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Insulating Tiny Homes

An empathetic STEAM investigation for fourth graders

Preparing students for their future is a clear and concise goal of education. STEM education is no different and is often considered a key way to increase students’ 21st century skills or prepare students for a future career (Bybee 2010). We also believe that education should engage students as empathetic problem solvers (as described in Bush and Cook 2019). Students should be engaged in problems with multiple solution paths without clear-cut answers, which are how problems actually present themselves in life. Here we describe an elementary STEAM inquiry in which students engage in solving the social justice issue of homelessness for one family in need.

Designing 3-D Printed Tiny Homes

This authentic inquiry was designed around building tiny homes for persons who are homeless. In a NBC article, 3-D printed homes were presented as being a solution to poverty in our nation ( We elected to create a STEAM inquiry centered around this concern to extend our fourth-grade students’ perceptions of homelessness. Our inquiry was completed in six one-hour sessions, three of which focused or included science components. Three teachers collaborated to plan and implement this integrative effort with the science portions taught by the homeroom teacher. Students were tasked to design, prototype, and 3-D print a scaled version of a tiny home for a family in need. Students were initially placed in design teams of three, which we intentionally grouped to foster conversations. Students were grouped heterogeneously based upon how we felt they would best work together, here the second authors’ input was invaluable as we wanted every student to be positioned for equitable contributions and collaboration. We carefully planned for differentiation. A level of natural differentiation occurs when inquiries are developed in such a way that each and every student can contribute, while the level of sophistication in which each student addresses the inquiry can vary (Bush and Cook 2019). We adhered to this idea and designed an inquiry that would honor all students’ contributions. The design groups were planned for each member to grow together through their shared thinking and unique contributions. We strongly suggest grouping students so that each can have a voice in the direction in which the inquiry can be approached. Allowing for collaboration is key to any STEAM inquiry. We began our inquiry with learning about the family. Figure 1 displays the bio card that we provided students.

The first day of the STEAM inquiry positioned students to be able to make sense of the Calder’s financial situation. A focal point of any STEAM inquiry is developing empathy towards the person(s) for which the problem is designed (Edelen, Bush, Cook, and Cox 2019). As a class, we read the bio card (Figure 1). The daughter, Susan, who was the same age as our students, was intentionally included in the bio card to help our students begin to build empathy through connections. As students read the bio card, they were asked to imagine how their mornings would be if they were Susan. Students closed their eyes and visualized how different their lives might be if they too had to struggle simply to get to school. Next, students were provided with the problem statement (Figure 2) for the inquiry.

Figure 1

Bio card.

The Calders are a small family. Janice is the mother and has two children, Susan, age 10, and Charlie, age 4. The Calders have been homeless for one year. At one time, they lived in a two-bedroom apartment, but it became too costly. They currently live in a community shelter. Janice wakes up her children at 5:30 am each morning to get them ready for their day. After Susan gets dressed, she goes to wait in line for her family’s breakfast. While Susan is in line, Janice helps Charlie get dressed; he hasn’t started school yet. The Calders have to eat in a hurry to catch the city bus. Susan’s school does not have a bus pick-up at the shelter. Once Susan gets to school, she is exhausted and has trouble staying awake during morning lessons. While Susan is at school, Janice tries to find a job. Janice has been having trouble finding work. The Calders go to the laundromat almost daily to wash what little clothes they do have. Janice wants her children to succeed, but she knows that it is difficult for Susan to focus during her classes and Charlie doesn’t have anywhere to play. The children are both quiet and sad because they can’t play with any other kids after school. They need your help!

Figure 2

Problem statement for 3-D printed tiny homes inquiry.

We have been hired as a design team to work on affordable housing with the Calder family in mind. Our task is to design, prototype, and test a tiny home for them. It is important that we include the most important aspects in our plans and blueprints. The Calder family lives here in our area, so we need to consider the warm weather in our plans. The Calders are counting on you and your expertise!

