Let’s take a closer look at the classic children’s story, The Three Little Pigs, and how it serves as the foundation for a project-based, 5E lesson model in early childhood education.
While the principles of STEM are universal, early childhood educators sometimes find themselves with the challenge of introducing a topic and fostering engagement in STEM in young children. Creating activities that will excite and motivate students to develop STEM skills and habits of mind is an important aspect of a STEM classroom.
Searching for preschool STEM activities online often uncovers product-based activities or art projects, where a model is provided for the children and this model needs to be replicated. In our classrooms, we end up with 20 similar-looking firetrucks, or 20 ladybugs, all red with black dots, even though they appear in nature in an array of colors. If you love crafting with your young students, I am all here for it. My purpose is to show you how easy it is to include STEM activities in your classroom.
Understanding that young children benefit from concrete, exploratory experiences, STEM sounds like the right fit. But how do you talk about engineering with a preschooler? What questions can be asked that they will understand? Let’s see how using a 5E lesson model can help.
The 5E lesson model is a logical progression that provides an ideal constructivist learning environment. The five practices in the 5E lesson model are Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration, and Evaluation.
The 5E lesson model provides a pathway to foster an effective STEM learning environment. These five practices are not a step-by-step process. Often students move from one phase to another and back. The process is best understood using an example like the one that follows.
Engagement: Introduce the story and question for previous knowledge
The 5E lesson model begins with engagement, the introduction of a phenomenon, and questions to assess prior knowledge. We begin our lesson with a question such as: “What makes a strong home?” By paying attention to the answers students give you, you can ask follow-up questions such as, “Why do you think that?” or “Where have you seen this before?” From their answers, you can discover students' background knowledge.
Next, you can read aloud the story of The Three Little Pigs. Once you are done reading, ask additional questions to your students: “What happened to the homes?” or “Did the same thing happen to the straw house and the brick house? Why?”.
Prepare the materials
When providing the materials, think more of function than appearance. Our objective is for our preschoolers to build a strong house that won´t be blown by the wind. We do not need the house to be square or to have a triangle for the roof. We want them to build something that provides shelter. Materials such as playdough, pipe cleaners, rocks, twigs, paper scraps, and other recyclable materials can be useful. You may wish to ask the students what materials they want to use and provide those or allow a little scavenger hunt around the classroom.
Explore: Engineers hard at work
During the explore stage, students will interact with the concepts or phenomena they are exploring. Once the children and materials are ready, provide the prompt: What makes a strong shelter?
Allow the students to interact with the materials and observe them as they begin to build. Allowing students to work in teams provides opportunities for collaboration and communication. Listen to the conversations they have amongst themselves when planning and building their home. What questions and conversations are they having?
Explain: How can we…?
While the children are building homes, many questions will arise. These questions could be answered by the teachers, peers, or better yet, by the students themselves based on their experience. In the Explain phase, students articulate what they have learned through their experience and try to answer the question or questions posed at the beginning of the activity. As mentioned before, this can happen many times during the lesson, as they go from Explore to Explain and back again. Keep in mind your role during this activity: observe the work, listen to their conversations, and ask open-ended questions that will prompt them to think critically and deepen their knowledge.
Evaluate and Elaborate: Learn from Trying and Trying Again.
In trying to build a home that can’t be blown down by the big bad wolf, their structure might fall before it is even tested. If their structure falls, prompt them to try again and if frustration arises, some social-emotional guidance might help them cope with their frustration.
Once all houses have been built, gather the children to try out their shelter. Each team blows at their house as if they were the big bad wolf. (Note: the testing can be done with an electric fan or even small battery-operated fans to prevent the spread of germs.) Some structures will not be blown away, others probably will. When this happens, move the conversation from who was “best” and who was a “failure” to which materials and features worked.
A house that was blown away serves as an opportunity to learn what mistakes to avoid and try again. What changes can we make? Should we change the materials to something stronger like the third pig? How can we modify it to not fall down when we blow the house? If the house did not blow down, we can ask questions such as, what materials made the house or shelter strong?
Once students have evaluated their structures’ ability to withstand wind, they might be ready to move on to the Elaborate stage as they investigate different situations. One idea might be to build a house that can survive an earthquake. If a house was strong to withstand wind, can it also withstand movement? You can use a large empty cardboard box to place the houses on and have students tap or gently shake the side of the box to simulate an earthquake.
Implementing new teaching models might feel daunting, but rest assured with a little practice asking open questions will become second nature. At times, activities that can be categorized as STEM activities might be hard to find. Many activities can be modified and STEM principles can be applied if this is a challenge for you. Our example with our Three Little Pigs house can be an excellent way to begin your STEM journey. To learn more about 5E and STEM, reach out to STEMscopes to get more information!