Obstacle Course for Little Designers - Build Day3

Obstacle Course for Little Designers - Build Day3

IMG_2238.jpgToday was the day the students had been waiting for; it was time to go outside and figure out how we might build our obstacle course! The first step was to measure out models and get a basic layout to tell us which direction to run when we were outside. I had the students draw two types of vectors on their class model, arrows for the path they would run between obstacles and the path of the obstacle itself. I did not go into detail about the term vector or how we might measure angles to transfer it outside but rater left the ideas abstract and let the students decide how to layout the course in our outside, people scale. They measured each of their arrows in inches and were ready to go outside with tape measures to layout their course.

IMG_2240.jpg The first thing the students did when they were outside was to run as fast as they could to the far end of the baseball field and sprint back.... Perhaps we spent a bit too much time on arrows and measuring? After they were a bit more tired out they were ready to get to work on their obstacle course. Each group set out in search of materials and locations that they would use to make their obstacle. It was soon clear to the croups that they would alter the plan of the class model to fit existing spaces and obstacles on the playground. For example in the model the rock field was 5in (5 feet people scale) before the slide. When we were outside the students decided to use the existing riverbed and existing playground slide, which were an estimated billion feet apart. Measurements using tape measures confirmed hat this inertial estimate was a bit high. We had to modify the size of the balance beam obstacle as it was model at 12' long but the students thankfully decided that me carrying a 12foot long section of a log was too big and we should make it one person long (4 feet) instead. While distances were altered between some the obstacles the students were careful to keep direction of left / right constant between their model and their actual course.

After we had the entire course planned out we set a start and a finish and gave it a try. I was the first demonstrator of the course. I found it quite difficult to hop up and over the 8-foot high playground rock wall and was amazed that my half size students could hop right over it as fast as I could! After our practice runs the day was over and the next day we were going to measure the course in time and compare that to lengths between obstacles. Overall it was a very successful day.

Obstacle Course for Little Designers - Model Day2

Obstacle Course for Little Designers - Model Day2
Today the students were to take all of their obstacle course ideas and link them together in a path on their drawings and then make a model of one obstacle from each group. The students were very, very excited, which after a bit of marker fighting led into a discussion of how do we chose which obstacle to make? We decided that it would be best to vote on which obstacle the team would make and that it was very important to work together as a group and have everyone involved in order to make the coolest obstacle course possible. IMG_2220.jpgDesign really seamed to be a great teachable movement to practice group working and learning skills.

The inch (model scale) blocks were incredibly useful in building models.
IMG_2224.jpg The students could constantly grab blocks and link them together to see how big their designs were! They would talk and point to where on their bodies their designed obstacles would be. One inch block was around the knees, two blocks were about the waist, three were shoulders and four were to the top of their head. This was great in a group as someone could hold the blocks next to a piece of construction paper or foam board and they could cut it to the right size. We used child safe scissors to cut foam board, which was only slightly successful, but the students liked using the foam board to make models that looked "like architectural models" we pinned the foam board together with toothpicks or tape so they could take it apart and rework their models. I tried to introduce "plan do review" but the students didn't seem to care to much about that idea, as they were having to much fun doing it.IMG_2229.jpg

Lots of negotiation happened at the end of the day as to which order and what shape the models would be in to create the design of the course. It was clear that one group made a massive tipi slide that was pointed out by the other students to be bigger then the classroom in our scale so some modification was necessary to that groups obstacle. After the plan was laid out we taped down all of the obstacles, and the class had their design.

One difficulty with today as well as the previous day was running way overtime. The session was meant for one hour but most of the sessions went for around two hours. It seemed we would just extend the design session until the mid day lunch break as the kids were really leaning a lot and wanted to keep working. It was helpful to balance discussion with hands on as after only a few minutes of discussion, the students would get restless and want to go back to working on their models/drawings. Modeling seemed to be more intuitive to the kids then drawing. But it was really helpful to use both techniques as they each generated different ideas and understanding of what the students were making.IMG_2263.jpg

Day 5 - Final Day on Mobiles

Thursday was the final day I was in the classroom with the students to complete their mobile designs. I had the students focus on finishing their mobile so that we could take some pictures of the final design. Most of the students were able to finish with time to spare, so Deb and I gave an assignment to the students to resketch their mobile so it matches the final design and then to write an equation to express their mobile. It was a great last day with the students and they really enjoyed hanging their mobile in the classroom and seeing their final design.

