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Engineering Encounters

This and That Box

Primary students use their imaginations at a station designed for building

Students display their Titanic model.

Students display their Titanic model.

Young children have a natural ability to imagine, invent, and innovate, and as teachers, we feel it is important to encourage and foster this talent within the classroom. In elementary school classrooms, students are too often told what to make and how to make it. This prescribed way of learning often leads students to create the same product and can ultimately stifle creativity. This article outlines the steps taken within a first-grade classroom to allow students the opportunity to design, engineer, and build through the use of a “This and That Box,” a classroom station at choice time and during indoor recess. This engineering encounter station, full of recycled materials, has allowed groups of students to work together, imagine, solve problems, design solutions, and optimize for success as they make and re-make endless creations. This station also led one to group create a replica of the Titanic, a passion which they greatly enjoyed exploring. Through teamwork, grit, and problem-solving, this group of first graders worked collectively for months to create an impressive final product, which they were very proud to share with their classmates and teachers.

Getting Started

All the materials for the “This and That Box” are placed in one part of the classroom on a set of shelves. The recycled materials include cereal boxes, toilet paper rolls, tissue boxes, all sizes of recycled boxes, yogurt containers, plastic containers from berries, and other plastic containers of all sizes. As the year continues, students begin to add recyclables from their own homes, creating new materials. Students may bring in clean plastic and cardboard containers that are not too large; the teacher monitors new items for safety and appropriateness. Along with the recycled materials, there are tools and supplies to put the creations together, including masking tape, string, hole punchers, and scissors. Ongoing projects are stored on the same shelves. Completed projects are taken home or reimagined when a student is finished.

Each year, first-grade teachers wait for a rainy day to introduce the box. Indoor recess tends to work best for a launch day since we want students to have a longer period of time when they are just starting off. The first day also needs to include a longer clean-up time. We review the safe use of scissors and other tools. We discuss the importance of recycling and show the students the recycled materials collected by the teacher. The introduction to the box is very basic: We state that the students can use any materials in the boxes they wish to make whatever they want (as long as it is appropriate for school)—and then they set to work. With just this brief introduction, the students start scrambling to get the materials they want and they begin to devise unique creations out of the materials.

Student Interactions

Throughout the year, students move in and out of groups working on This and That projects; typically about half the class is engaged at any one time. As the students start to build their creations, they develop a deeper level of meaningful problem-solving skills. For example, at the beginning of the year, students may struggle with cutting off a piece of masking tape and say, “I can’t do this!” The teacher may ask, “Please tell me about this problem,” helping the student define a problem and then seek a solution, resulting in the child turning to a friend to hold the tape taut while she uses the scissors. As the year progresses, the problems become more complex, for example, how can a tall tube be mounted onto a flat box so that it does not tip over? The teacher may ask, “It sounds like you are trying to figure out how to make the base of the cylinder more stable; what ideas do you have?” This introduces new vocabulary and identifies and supports students’ design thinking. Allowing the students to cultivate their own sense of agency as they develop possible solutions is an important aspect of engineering design. When two students come up with different ideas to solve a problem, the teacher asks, “How are these solutions the same and how are they different? What works well?” This supports the third pillar of engineering design: comparing different solutions. Teachers may use this questioning as a formative assessment. These interactions help students develop their skills, strategies, and thought processes as they think and act like engineers.

One Student-Led Creation

During the school year of 2017–2018, the first graders became Titanic experts. They poured over the Titanic books in the classroom library and then asked for more books from the school library. The students enjoyed looking at the pictures, especially seeing what the infamous ship looked like before it was resting at the bottom of the sea. When the class opened the “This and That Box,” a group of students decided to create a replica of the Titanic. Directed by one boy who came up with the idea, the students set to work finding materials to create the main body of the ship. This project was especially unique as many times students will work on a project for one day or a couple weeks, but this project began early in the year and lasted until the very last day.

Constructing the main body of the ship took about a month. Once that was completed, the students quickly took out the same Titanic books from the beginning to look at pictures to make sure that each part of the ship was accurate. Conversations about how many smokestacks there needed to be, how many lifeboats, and what the different decks needed to look like were not uncommon to hear within the classroom. Through this process, they learned more about ship design and specifically the design of the Titanic and of their own model. They learned to ask questions and look to primary sources for evidence. The students were judicious about following the books as carefully and accurately as possible.

Throughout this process, the students engaged in a lot of collaboration. They were constantly discussing and disagreeing, looking at the books for confirmation. Despite the inevitable conflict in problem solving, the students worked together and continued their project as a group, never fracturing due to disagreement. The first graders were motivated by the process and product of creating the Titanic and all problems were worked out in an age-appropriate way. These community activities—collaboration, distributed teaching and learning, combining diverse skills and expertise, and sharing information and ideas—are all characteristics of engineering and maker-centered learning.

As the project wore on, one month turned into two and three months as the students continued to tinker and work with the Titanic. Although some students left the project at different points, there was always a core group of three or four students who used all their free time to work on the Titanic. About four months into the project, the students deduced that their current model of the Titanic was not waterproof. Due to this challenge they sought out the teachers to ask if they could have scraps of extra laminate film in order to make the Titanic waterproof. Another problem they encountered was discussing if their Titanic was too heavy to float. With all of these dilemmas, the students were using good problem-solving techniques to rebuild, revisit, and refine their model in order to make it as close to the real Titanic as possible.

Construction of the Titanic continued for the entire year. The teachers became nervous as the last days of school approached. What would happen to the Titanic? Who would take it home? Would they argue about who got to take it home? The students had already problem solved all these questions as well. The student who came up with the original idea would be taking the Titanic home and groups of students would continue to work on it at playdates. In fact, just a few weeks ago when the student was asked how the Titanic was doing, he shared that there was now a new problem that he and his friend were trying to solve on a play date—in trying to fix this new problem they had to deconstruct part of the ship. So, the Titanic continues to be worked on but now as an at-home project.

Our Role as Teachers

Throughout the months of Titanic construction, it became clear that this project was being directed by the students, but as teachers we had an important role as well. We needed to give students the time and space for the students to problem solve, work together and initiate help when needed. We help them define their problems, think through their solutions, and evaluate and compare different ideas. Watching the process unfold and allowing their thinking to take front and center allowed these students to learn more than any prescribed lesson we could have given them. Allowing students the freedom to explore with a set of materials and giving them the space to create permits all students to become better thinkers and learners.

Dale Glass ( is a science teacher, and Hannah Bosland is a first-grade teacher, both at National Presbyterian School in Washington, DC.

General Science Elementary

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