September 3

The Importance of Blocks

I am resharing this post about block play (from several years ago) with a few updates:

My undergraduate degree is in early childhood education (birth through seven years old) and I taught kindergarten for twelve years and second grade for eight. I experienced firsthand the value and benefits of block play. Blocks provide an opportunity to explore math concepts including shapes, measurement, mass, symmetry, patterns, and fractions! Eye hand coordination and small muscle movements are refined. Children develop awareness of space, balance, and cause and effect. As children plan and make representations of their ideas, creativity and problem solving skills blossom. They intuitively apply the Engineer Design Process. Children also learn to effectively communicate their ideas and to work collaboratively with their peers.

As you look at the pictures of the block structures below, look for examples of balance, patterns, and symmetry. Block building is considered a STEAM activity and schools with Makerspaces and STEM labs always include various types of blocks. You are never too old to build with blocks! My second grade classes always found blocks a favorite activity. For more fun, add plastic animals, cars, and people, as well as natural objects.

Click here to read an article about block play from NAEYC. Block play is important work!

The developmental stages of block building:


Unit blocks are divided into fractional parts.

This preschool had a “Block Party”. It would be a fun birthday theme too!

September 2

Quality STEM Program

Among educators, there is still confusion and debate about how to recognize and implement excellent STEM programs. I believe this is an accurate description of its components:

The goal of a quality STEM program is to produce scientifically and technologically literate citizens who can solve complex, multi-disciplinary problems through analytical and innovative thinking in real-world applications needed for college and career success. (National Research Council 2012) These goals are often met through Project-Based Learning.

April 21

Solar Ovens

Third grade environmentalists used solar power, an alternative energy source that is clean and renewable, to cook s’mores. The heat is transferred using radiation waves from the sun. We viewed several different design option for solar ovens and identified the common features. Click here to learn more about constructing solar ovens.

One of the assignments in the Upper School’s environmental studies class is to design a solar oven that can boil water, so this was a fun introductory investigation. Click here to watch college freshmen design solar ovens.

As we walked back to the lab, we placed our hand on a white car and then a black car in the parking lot. Heat passed through conduction, and we were amazed at how much hotter the black car felt. Dark colors absorb more light energy.

Back in the lab, I also shared some other items that are powered by solar energy. Look how fast the animals on the back table are moving. They are in the sunlight.

April 15

Wheel and Axle

Second grade engineers continued their study of simple machines with a lab that focused on wheels and axles. Click here to learn more about wheels and axles. These physicists were challenged to construct a vehicle with wheels that could move freely on its axles. A variety of materials were available for wheels, axles, and chassis, as well as a variety of adhesive choices. Determining how to attach the wheels to the chassis was one of the design challenges. As they used the design process, they realized that some sort of hub caps were necessary to hold the wheels on the axles. At the end of the lab, some of the wheels did not touch the ground, some wheels were tilted, and others did not turn. I witnessed problem solving and collaboration as they worked to resolve these issues. In part two of this lab, we refined our designs after we tested our prototypes.

I further challenged these engineers to use a rubberband or a balloon to power their cars.

March 19

Airplane Lab

My second grade scientists have studied force, motion, and space, so a paper airplane lab was a perfect fit. We reviewed gravity and friction and then I introduced three new forces: lift, thrust, and drag. Click here to watch a video about these forces.

Paper Plane Flying Contest - Science World

My aerospace engineers made paper airplanes at home prior to lab. They were free to ask others for help and to research designs online (with parental help) because scientists collaborate! We reviewed the Engineer Design Process: Define the Problem, Imagine, Plan, Create, Test, and Improve. As we looked at all our classmates’ planes, we noticed a variety of wing designs and nose shapes. Some planes were stapled or taped together. Planes were a variety of sizes and made from different types of paper. I was so excited by the work my engineers put into this project. Many of them told me that they made several designs, and tested them before they chose the design to bring to school. Want to try more designs? Click here for a great paper airplane design resource.

After we shared our designs, we tested them. We discovered that the way we threw our airplanes directly impacted how far they flew.

Then, we looked at the airplanes that traveled the furthest to see if there were any similarities. The following engineers had the most successful designs.

This design flew double the distance of any other airplane-almost the entire length of the gym. It was constructed of cardstock.

Mr. Swegman demonstrated how to throw an airplane.

March 4

Roller Coasters

Scientists in second grade study the six simple machines. A few weeks ago we made catapults to explore levers. In this lab, we investigated inclined planes.

We watched Mystery Science, an excellent online resource, to discover why the first hill of a roller coaster is always the highest. Then, my engineers were asked to apply their knowledge of force and motion, as well as the information they learned from the online investigation, to create a marble roller coaster. My physicists set off to work with foam pipe insulation, marbles of various sizes and weights, and lots of tape! Vocabulary included accelerate, momentum, potential, and kinetic energy. As students attempted to make loops in their roller coasters, they learned more about centripetal force. As partners communicated and collaborated, they continually tested and improved their designs. What a fun way to develop critical thinking skills! This was not an easy task. Click here for more information about how to try this at home.

As we lined up to leave lab, we noticed the tub of paper towel tubes. Could we have attached them this way to prevent some of the challenges we experienced connecting the pieces of insulation with tape?

Anyone want to build a backyard roller coaster? Click here to watch the fun!

March 3

Insulators and Circuits

First grade electrical engineers continued their study of circuits. In this lab, we learned how to use an insulator (clay) between conductive playdoh to prevent short circuits. Each pair of collaborative partners made a flashlight and an octopus. Can you identify the insulator in the circuits below? Next week, they will apply what they’ve learned to create original designs.

At the end of lab, we added a propeller to the circuit. Why is there a difference in speed in the two circuits below?

February 28

Rainforest Engineers

Kindergarten biologists continued their study of ecosystems around the world. As we entered the lab and saw this scene on the Activpanel, we felt as if we had entered the Amazon rainforest. The rainy day and our dark room added to the ambience. Click here for a rainforest scene with sound effects.

Many fruits grow in the rainforest, including grapefruit, oranges, lemons, pineapples, coconuts, kiwis, bananas, limes, avocadoes. mangoes, and papayas. Grapes and apples do not grow there, but we did test a grape. We investigated whether these fruits would sink or float and discussed our results which led us back to previous experiences with density. Make a rainforest fruit salad at home. Buy some fruits that your child hasn’t tasted. Describe the outside texture and shape. Compare the size, shape, and colors of seeds and how they are dispersed inside. Are the inside and outside colors of the fruit the same? Does the fruit taste sweet or sour?

Kindergarten engineers were asked to build a play structure for a new rainforest exhibit at the zoo. We learned that it is important to begin with a strong foundation and to balance the materials carefully. I witnessed critical thinking and perseverance as they worked to solve problems. This activity was also a fun way to strengthen fine motor skills. Add these items to other building materials at home. Tubes of rainforest, desert, and savanna animals are sold at Michael’s, Joanne’s and Hobby Lobby, as well as Amazon. This would be an ideal time to visit the zoo!

Note: We were dressed up as our favorite story characters on this day.