Part 1: A Tiny Home Mathematical Exploration

The first sessions were focused on the mathematics needed to solve the problem at hand, see Edelen, Simpson, and Bush (2020) for in-depth information on the mathematics portions of the inquiry. The mathematical learning goals of our inquiry were focused on multiplicative thinking, as outlined by Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSI 2010). The first learning goal was centered around 4.NBT.B.5, “Multiply a whole number of up to four digits by a one-digit whole number, and multiply two two-digit numbers, using strategies based on place value and the properties of operations” (CCSSI 2010, p. 29). The second mathematical learning goal was based on the overarching goal of 4.OA.A, “Use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems.” (CCSSI 2010, p 29). While our students had developed a procedural understanding of multiplication, we wanted them to develop a conceptual understanding of multiplication based on real-world experiences. Students were able to use any manipulatives they deemed necessary for any of the mathematics or science components of this inquiry. On day one, students considered the disparities between minimum wage and average monthly expenses. On day two, students drew blueprints of their home. These blueprints provided a contextual understanding of what it means to draw something to scale. Drawing blueprints took two days to complete because scaling was a new concept for students. We provided students with a scale of 2 ft. = 1 in. Design teams worked to determine the measurements of the tiny home using rulers, manipulatives, large butcher paper, and pencils. Students were shown pictures of tiny homes and they began with modeling the perimeter of the home to help them think through common layouts. Design teams then worked together to decide on the interior layouts and how to draw them to scale. The drawings positioned our students to begin to think as architects as well as critically make sense of the aligned mathematics standards. See Figure 3 for an example of a scaled drawing. Students then moved to building a physical 3-D tiny home model out of craft sticks. Both the 2-D blueprint and the 3-D physical tiny home models allowed for rich mathematical discourse and conceptual learning to occur.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Student scaled drawing of a tiny house

Student scaled drawing of a tiny house.

Part 2: Scientific Inquiry of Tiny Homes

The scientific discovery for this inquiry was based on NGSS standard, “4-ESS3 Earth and Human Activity: Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impact of natural processes on humans” (NGSS 2013, p. 33). The learning goal centered around the Science and Engineering Practices (SEP) of planning and carrying out investigations and analyzing and interpreting data (NGSS 2013). Students were to test multiple forms of insulation and record their observations on their data collection sheets (Figure 4) to ultimately make a claim for the best insulation for their tiny home models. The data sheet served as a graphic organizer for all students, but it was specifically a useful tool for those students who may need extra help keeping their thinking organized. The data sheet can also serve as a formative assessment to examine students’ learning and thinking. We also provided students with the following materials for the inquiry: 6 in. craft sticks, craft felt sheets, construction paper (all colors), heat lamps, glue, tape, square tile manipulatives, aluminum foil, cotton balls, craft foam sheets (all colors), Chromebooks, and we had one 3-D Printer. As a special note, this inquiry is completely possible without a technology component and many of these materials can be sent to students who might be in distance or remote learning.

Figure 4
Data collection sheet.

Data collection sheet.

Science Session 1

In preparation for the discovery of the best insulation for the 3-D model tiny homes, students revisited with the bio card of the Calder family. We asked students to discuss the typical daily high temperature in their area within their small groups, and the class concluded that the majority of the days were hot. If your students live in a different climate, you may consider using local weather data as another opportunity to explore temperature patterns. For example, if you live in the Southeast you might discuss the mild temperature pattern changes that occur in the Southeast but that temperature patterns might vary much more greatly in other parts of the country and world. At that point, the topic of insulation was introduced which then led to the question of the day, Why would Susan and her family need to have their home insulated in the Southeast? Students concluded that the family would want to keep the cold air inside and the hot air outside for the majority of the year. Once students indicated local typical temperatures, they were told that they would have choice in materials to test: craft foam sheets, construction paper, craft felt sheets, and aluminum foil. We then prompted students to thoughtfully discuss which of the materials they would test and justify their decisions to their small groups. Our students relied on their own experiences to reach conclusions, although not required to complete this inquiry. One student reported, “The foil is like metal and the light from the sun will heat the tin foil up and then making it go hot and so the heat will go inside and make things hot and stuff.” In contrast, another student reported that the foil is like a mirror and it will reflect the sunlight off of the house, so the house will stay cool. Keeping to the SEP of planning and carrying out investigations, students tested and recorded the initial temperature inside their model and then observed and recorded the temperature after the homes were put under a heat lamp for five minutes (see Figure 5). Be sure to instruct your own students about how to safely use the heat lamps. We modeled such practices as, do not touch the lightbulb and be sure to turn it off and unplug it when not in use. Students worked to calculate the change in temperature.

Figure 5
Figure 5 Students determine baseline temperature.

Students determine baseline temperature.

Safety note: Do not allow students to walk or sit in electrical wiring – potential trip/fall and electrical hazards!

