Many of us are familiar with classic fairy tales and fables, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. Imagine how differently the stories might have ended if the protagonists had science or engineering experience to help them out of precarious situations.
Enter the curious minds of Trish Vecchione’s kindergartners where on any given morning, students can be found applying science, technology, engineering and math principles to solve the problems and challenges presented in the fairy tales they have read in class. The young elementary students work in pairs, for example, to construct a troll-proof bridge for the Three Billy Goats Gruff, build a device that will protect Henny Penny (a.k.a. Chicken Little) from a falling sky, develop a coach powered by alternative energy for Cinderella’s getaway and design a parachute to provide Jack a faster means of escaping the giant than descending the beanstalk.
Before beginning the unit, Vecchione sets expectations with her students about how the projects may take days or even weeks to complete. “For me the focus is really on the process and the cooperative learning more than the final product,” she said.
To solve the problems, students are provided a basket with limited supplies, which can include such items as tape, construction paper, popsicle sticks and rubber bands, along with specific criteria to create plans and build their solutions before testing them. This allows the kindergartners to practice and become familiar with the scientific method.
Vecchione crisscrosses her classroom checking in with each group of students to ask them what is working, what is not working and what they could do differently to achieve the desired outcome. These questions help the youngsters develop critical thinking skills and often prompts them to redesign and repeat the testing process after making modifications based on their own observations.
As students worked together, for example, to build a device that would withstand the sky falling on Henny Penny, Vecchione stopped for a moment and asked what they could do to reinforce the center of the device to keep Henny Penny (represented by a frosted wheat cereal square for the experiment) from being crushed by the sky. The students thought some more and made a few adjustments before testing the object’s strength by dropping a bean bag (the sky) from various heights onto the device.
“Not only are students growing their science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) skills, but they are working in partnerships, which helps develop other skills they will need as they progress through their school years and beyond,” said Vecchione, adding that these skills – dubbed as the 4 Cs of 21st century learning –include critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication.
The excitement in the classroom is off the charts when student teams succeed at solving the problem. Kindergartners cheered and shared high fives when their two classmates designed a basket strong enough to hold all the apples (in this case, marbles) Little Red Riding Hood had collected for her grandma, or when two students built chairs stable enough to support the weight of Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear and the infamous chair-breaker Goldilocks!