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How To Build an Awesome Car (Engineering Thinking in Grade 4)

Deirdre Bailey

Traditionally, Grade 4 "Wheels, Levers and Devices that Move" units involve hands on investigations in which students have the opportunity to build something. Often however, these building opportunities are heavily regulated and have students follow a specific set of instructions, put pieces together sequentially and then showcase a collection of virtually identical products.

While I can't pretend to know a whole lot about engineering, I am pretty confident that if the discipline were focused on building from instruction booklets, Chris Hadfield wouldn't have spent the last 6 months in space. As Dr. David Perkins' mentions in Making Learning Whole, kids don't learn to play the game if all they ever get are the pieces...



And so, in late February of this year, Amy Park and I were left tossing around the important question of how to effectively re-frame a traditional mousetrap car building challenge in a way that might provoke engineering thinking - significant to the discipline, and grounded in life outside the school.  Inspiration finally arrived in the form of the following ingenious car commercial. I doubt that the Dodge Dart people had any intention of making their marketing campaign so applicable to the learning of nine-year-olds, but for us, it was perfection.


Students were quick to identify with the competencies and habits personified by the Dodge Dart engineers and mechanics. The challenge of "Changing Mousetrap Cars Forever" was an exciting one, and we were also able to connect immediately with our own University of Calgary's Solar Car Team, using their process as a reference.

With the only requirements being "must have 3 wheels," and "must be powered by a mousetrap;"  many students'  early design ideas were far-fetched or unrealistic (oranges for wheels, toothpicks for axels.) Negotiating constant re-design with students was a challenging and time-consuming process. Many struggled with the open-endedness of the task. Questions like "what exactly do you want me to build?" and "why can't you just tell me how to do it?" resulted in many cases of frustration and even some tears. We had several in-class conversations about the value of working and learning through the process (planning, building, testing, tweaking and reflecting), whether the final construction was successful or not. Building opportunities for feedback into every aspect of the process was instrumental, and having co-determined criteria for what "good engineering work" might look like to guide the learning was key.

While the learning was messy, there was tremendous reward at the end of this task as students re-connected with engineering students from the university, sharing strategies such as the tools that worked best in the design phase, how to work as a team to overcome difficulties, and when to let go of perfecting a design and just start building. Parents were also able to recognize the value of being able to engage their children in conversation about their process, and not just the product.

Inspired by the people at Dodge Dart, we've put together our own video of our process below...


Here are ca few opies of the rubrics that were co-built with students early in the process in order to guide their design and construction efforts...


I've also included a link to the GDoc that was shared in a recent ConnectEd Canada session, co-hosted by Erin Couillard, Jenna Callaghan, Kathryn Desrochers and I, on engineering in the elementary classroom.

The final parking lot
Blog cross-posted on Savouring the Ish

2 comments:

  1. Deirdre, you demonstrate the efficacy of engaging students in developing the disposition of an engineer as they design and test their own cars. Hopefully other teachers will take up your challenge of replicating and modifying the learning strategies you highlight.

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  2. Awesome Cars Special car race. Drive with your car around the world and show what tricks you can do with your car. Attention, you haven't much of fuel! It's time to put those driving skills to the test! Carefully select your choice of car as this will be your ally in your attempt to conquer the world!

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