Science and Humanities Classes Collaborate for Engineering Integration by Kathy Kennedy

As my school’s new K–4 science teacher, I wanted to expand the limited time I had for dedicated science instruction by connecting science and engineering to established student activities in the homeroom classes. Successful integration depends on three features:

  1. Identify opportunities to collaborate with colleagues.
  2. Be explicit with the use of the Engineering Design Process (EDP) and Science and Engineering Practices (SEP).
  3. Remain flexible with timelines.

I looked at projects the homeroom teachers were already implementing and identified those in which the science and engineering were inherently present. I met with the teachers to discuss the instructional goals of their projects and share my thoughts on the potential to redesign them to include opportunities to learn science and engineering ideas. As we discussed the projects, we began to experience a shared purpose, an essential step in creating an integrated approach! I committed to dedicating science time for the homeroom project so I could ensure coherent instruction on the engineering design cycle and the science and engineering ideas and practices.

Finding the connections to these homeroom projects also made the science and engineering relevant and accessible to students and teachers. Their engagement with the science and engineering ideas carried beyond the science classroom, and students recognized the presence of science and engineering in other subject areas.

Examples of engineering design crossover into homeroom projects included these:

  1. Designing a Kachina doll as part of the second-grade social studies program, which examines First Nation cultures. Science connections focused on the properties of materials.
  2. Designing a roller coaster as part of the third-grade social studies, ELA, and STEAM program. Science connections focused on force and motion.
  3. Designing a piñata as part of the fourth-grade Spanish class exploring Mexican culture. Science connections focused on the properties of materials.

For the piñata project, for example, I met with the Spanish teacher to learn more about her goal to have students create a piñata as part of a unit on Mexico. Originally, students were going to follow a set procedure to create the piñata. We decided instead to present the project to students as an engineering design challenge. The SEP element Defining Problems—Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object and include several criteria for success, and the DCI element ETS1.A Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems—The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success served as the instructional framework from which I started.

Students discovered in Spanish class what made an object a piñata. Then teams had planning discussions, partly in Spanish, and identified the criteria for designing a successful piñata. They documented these features as criteria in their planning log in science:

  1. A cavity in the body of the piñata
  2. A weak spot in the body (so an opening could be made after it dried)
  3. A star-shaped body with at least five points to represent cultural features
  4. Intentional use of color and decoration to enhance cultural significance

While discussing these criteria, students realized they needed to figure out what type of paper they could use in the paper-mache process to create the required physical features. We decided the paper needed to be absorbent. Developing and using the DCI elements PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter—Different properties are suited to different purposes and Matter can be described by its observable properties was one of my instructional goals. These DCI elements are identified as a second-grade science idea in the NGSS.

I purposefully chose these elements because they were most appropriate and reflected the level of student understanding within the class. We had done other investigations earlier in the year that revealed the students had not developed an understanding of the properties of the materials to the depth I had hoped. In my instructional planning, I try to ensure that I meet students at their level and help them to progress; therefore, this project contained a mix of second-grade and fourth-grade elements.

While the DCI was at a second-grade level, students engaged in elements of grades 3–5 SEPs. Student teams designed and carried out their investigations to determine which types of paper were the most absorbent, which is SEP element Planning and Carrying Out Investigations—Plan and conduct an investigation collaborative to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered and ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions—Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution. Students evaluated wax paper, paper towels, toilet paper, and newspaper. I was surprised and excited by the novel approaches students took to determine absorbency!

Having students determine how they would collect and analyze data did take more time than I anticipated, but remaining flexible with timelines is necessary to support student learning, as I noted earlier. Students used the data they collected to make informed design choices in constructing the piñata.

The piñata construction reflected the engineering design cycle. We used class time to document their thinking with teams filling out engineering design planning sheets. I mini-conferenced with each student group to make sure all of the criteria were accounted for in their design plans. Timelines were also adjusted to accommodate Spanish class discussion of the cultural significance of piñatas, including their color, five-point star design, and use.

A display of the finished piñatas allowed teams to recognize that while their piñatas had common elements, each team created something unique. During small-group to large-group discussion, teams justified how and why they incorporated particular features in their piñata designs. The Spanish teacher commented that the experience had moved from an arts and crafts activity to a thoughtful building process that led to deeper understanding of another country’s culture and science and engineering.

I’d love to hear about what interdisciplinary engineering projects you have developed and what were the successes and challenges with these projects. Let’s continue this conversation!

Dr. Kathy Kennedy is the K–4 science specialist at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey. She has previously taught at the middle, high school and college level. Kathy is a co-author of the NSTA publication Engineering in the Life Sciences, 9-12 and has published in Science and Children and in Science Scope. She holds a BS in Biology from Siena College, an MS in Biomedical Sciences from Baylor University and a Ph.D. in Education from Walden University. Follow her @kbkennedy7

Note: This article is featured in the August issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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