STEM Lab: Building Models With Earth Materials

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SWBAT plan and build a model of a termite mound or mud dauber's nest using Earth materials.

Big Idea

We know all about animals, so now we are extending our knowledge about how they build - using Earth materials!

Teacher Preparation

This is a week long lesson that follows the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) design cycle. For the first two days, students learn about mud daubers and termites, both of which build nests from Earth materials. Then, they plan how they could make their own model of a wall using similar materials. In the following lesson, students evaluate their building and communicate their new found knowledge about Earth materials to finish the design cycle. 

The real objective of this lesson is for students to work with Earth materials, such as rocks and sand, to become familiar with their physical properties which aligns to Essential Standard 1.E.2.1, "Summarize the physical properties of Earth materials, including rocks, minerals, soils and water that make them useful in different ways." I am purposefully tying in to their background knowledge of animals from our previous units this year by designing this lesson so that they think about the 5 basic needs--specifically shelter-- of animals again. Listen to my Explanation of Essential Standards and Essential Question

Additional Resources:

To prepare to answer questions and to talk to my students about this lesson, I read the following pages to prepare:

Mud Dauber Wasps



*Copy of Earth Materials Rubric for each pair

*Copy of STEM Design Cycle

*Assorted Earth materials, based on your student's lists

*Access to YouTube

*Ruler for each pair

Day 1 -Think

20 minutes

To begin this project, I need to build common  background knowledge for my students. In this particular project, my goal is for them to work --hands-on--with Earth materials to learn more about their properties. That way, when we prepare to learn about how people use Earth materials in every day life they will have some knowledge about it already. 

First, I say,

"Today we are going to learn about two different animals that work with Earth materials, like rocks and mud, to build things they need to survive. We know that animals need 5 things to survive, including shelter. First, the mud dauber is a type of wasp that builds its own home from mud. As we watch, write down or quickly draw any important or interesting information you see or hear so we can talk about it. Let's watch a mud dauber at work!"

I show this video which has no sound but a great close up of a wasp actually adding mud to its nest. 

Then, I show the picture of a Termite Mound. I say,

"This was built by a termite, which is an insect that is very destructive. Termites eat wood - and humans build their houses out of wood! So, humans try to kill termites to save their own houses. However, scientists think about all different species and try to learn about all of them. So, as a scientist, what do you notice about their mound?"

The purpose of this questioning and observing is to get my students to think like scientists and to ask questions. When they have given some observations, I show this video of termites at work. We watch about 4 minutes. Then I say,

"Turn to your partner and tell them 2 important and interesting things you just learned."

Communicating about the information supports Practices 4 and 8, so I want to give a little bit of time for this! Then I say,

"Termites have a very purposeful way of building this mounds - to make sure they get the right amount of sun and heat. Based on what we know about how these two animals build with Earth materials, it is time to think about our STEM challenge for the week!"

This part of the lesson supports Science and Engineering Practice 8 as students "use media to obtain scientific and/or technical information to determine patterns in and/or evidence about the natural and designed world(s)". It also supports Practice 4 as students "record information (observations, thoughts, and ideas), use and share pictures, drawings, and/or writings of observations, and use observations (firsthand or from media) to describe patterns and/or relationships in the natural and designed world(s) in order to answer scientific questions".

Day 1 - Plan

20 minutes

After my students have some background knowledge about how termites and mud daubers build their nests, it is time to move on to the "Plan" part of the design cycle. For this project, my students are going to design a model of a termite mound or a mud dauber's nest, based on what they just saw in the videos and pictures. I say,

"Using Earth materials just like the termites and the mud dauber wasps, you and a partner are going to try to build a nest or a mound. You must draw two plans for how you could do this. Labeling the plans is really important so that you know what materials to use. First, let's make a list of Earth materials that the termites and wasps used so we can think about what we need to use".

I write a list of things that the students say, such as mud, sand, and water. I also add in other Earth materials such as small rocks and leaves to give my students more options for their project.

To make sure this work is purposeful and to challenge my students, I use a rubric to guide their planning. I show it on the Smartboard and explain each part of it. I have not taught measurement yet, so I quick show how to use a ruler to measure the mound to be successful on the rubric. Then I say,

"With your partner, you need to decide on the shape and type of home you will build together for your wasp or your termites. Then, make 2 plans - just in case one does not work out! Remember, it must be 3 inches wide and 3 inches high".

As the students work on drawing their plan together, I walk around to make sure students understand the assignment. I also check to make sure that their plans will work. If I see one that I know will not work, I start asking questions and try to lead my students towards changing their plan without just telling them what to do. Working with a partner on this project supports Science and Engineering Practice 8 as they communicate their ideas and information. Also, as I ask about their plans while I circulate, students have to explain their diagrams which also supports this Practice.

After 10 minutes, I say,

"It is time to make a decision about which plan you will use tomorrow. Talk together and decide, and then circle the plan on your paper that you will build. Then start to make a list of the materials you will need".

This part of the process supports Science and Engineering Practice 6 as students "Generate and/or compare multiple solutions to a problem". 

After about 15 minutes, I say,

"Finish up your plans in the next minute. Make sure you have a list of materials you need for tomorrow. "

As I collect my student's journals, I make make myself a list of the materials that they will need.

Day 2 -Build

45 minutes

On the second day in the STEM Lab, the first task is for students to select their materials. Over the course of the year, I have found that students really need a tub or something to keep their materials in for the week. This is the first time they have that, so I introduce it to them. I say,

"You and your partner will have a plastic tub to share for this week. This is so that you can get all of your materials today and not lose them while you work on your project. The other reason is because what you are building is very delicate - that means it can break easily. So, if you build your model on something we can lift into your tub it hopefully won't get broken".

The tubs already have the partner's names on them so that we can quickly start getting materials. They also have a piece of cardboard that they will build their mound or nest on so we can lift it back into their tub each day.

I have different Earth materials, such as sand, clay, small rocks, leaves, and sticks. I call up each group, one pair at a time, and help them select their materials. While everyone else waits, I show this video about the inside of a mud dauber's nest to keep them occupied. After the pairs get their materials, they can begin building.

When everyone has their materials and starts to build, I put the rubric back up on the Smartboard to reference as I work with groups. I want students to work with their partner and not with me so that they really have the experience of working with the Earth materials to learn more about their physical properties, but I help by asking and answering questions and reminding students of the expectations of their project.

Day 2 - Wrap Up

5 minutes

At the end of the second day, I say,

"Okay, make sure your nest or mound is safely inside your box. Tomorrow, we are going to evaluate your work and then you will have the opportunity to improve your mound or nest. For now, we will leave them in the boxes and see what happens by tomorrow. I wonder if any of the materials you used will change over night? What do you think?"

To keep my students thinking like scientists, I do not just tell them that the water they may have used will dry out and may change their nest or mound! This is also why I plan for a second day of building after the evaluation - because they may realize that their Earth materials aren't as stable as they thought they would be.