Each unit has a local flair to it. In each case, students take on the role in a local business or agency. I want kids to see that what they are learning is actually used in the real-world.

  5. You continue to inspire...ahhh, the memories!

  6. Hi Eric,
    I was so excited to see this in action! We are including this lesson into our 5th grade changing ecosystems standard, and everyone is very excited. Can you give some advice on the types of earth materials you used to produce that wonderful, sticky mud? Thanks so much!

    1. We had a great debate internally about the queeziness of teachers to work with mud. Our solution was to provide standard modeling clay and wood coffee stirrers. I presented the unit to the field test teachers and they unanimously rejected it and wanted to use mud and sticks instead. The video shows the results. The teacher took a shovel and bucket, went outside and dug up some soil from the edge of the schoolyard. She added water slowly to get the desired consistency. For safety reasons, I added a bundle of crafting twigs, birch as I recall. Years ago, I taught this lesson and told students to pick up their own sticks. One group of rough and tumble boys came back with a pile of fuzzy twigs. Their poison ivy dam did hold back the water, but caused them to be out of school for several days.