There was a wide variety of mobiles that the students designed. Not any two were the same, and they were able to express something about themselves through their mobile.










Some students started sketching their mobile and figuring out an equation to express their own mobile.



At the end of the class for about 10 min., Deb sat the students down and we asked what the students learned from this project and what they enjoyed about the project. It was a great way to review the overall effect of integrating design with math. Here are their responses:

"I realized that it is harder to balance a mobile than I thought. I thought that I could balance the mobile with two small objects, but found out that just because they are the same size, doesn't mean they will balance (or are the same weight)."

"I learned that I had to move the location of the object on the lever around in order to make the mobile balance."

"I had to change my plan a lot and it matters how long the yarn is."

"You always have to think one step ahead. I took a lot of time to balance the top of the mobile, and then I added on my heavy objects on one side and light objects on the other side, thinking that it would work like my sketch, but it wouldn't balance."

"I liked that we could design cool things with just scraps of metal and stuff."

"I liked learning about the math involved."

"You could bring in things you like that express you and learn math at the same time."

Project Day 3 - Fractions

I began the third day with a presentation of the following pictures:






I selected these particular images because I thought they would get the kids to see the bigger picture and maybe inspire them to create more elaborate structures.

Then, I asked if anybody would choose different rocks, rather than the ones they selected the first day. Every hand in the class went up. So, I asked what type of rocks they would look for, now that they have had a chance to build with rocks for a few days. Some of the responses were flat, not bumpy, rough, etc...

We went outside for the rest of the class period. Their instructions were to either work by themselves or with one other person and build big fraction sculptures. They were to follow the same process that we used the previous day and write a fraction about the sculpture, have it checked, then revise the sculpture. Again, I was amazed at the range of sculptures. Some students really got into building, whereas other kids sat and stared at the rocks on the ground and needed a lot of prodding.

Here are some of the sculptures that were built on the third day:






As you can see, there was a wide range or resulting projects. When class time was wrapping up, the kids could either keep building or swap out rocks for their bags to use the last day of the project.


Many of the kids were using the large boulders as the base for their sculptures. Most were working in pairs, with a few kids working individually. The kids who chose to work by themselves were the ones who were building smaller structures. Some of them were frustrated. The kids who were working in pairs were making an effort to use big rocks, ones which required an adult's help to move. At certain points I was concerned about falling rocks, but nobody ended up getting hurt.

Questions and Reflections

The biggest question I had from today's class was geared towards individual personalities and abilities. There was such a wide range of projects and enthusiasm, that I didn't know what was related directly to each child's abilities and what was related to the project and their interest (or lack there of) in the project. I asked Jen (the classroom aide) and Jamie about this and they said it was mostly related to the kids themselves. For example, they both told me independently that the boy in the class that is a math whiz (head and shoulders above the other kids in the class) is totally stumped by open-ended projects. He doesn't get it. He would much rather have explicit directions to follow rather than to have open choice about what he wants to do.

Another girl always seems like she's having fun and asks lots of questions, but when Jamie asks them to express their level of interest at the end of class through thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down, she always has her thumb down. Since most kids give the thumbs up and a few sideways, I figured she was the odd one out. I asked Jamie about her and he said she was genetically wired to say everything was boring.

When planning this project I thought having it open-ended would be a good thing, and for many of the kids it was. However, I wonder if we should have done something different for the kids who struggle with free choice, so to speak.

