My STEM Units

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Safer Fourth of July via STEM PBL

If you watch the news this week, you will no doubt see stories about Fourth of July Safety.  There is good reason for this.  Every year, over 9,000 people in the United States are injured from fireworks.  The number of people injured from BBQs and grills is twice that!  Tragically, even parades have accidents and spectators and float-riders are injured.  It's time we make Independence Day a little safer, via STEM PBL.

STEM is the acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  It is a way of teaching/learning that connects these once-separate pillars of knowledge.  Just think of the last time you went to the grocery store.  You might have compared prices of laundry soap.  You might have compared price per number of loads.  Is this brand cheaper?  Is this container cheaper because it's larger?  You were using Math while reading the labels (functional text).  You might have used coupons on your smartphone at checkout.  Our lives are integrated and STEM allows teachers to use that integration to go deeper and provide a real-world context behind their lessons.

PBL is the acronym which stands for Problem-Based Learning.  Problem-Based Learning is the concept of presenting a problem (or project) to the students and supporting them in solving it.  (Much has been written lately comparing Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Challenge-Based Learning, etc.  For the purposes of this post, we will use Problem-Based Learning)  Look at the graphic below.  PBL differs from "doing projects" in that the students have much more control.  They control the direction of their own learning.  Learning then comes from an intrinsic motivation rather than an extrinsic one; a letter grade.  Expect to see more PBL and STEM in classrooms this year as more and more schools adopt the Common Core State Standards.  Common Core is the what.  STEM PBL is the how.

Use Technology to Set the Stage

Why not use Fourth of July Safety as a STEM PBL lesson this week?  You can talk to your children about fireworks safety.  There are myriad videos online that teach firework safety.  A quick YouTube search will yield many, like this one:

Use that as a starting point for your children.  Remember that PBL starts with a question.  "What can we do to make the Fourth of July safer?"  "What seems to be the most important thing to you?"  Let them drive the project.  If your child is new to PBL, they might not know how to proceed.  You can facilitate by showing videos of the science behind fireworks (or whatever they want to work on).

Science of Fireworks

Engineer Your Design

After watching, pose more questions.  "Which would work best; handles or gloves?"  Again, let them lead the way.  As they start to engineer their designs, they will need access to materials.  Don't rush out to the store just yet.  Chances are you might have all the materials already, in the garage, in a storage shed, in the kitchen!  One of the great things about STEM is repurposing old materials into new uses.

Test Your Design

When your child is ready to test their designs, please exercise caution.  I mean, that's what this whole project is about in the first place!  Always have an adult present, abide by local laws (fire restrictions, etc.), and use gloves and eye gear.

Share Out

Finally, share out!  What is the point of inventing a safer firework or BBQ tong if you don't share it with others?!  One way to share out is creating a YouTube tutorial.  If this makes you nervous, don't worry.  They aren't that hard.  You can use a digital camera or even your smartphone.  Record your child talking about why Fourth of July Safety is important to them and what they are doing to keep people safe this Independence Day.  If you plan ahead, you can record the whole process of designing, engineering, and testing their solution.  If you didn't capture those moments before-hand, you can do a recap and record them now.  When the video is done, you can upload to YouTube.  Ask your child, they might already have a channel with Minecraft and Lego tutorials.  Or was that just me?


When all is said and done, reflect on the process.  Did you and your child enjoy tinkering and creating something together?  Did you learn something along the way?  If you enjoyed doing STEM PBL projects together, look into other opportunities to integrate and solve problems.  I have a series on using STEM to avoid the Summer Slide.  Click here to read the posts and be inspired.

Link Back

If you did work on a STEM PBL project, I would love to hear about it.  Send me an email at .  Include your video tutorial or pictures of your project.  Who knows, you might just save a life. 

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