From Butterflies To Bridges
by Sandi Graham
If we want to watch these caterpillars grow into butterflies, what kind of habitat do we need to build?
I finally got the Galimoto to work!
I think Ive found a better way to make the dinosaurs mouth open and close!
How can we build an arch bridge from wood? Wood wont curve!
This Masai lodge is a lot like the bird nest I made, only its upside down.
These student and teacher questions only hint at the breadth of ideas tested and the prototypes made at Y.E. Smith Magnet School in Durham, North Carolina, where Design and Technology is the focus of our curriculum.
This once stereotypical urban school has become a center of purposeful activity and experiential learning. In 1994, as a newly designated Science and Technology Magnet School, the Y.E. Smith staff was charged with the task of designing and implementing an innovative kindergarten-fifth grade curriculum that would not only attract a diverse population of families but increase student achievement on North Carolina End-Of-Grade tests in third through fifth grades.
Using design technology, sometimes called childrens engineering, as a focus and a vehicle for delivering the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, we have successfully integrated content and skills across curriculum areas at each grade level. Equally important, design technology work has proven to be a powerful way to meaningfully engage students on a daily basis. Teachers have found themselves making the shift to a more constructivist view of learning and have become active partners in the learning process, sharing ideas with each other and with their students.
Second grade children were intrigued by how a galimoto, an African wheeled toy made of wire, worked. Now in their second year in our program, the students had confidence they could figure out how the toy worked. Previously, the teachers had followed up a story about galimotos with a cut and paste worksheet which resulted in a two-dimensional model of the galimoto. This year, taking cues from the children, the teachers tackled the problem to better learn how to make the task possible for their students. The children didnt believe that we (the teachers) didnt know how the galimoto was built - that we were trying to figure out how to make it work said one classroom teacher. This project is an example of the collaborative learning that is beginning to take place at Y.E. Smith.
Y.E. Smith School is located in an urban neighborhood of Durham. We are a Title I school with a predominantly low income population. Our population of 340 students, who now come from all over Durham County, are approximately 90% minority (African American and Hispanic) and 10% white. Students living outside a half mile radius zone must apply for admission and are selected from the applicant pool by an annual lottery process.
Planning for design technology work is an on-going process at Y.E. Smith. Using the state science curriculum as a starting point, grade level teams choose yearly themes for their classes. During summer curriculum writing sessions, these teams work with the Curriculum Planner to develop integrated units of study around their themes. Teachers understanding of how to facilitate effective student learning is gradually evolving from a lecture and competition model to a more open-ended, materials rich environment. Students and teachers are recognizing that they have valuable ideas that can direct the learning. As we continue to work and plan, the opportunities for design technology work have become clear. With a sequence of design technology processes and skills in mind, broad objectives for possible project work at each grade have been outlined, and tentative design briefs have been written. While in the midst of identifying and aligning objectives for a design technology project with state objectives, one teacher remarked, I am beginning to see how this all works!
The science, technology, and media labs at Y.E. Smith are an integral part of the design technology project work that is initiated in the classrooms. Rather like field work sites, these research centers provide additional opportunities for children to ask and answer questions, investigate and test ideas with materials, learn necessary techniques and skills, and design, make, and modify prototypes. Weekly planning sessions between grade level teams and lab specialists specify objectives and coordinate the childrens project work as well as create a forum for a collegial exchange of ideas that is so often unavailable to classroom teachers. Unlike the work of other elementary school special teachers such as music, art, and physical education, weekly lab classes are co-taught by the lab and classroom teachers. Lab specialists, who are experienced teachers in their respective fields, provide informal staff development for teachers by modeling inquiry-based learning, materials management, and cooperative learning strategies with the children. Teachers not only have the opportunity to observe an experienced teacher working with their students but also the chance to participate and try developing skills in a relatively risk-free environment.
Beginning in kindergarten, we introduce children to a wide variety of tools, processes, techniques, and materials as they investigate and explore the phenomena in the world around them. Finding answers to simple questions becomes a way of working.
Examples of the questions posed by teachers include:
“What do you notice about how that earthworm moves without legs?”
By June, these kindergarten children are inverting boxes and attaching wheels to make circus train cars, building stable, towering structures, and planning simple investigations to answer their own questions.
By fifth grade, students are designing and constructing model theme parks, powering vehicles with alternative energy sources, and planning communities in outer space.
Among our older students the release of the movie, “The Lost World”, was a common topic of conversation. There was great interest and curiosity about how the dinosaur models were designed and constructed, how they moved and made sound. Concurrently, a local museum has been designing a new Prehistory Trail complete with model dinosaurs. These were perfect starting points for an integrated fifth grade unit, Prehistoric Mysteries. The work in social studies, math, communications, science, and design technology would culminate with the creation of a model Jurassic Era theme park.
Work started with reading Jurassic Park in the classroom. The project started to take form from the subsequent ideas and questions of the children. Research teams were formed, plans were made, and the work began. Mapping and composition skills were honed as students located notable fossil finds around the world and wrote synopses of the discoveries in each place. Letters of information were written to theme parks around the country to get the information students needed to design the park. Students explored the theory of continental drift and modeled the process for finding and recovering fossils. They drew and illustrated time lines as a way to communicate their research. Students measured, scaled down, weighed, and balanced. Local Fossil Club members and the Director of Exhibits from the local museum were invited in to speak.
Fifth grade Design Teams accessed video and print media in the media lab as references for dinosaur research. Brochures, printed ads, and commercials were studied as students considered effective advertising techniques and strategies. Internet research was initiated in the technology lab, and a data base was created to organize all the information being collected. Using a simple CAD program, students designed dinosaurs to scale; computer animations of dinosaurs were generated. Brochures and theme park exhibit labels were designed and printed. In the science lab, investigations with simple robotic arms, balloon pneumatics, and work with electricity were underway. It wouldn’t be long before the model dinosaurs built by each student in the art room using balloons and papier mache, would be ready for installation of the mechanisms to make them move.
From designing class flags to building a bridge that will span the space between the technology and science lab windows in the main hall, children and teachers are engaged in solving problems in a purposeful and tremendously exciting way. From our beginning in 1994, End-Of-Grade test scores have slowly but steadily improved as children learn and apply knowledge and skills in meaningful contexts. In addition, though enrollment has remained fairly constant, daily attendance rates have increased.
Since the merger of separate county and city school systems in Durham a few years ago, Durham Public Schools is continuing to address the issue of integration within the system. The federal government awarded Durham a grant to develop magnet schools as a way of promoting voluntary integration within the system. Y.E. Smith is one of the seven elementary school magnets that has benefited from the financial resources of this federal grant. With the additional money, we have been able to equip our school with technology and science resource materials within a relatively short period of time.
While this support is valuable, it is very clear that the work we do with children requires a dedicated and resourceful staff. Not only has Design Technology provided a natural link for content, process, and skills across the curriculum, it has created a collaborative community of teacher and student learners who have confidence in expressing and modeling their ideas.
- Sandi Graham is the Magnet Curriculum Planner and Science Lab Specialist at Y.E. Smith Magnet School in Durham, North Carolina. She has been a public school teacher for 24 years.