On the other hand, most design projects are open-ended. They have some parameters, but within those parameters you can do whatever you want. That is what I did with this project. Their parameters were the number of rocks they could use and they were supposed to keep in mind the ideas of form that we talked about. I'm not sure how clearly they understood they were designing something, but I definitely think think they benefitted from the process.

Habits of Mind

Same as previous day...

Design and Education

I discussed this in the reflections section.

Project Day 2 - Fractions

The second day of the fractions project was Thursday, April 22. I began by introducing myself to the class again, although they made it clear they remembered who I was. I showed them the same images that I showed the previous week and then we turned them loose to start building, using the pictures as precedents. They were given about 10 minutes to build various sculptures however they wanted. Then, the next instruction was to build sculptures using 3-15 rocks and derive a fraction from them. The fraction could be anything...for example, 3/10 rocks are smooth or 4/9 are purple. During this time, the students would build a sculpture, write their fraction on a white board and then check it with an adult. After it was checked, they could start over again. The kids obviously were learning the fraction piece quickly, so we moved on to a discussion of form. We showed them the Goldsworthy images again and asked them what they thought AG might have been seeing as he was building the art pieces. Then, we used the example of a tree and had them build sculptures that somehow represented a tree form.

This was the most popular Andy Goldsworthy picture I showed:


These are some of the student sculptures based on the photo:




These are some "tree" sculptures:



This is the booger sculpture


And a few others...





There were several different reactions to the sculpture-building process, no matter which phase we were in. Part of the class worked quickly creating several scultpures in a row, with each one of them looking different. Another part worked efficiently, but each sculpture was similar to the one before it. For example, they would stack up four rocks into a tower, then the second time they would stack those rocks in a different order. The last part of the class was slow to create anything. This was a small part of the class.

One boy showed me how his sculpture was a face with a very large nose with a booger lodged under it.

Another girl said 3/5 of her rocks were as big as her dad's nose!

Questions and Reflections

As this day progressed I kept asking myself what I could do to make the kids either show more creativity in their sculptures or more extravagance. I was having a hard time getting them to think bigger. I thought kids would really get into building things out of rocks, especially after being shown images of Andy Goldsworthy's work. I think the problem was that they are extremely literal thinkers, so getting them to think outside of the box is difficult. I might have had better success had we not shown any precedent images at all.

At the conclusion of class when I discussed the next project day with Jamie, I decided I would bring in new images to show the class, only this time I would show larger scale and more extravagant sculptures.

Habits of Mind

The habits of mind remain approximately the same throughout this entire project. Some of the main ones I noticed were as follows:

1. Persisting
2. Managing Impulsivity
3. Thinking Flexibly
4. Applying past knowledge to new situations
5. Thinking and communicating with clarity
6. Gathering data through all senses
7. Creating, imagining, innovating
8. Thinking independently
9. Learning continuously

Design and Education

There are a few links between this project and design. First of all, I have been trying to get them to understand the idea (and process) of using precedents for their projects (as described above). Secondly, we have been discussing form very regularly and tried to get them to understand that the Andy Goldsworthy images were not random sculptures, but were instead designed with a natural element or structure in mind. Lastly, the process of designing something and then constantly revising it is important.


Overall, this day went well but I think it was also too slow paced. I could tell some of the kids were getting tired of the rocks and were ready to do something else. However, when I talked to Jamie about that he just said that it was going great, the kids were learning the fractions inside and out, and they had just played with rocks for 45 minutes... apparently they don't do anything for 45 minutes at a time. So, I think the day was successful, and I'm just not quite sure where my expectations should be.

Day 4 - Mobiles

For the third day of working with the fifth graders on their mobiles, Deb and I decided that the students were ready for some math integration. I wanted the students to begin working on their mobiles for a little while to start adding their objects and observe what happened. Is the mobile balancing as planned? Or are they having to move objects from one side to the other to make it balance? During this time, most of the students needed to reassemble their levers and hangers since they fell apart over the last week. A few students were able to start working with their objects and noticed immediately when certain object were much heavier than they had anticipated. They began moving the objects around and placing the heavier objects on one side and adding numerous objects on the other side to try and balance it out.





