STEM Lab: Designing a Feeder

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SWBAT use the engineering design cycle to plan how to create a bird feeder.

Big Idea

It's getting cold! Birds need to eat, too!


During this 5 day project, my students will do some research about bird feeders, plan 2 designs, create their own feeder, evaluate their design, and communicate their results. I chose bird feeders for this project because we have been learning about the basic needs of animals and it is getting cold now, so birds will need an extra food source, which supports Essential Standard 1.L.2.2, "Summarize the basic needs of a variety of different animals (including air, water, and food) for energy and growth." Watching the birds on the playground is a daily activity for my students, so this lesson is relevant to my students so it will be a high interest lesson to keep them on task and engaged!

To tie in an additional objective to this lesson, we are using recyclable and reusable materials in the building process. This aligns to 1.L.1.3, "Summarize ways that humans protect their environment and/or improve conditions for the growth of the plants and animals that live there (e.g., reuse or recycle products to avoid littering)". By using these materials instead of new items, we can discuss stewardship by improving the conditions for the growth of animals as well as cleaning up our environment.

This projects aligns to Science and Engineering Practice 6, "Construction Explanations and Designing Solutions" because students are using tools and designing a solution to a problem, and generating multiple solutions to a problem by creating 2 plans. It also aligns to the NGSS Engineering Standards ETS1-1, "Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool" because students are addressing the problem that birds need food in the winter and it is hard to find. Then, they are gathering information through media and books, including designs of feeders and pictures of feeders, to create their own design. ETS1-2 requires that students "develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model  to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem". In the "plan" phase of the design cycle, students make 2 diagrams of different feeders that they will try to build to solve the problem, which aligns directly to this standard.

At my school, every class goes to the STEM Lab on a rotating schedule. My class goes once a month and spends Monday through Friday working in the lab on a project. This is our third visit to the lab this year, so we are familiar with routines and expectations. I use the STEM Design Cycle to plan the week and we usually spend 1-2 days on "Think" and "Plan" and 1-2 days on "Design". This lesson covers these three sections.


Internet/Videos about bird feeders

Examples of different designs of bird feeders (Go to Google Images and type in 'bird feeder designs' and print examples!)

Lots of building supplies (styrofoam, egg cartons, cardboard, string, tape, styrofoam/plastic cups, plastic plates, etc.)

Scissors, adhesives


5 minutes

To get student interest up and engage students in this project, I show this video. The video immediately sets the need for feeders in the winter and shows lots of different examples of feeders. Then I say,

"What is the problem that birds have in the winter? That's right, they cannot find enough food! That is the problem we are going to work to solve. This week, we are going to make a bird feeder that you can use at home or in our schoolyard to feed the birds during the winter!"

Science and Engineering Practice 1 requires that students "Define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool", which is what they will do during this project!

Then, I introduce the Bird Feeder Design Rubric and spend a few minutes explaining how the rubric works. This is to keep students accountable for their work and learning during the project and to give me a way to assess how well they understand the concept and the design cycle.


15 minutes

The first step in the STEM design process is to 'Think' about the problem. So, I say,

"To think about the problem of birds not having food in winter, I have some books for you about birds and bird feeders. You are going to design your own feeder in STEM lab this time because you are going to want to take it home. However, you can 'think' and 'plan' with your partner, then do the building on your own. We are going to take about 15 minutes today to learn about how other people design and build bird feeders, and then we will start to think about how to plan your own. Take some notes or draw diagrams in your journal to remember good examples you find that you want to share".

As students look at the books and print-outs of Design Examples that I have ready for them about bird feeder design, I engage in conversation with them asking questions like, "Why do you think that one has a ledge on it?" and "Why does this one have a roof?" I do this to get them to think about protecting the food source from rain/snow and to think about where the birds will stand while they eat so that they will realize for themselves that the design is purposeful. As students compare models and diagrams to identify common features and differences, they are working on Science and Engineering Practice 2, "Developing and Using Models".

After about 15 minutes, I say,

"I also want to show you a quick video. Then, who would like to share something they learned about the design of bird feeders?"

I lead the conversation to make sure everyone comes to the realization that the feeders need certain components, like a roof to cover the food and somewhere for the birds to stand. After that is evident through the conversation and the students have had time to share, we move on.


20 minutes

The second step to the STEM design cycle is to 'Plan'. My students always make 2 plans with the understanding that we need 2 because one may not work out! We have talked about the reason for having 2 plans many times this year as we have worked on different projects, so they know that is the expectation.

To get started, I say,

"Now that you have some background information about the design of bird feeders, we need to know what materials we have and what you may need. Then, you are going to make 2 plans for different feeders in your science journal. Remember to be detailed - label things so we know what materials you will need. If you need help designing your feeder, let me know and I will come and help you".

Before beginning, students need to know what materials they can work with. We have collected lots of recyclables that they have access to, so I say,

"In order to reuse and recycle as part of your project, you can use anything from our collection of recyclables. Take a look at what we have before you start your plans and remember that to have a 'Great' project you need to use 3-4 materials".

I show them quickly what Materials we already have, and tell them that they can also include additional materials they may need and I will see if I can find them.

As the students work on their designs, I help them in order to make sure that their design will be successful. This is not an assessment lesson, so I am providing lots of support and input into their designs as we talk about their designs and the materials they need, which sometimes takes a while! It can be crushing for a student to work all week on a design and then it breaks the first time they use it, so I am mindful of that as I work with students. I also keep a list of additional materials students need so I can get those before they begin to build tomorrow.


Wrap Up

10 minutes

To wrap up this lesson, students need to select which feeder they will build and then make a materials list so I know what else I need to find or buy.

I say,

"On this Bird Feeder Materials List, please make a list of what you need - then, next to each item, put an X on the correct column to show if you already have the material or whether you still need it".

I show the paper on the Smart Board and give an example of how to use the chart. Then, students complete it and turn it in to me with their design. I look over the designs after class to make sure everyone has completed a design, selected one, and has the materials they will need.