My STEM Units

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Soaring to New Heights

The 4 C's of 21st Century Classrooms:

Critical Thinking
Good teachers have known this for years.  They have been embedding opportunities for the 4 C's before they were called "The 4 C's".  I recently read a great article explaining how STEM extends beyond beakers and microscopes.  STEM is great for all students because it incorporates the 4 C's.

You might be thinking this is great in theory but how does it look in the classroom.  Let's take a look at a 5th Grade STEM unit.  

Hot air balloons are very successful advertising vehicles, and are often used by major companies.  A good example is the ReMax balloon which is shown in almost all their TV commercials.  Some hot air balloons are even made in special shapes to represent the company's product, for example the Pepsi Soda Pop balloon. 

You are employed by Apache Air Industries, the leading manufacturer of ballooning supplies. You are a member of a materials engineering team. The company wants a new design to offer customers. You and your team must design, construct, and test a hot air balloon design.

It must meet the following criteria: The design must be durable yet offer high flying capabilities.
It must look good, either as a novel shape, or as a normal balloon with logo and slogans.
It must cost as little as possible, otherwise the company may withdraw support.
It must be accompanied by advertising materials, such as a TV commercial and/or website.

The STEM unit teaches:

  • TechnologyCreate original works as a means of personal or group expression (TV commercial and/or website).  ISTE-S 1.b 


ISTE standards for students ask that "students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others."

We see from the YouTube generation that students want to communicate with others.  They not only post content but spend hours reading and commenting on others' content.  As teachers, let's provide the tools, teach digital citizenship, and then get out of their way.  

Our 5th grade students were able to communicate with university students.  Not just any university students but Embry Riddle Aeronautical University students.  Watch this video:

In the video, you can see our students working on a hot air balloon.  They have designed and tested their balloon, yet it didn't get very high and it didn't stay aloft very long.  The elementary students are now preparing to communicate with the university students about possible design changes.  They are the experts, after all.


Not only are our students collaborating with aeronautical university students, but also with each other.  From the very first lesson, the students formed into groups.  In their groups, they decided on a design, used a Materials Cost Calculator (shown below) to stay within budget, and built the balloon.

Critical Thinking

The entire STEM unit has been filled with critical thinking.  The students had GREAT discussions as they were building their balloons.  Students went through several design paths as they attempted, failed, and altered the design.  On launch day, the students were verbalizing their critical thinking as their balloons did not meet expectations.  "Maybe the opening is too big", "I think the ratio is off", "Our balloon is too heavy.  We need to lose weight".  They have followed the engineering design process and used critical thinking to enhance their design.


The challenge specifically asked for creativity.  Students were to design their balloon either in a novel shape or to use a normal shape but add student-created logos.  Once again, I see the importance of teachers getting out of the way.  I had pre-conceived notions of what the balloons "should" have looked like.  Yet, I have learned after years in the classroom, to keep my opinions to myself and not to stifle their creativity.  Just look at this balloon:
Anyone else singing "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese"?

I love to see examples of the 4 C's in STEM lessons.  Please share your stories in the comments.

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