After the students were able to experiment with their objects, I gave a lesson on mobiles and equations. My goal was to have them understand how they can assign variables to their objects and actually form an equation for each unique mobile. I began with very simple problems that became more complex as the lesson went on. I did not introduce variables until I showed them a few examples. Then using the same examples, I assigned variables to the shapes and asked the students some questions.










The math lesson was very successful and the students seemed to really have a handle on how to form an equation for a mobile. Now, the challenge for the students will be for them to write an equation for their own mobile, which we may tackle at our final meeting.

The students continued to work on their mobiles for the rest of the time and really started experimenting with their objects. Some students even got close to finishing their mobile!








While the students added their objects to their mobile, they started experimenting with the location of the fulcrum to get their mobile balanced. During the next lesson, I hope to see more of this experimentation happen.


For Thursday, our last session, I hope that the students will be able to finish their mobile and start working on an equation to explain their mobile.

Obstacle Course for Little Designers - Design Day1


Obstacle Course for Little Designers - Design Day1

What do we think of when we think of an obstacle course? ...Jump, stepping, running.... How much space do we need for running....

These are a sampling of the major topics we discussed in our introduction to measuring. The students were very excited about moving, running jumping, but needed to find a way to think of how much space would be needed. They came to a conclusion on their own that they should measure draw and build of model of their course... We were well on our way.


The body presented a perfect opportunity to combine several intelligences to learn the concept of measurement. Our obstacle course and thinking of body moment worked with the kinesthetic intelligence, describing terms was auditory intelligence, drawing and model making were spacel intelligence, addition & measuring were analytical intelligence.

No student had heard of English measurement, but they had all heard of a tape measure, inch and a foot. In comparison my foot was twice the size of their feet, they all thought it was very amusing that the foot on a tape measure, 12", was that of a king and this would be a good measurement for them to use. The students still felt they needed to know how big their bodies were and not how big a king was... so we started to measure different parts of their body to get an idea how big obstacles would need to be. Measuring themselves worked very well to introduce recoding of measurements and introduction of ratios. They learned to use tape measures as well and inch and foot blocks to measure body parts. They thought this was very important for their obstacle course to make sure it was the right size for their feet to reach. Particularly as many of them were interested in climbing obstacles and we all decided that if we made them as big as the room... they would be too big.


What does scale mean? The first thing student thought was the scale of weight. After explaining that some words have multiple meanings, the students looked confused. We used the term drawing/model size and kid size to describe scale measurements. The students were drawing and building their models at 1in to 1foot scale! The first thing I instructed them to do was draw their bodies in their model scale, they lined up 4 of the inch blocks on the paper (to match their height of 4 foot blocks) and drew themselves. Students were broken up into 4 groups and each group draw out their ideas for the obstacle course to scale on trace paper.

Ideas included stepping stones, a bridge, a fire-pole, climbing objects, tunnels, balance beams waterfalls, ball shooters, etc. For each idea they would measure their bodies with the feet blocks to make sure their drawings were big enough for them to fit through/over, this was very important for obstacles such as tunnels. We ended the day with an assignment for them to think of natural objects they could use to build their ideas.

Day 3 - Mobiles

Today was my second day in the class with the students. I reviewed briefly what we had done at the previous meeting and stated what we would be doing during this class. At the last lesson, the students brainstormed what materials they would bring for today's class and most of the students brought in some materials. I explained to the them that we would be using the materials they brought to start constructing the levers and hangers of their mobiles. Experimenting with the materials was important today. I encouraged the students to test out the location of the fulcrum, the length of the strings, and the weight of the objects if they felt they were ready to work with objects. The students worked on their levers and hangers so that I could see where they would take them and what they would start to experiment with. Some students continued to sketch before they started constructing their levers.


Once the students had their first test of the levers, they started comparing each others and talking about what they did or noticed. By them being able to view each others designs, they were able to expand on their own ideas and learn from others designs. The students could give each other feedback on their designs.



Deb and I noticed that the students were constructing levers that were very basic. This was great step for them to begin to understand how the mobile balances.


However, we wanted them to start experimenting more with the balance; by testing out the location of the fulcrum and length of the strings, they were able to talk about why the lever leaned one way or the other.

An important lesson that I wanted to make sure to talk about with the students was that even though they sketched out their mobile and planned how it should be constructed, the final design may not workout as planned. I asked them if their designs were working as they had hoped, and they said no! I stressed to the students that this is very common in the design process. I told them that I always begin with an idea or sketch and as I work through the design, I constantly have to test out how my idea will work and it usually does not end up looking as I had planned.

I introduced Alexander Calder and showed some of his mobiles. I expressed that Calder uses a lot of color in his designs and told the students they could start thinking about what colors they would like to use in their own designs. I also showed some sketches done by Calder and compared them to his final designs; I pointed out that the sketches were different from the final design. I hoped that this would help the students feel less discouraged if their design was not the same as their sketch and that it was ok to change the design and experiment with the materials to create new ideas.






One student started working with his metal hangers. He first balanced the lever by putting two blue metal hangers on the ends and one gold metal hanger in the center. He immediately told me that he thought the gold hanger was heavier than the blue hangers. I asked him if he had tested switching the gold hanger with the blue hanger and he said "No, but that is an interesting idea. I might try that." He came back to me and showed me that he moved the gold hanger to one end and had the blue hanger at the other end. I asked him what he noticed. He said "Now it is unbalanced because the gold hanger is heavier than the blue." I proceeded to ask him how he thinks he could make the lever balanced again, and he said "What if I add the second blue hanger a little over here (next to the blue hanger that was already on the lever) to make it balance?" He tried that technique and was able to balance the lever!




The students created a variety of different levers and hangers and I was really impressed! It was a great start to building their mobiles.





At the end of the lesson, the students brainstormed what objects they will bring for the next lesson. Objects they want to bring include: bottles, construction paper, rubber ducks, dog tags, hockey stick, sport (symbols), metal, seashells, and rocks.

While the students were leaving, they handed me their sketches. One student told me thank you for helping and told me that "You made me go beyond what I thought I could do." which really touched me and made me realize that this form of learning through design can enhance the way certain students learn. It is possible that this particular student thinks more artistically and dominantely uses his right brain; he needs to engage in more hands on work.

I spoke with Deb after the lesson and we decided that it was a good time to start integrating math into the design process. For my next lesson, I am planning on introducing numbers and possibly equations linked with their mobiles.

Clarity of Concept.

Clarity of Concept.
IMG_2096.jpgThe lesson plan is to build, design, prototype and create and obstacle course. Mrs. Mahoney wanted to use standard measurements, but from the first day of class observation I could tell that rulers and tape measures would be very difficult to introduce the concepts of measurement and scale. I came up with the idea for simplified tools based upon the Montessori principles to simplify the concept of measurement and scale. I built blocks 1"x1" by 1" that can be doweled together and built blocks 1'x1"x1". I planned to use these blocks to introduce the terms inch and foot. Our first project will be to relate measurement units to parts of the body, and we will use inch and foot blocks as our tools and vocabulary.
IMG_2101.jpgThe blocks are colored based by selecting species, cherry and maple, that are native wood to Minnesota. The wooden dowels are made from compressed birch that can be dipped in water to swell in case any of the blocks become loose. These blocks I hope will also introduce students to native woods and the basic ideas of how wood might be joined together and how wood relates to water.

Day 2 - Balance and Mobiles

Thursday was the first day that I met with the students to begin our design project on balance and mobiles. I started the hour off by presenting a few fun facts about myself so the students could get to know me a little. To start off the lesson on balance, I first asked the students what they already knew about balance. I gave a few examples to get them thinking. Deb did a great job helping me with the students. She implemented some classroom techniques that she uses daily and instead of the students raising their hands, they talked with their family tables about what they already knew about balance. I was able to walk around the classroom and listen to the students talk among each other. Some comments from the students inlcude:

"there needs to be an even amount!"

"a tightrope walker needs to balance their arms!" (student was holding arms out demonstrating to other students how the arms need to be level to be balanced)

I introduced mobiles to the students and asked them what prior knowledge they already knew about mobiles. Students pointed to mobiles that were hanging in the classroom created by the second graders, and they said that they needed to be balanced. They remembered making these mobiles when they were younger. We proceeded to the computer lab to experiment with a website I found on mobiles. This gave the students a basic understanding of a mobile (if they didn't already know what a mobile was) and the mobiles could be constructed as simple to complex with this program. When the students were working with the computer program, they started to experiment with the number of "branches" or levers that the mobile had. This increased the complexity of the mobile. Students typically started building the mobile with objects that were the same and then moved to using a variety of objects on their mobile.




The students noticed a "balance" button that is available for the user in case they can't balance the mobile, but the students became bored with this command and would opt out to not use it and balance the mobile themselves. The students understood that the mobile was balanced if the levers were level. The mobile would only be "set in motion" (another command) if it was balanced, which was another indication to the students that their mobile was in balance or out of balance.

The website for this mobile program is:


After the students were able to work on the website for a while, we went back to the classroom and looked at some examples of mobiles. I helped the students understand the parts of a mobile and how mobiles balance. I then had the students look at some artistic mobiles and we talked about what people might like or dislike about these mobiles.




Some of the comments the students gave were:

"I don't like them because they are not so organized." (too abstract)

"I like them because they are different and unique."

"I think about mobiles over cribs (when the student looks at these images) because the shapes are colorful, not plain, different, not the same."

"I like the one that has one heavy ball on one side and on the other side there are other objects that are lighter than the ball." (the ball is heavy; the smaller objects, individually, are light, but when combined they equal the weight of the ball)

"I like them because they look simple, but the balance is really complex."

Now that the students had basic knowledge of what mobiles are,the students did a final activity during this lesson and I asked them to sketch a mobile that expresses something about themselves and that is possible to build in two hours with the materials they decide to bring. The rest of the hour, the students sketched and I walked around the class observing visually and audibly what the students were planning. This mobile they sketched is the mobile they will try to make in the next couple of classes.

As I spoke with students about what they were sketching, one student really surprised me. He drew a mobile that had three large circles on one side, and six smaller circles on the other. I asked him about his sketch and he told me that the three balls will need to be heavier than the small six balls in order for them to balance. I walked away and then noticed him pull out his calculator! Deb told me to come and see what he was doing and he told me that the three large balls equal three ounces, so each ball would be one ounce. Then he calculated how heavy the six smaller balls needed to be in order to balance the mobile! He concluded that the six balls need to be .5 ounces. This student is well on his way to developing a balanced equation for his mobile! He was using a very logical approach to the mobile, where other students were using a more artistic approach.



Other students in the class had mobiles that had multiple levers, multiple objects, one heavy object on one side and smaller lighter objects on the other side, and equal objects on each side. Each student was assuming that their objects on one side would equal the objects on the other side.







At the end of the class, the students brainstormed what materials they will need for their mobiles. For the levers, they will use straws, sticks, closehangers, popsicle sticks, or wire. For the hangers, they will use yarn, string, ribbon, old shoelaces, paperclips, or rubberbands.

Deb and I were able to meet after the lesson to discuss how it went and what we want to include in the upcoming lessons. We decided that we want to implement the Plan Do Review process more. It was clear that the students were assuming their mobiles would balance, and we need to make sure that the students understand that their mobiles may not necessarily balance and it would take some trial and error to get their mobile to balance. This way the students won't feel discouraged when they discover their mobile won't balance as planned. We also want the students to start experimenting with the location of fulcrum, length of string, and weight of object. The students will be able to work with their mobile, make a change and document what is happening. This process could be continued until the student felt satisfied with their mobile. I will be introducing Alexander Calder during the next lesson as well so the students can learn about his art process.