After temperature change was recorded, groups chose their first of two materials and began adding material to their homes (see Figure 6). While students insulated their 3-D tiny home models, we facilitated another conversation about cost of materials and the importance of not wasting materials as students were acting as engineers (see Figure 7), so that they could “stay under budget for the Calder family.”

Figure 6
Figure 6 Students add materials to their prototype.

Students add materials to their prototype.

Students concluded that they not only engaged in scientific inquiry, but they were also invested in wanting to help Susan and her family. Groups of students were focused on learning about insulators with the Calder family in mind. They worked to better understand how to insulate against heat, not as solely a scientific investigation, but as a humanistic endeavor to ensure that the Calder family would be able to afford their new tiny home and maintain low energy bills in the hot Southeast climate. Students also wanted the Calder family to be comfortable in their new home.

If cost of heat lamps is a concern, consider using natural temperatures outside the school buildings. Insulated prototypes can be placed outside, with thermometers inside, for an elongated period of time to test for change in internal temperature. This activity can also be adjusted to insulate for cold instead of warm temperatures. For those students who might be distance or remote learning, this portion of the task could be completed at home with students recording their findings remotely and reporting back during livestream class sessions. It would also create a conversation about setting up the testing areas in similar ways to ensure the external temperature was consistent within the experiment.

Science Session 2

On the next day, the class revisited the importance of insulation in homes. After a group discussion, small groups moved to their work stations. Using a thermometer inside their models, students checked the temperature at the intervals of start, 1 minute, 3 minutes, and 5 minutes. For all the models (2 foam, 1 paper, and 4 aluminum foil), students noticed that there was little or no change in temperature. At this point, the class noticed a flaw in our data collection method, and the teacher led a conversation about their test, as this was a key moment to discuss the practice of planning and carrying out investigations as well as the crosscutting concept of cause and effect. Students concluded that heat was escaping as they lifted their models to check the temperature during each interval of time. As a class, it was decided to modify the data collection process. Students determined they would only record the beginning and ending temperatures (5 minutes). After material test one, groups disassembled their first materials from their 3-D tiny home models, and began to apply their second-choice material. Students repeated the modified data collection process and then calculated the change in temperature for both materials.

To transition to the practice of analyzing and interpreting data, students were asked to interpret the data and share their data with the other groups. Students noticed similarities and noted that most of the aluminum foil data displayed the greatest temperature changes. This finding sparked a class discussion. Students discussed their thoughts on this trend in the class data. The teacher concluded this session with having students state their claims and justify their ideas with findings from the data.

Science Session 3

We began session 3 by asking students probing questions about the results and which materials would they consider to be the best insulator. We gave an example of sitting on a cold metal bench in the winter when the temperatures are low. Students were asked what would happen if they sat on a cold bench. Students claimed that the back of their legs would get cold. The teacher wondered aloud, “Why this would happen?” Students were then instructed to put the side of their face down on a cool desk until the desk felt warmer than their cheek. At this point, students lifted up and were instructed to feel their cheek. Students noticed that their faces felt cooler than before they laid their faces on their desks. We related this phenomenon to the bench on a cold day and asked why this would happen. Students stated that their bodies were transferring heat to the desk until they were the same temperature. The classroom discussion around heat transfer created a natural moment for us to ask: Which material from their experiments would take in heat quicker if left outside in the Sun? Students noted aluminum foil. We then asked, “Why did the aluminum foil have the greatest temperature change when left under a heat lamp for 5 minutes?” Students concluded that aluminum foil had the greatest change in temperature because it took in heat faster which resulted in the insides of their 3-D tiny home models to increase in temperature. As a class, students determined aluminum foil to be a conductor, and the craft felt, construction paper, and craft foam sheets to be insulators. As teachers, we elected to prompt students through whole-class discussion. The previous questions could be used as a formative assessment to examine what your students learned during and from the inquiry. Students concluded the lesson by selecting craft felt as being the most effective insulator and they justified this claim with stating that craft felt maintained the internal temperature the best.

3-D Printing (Optional)

After students developed understanding of the mathematics and science content of the inquiry, we shifted to 3-D printing their models. Students continued to work in design teams to use Chromebooks and Tinkercad to digitally create models of their tiny homes. Figure 8 displays one group’s Tinkercad creation. For those students who might be distance learning, Tinkercad is a free web-based resource that can be accessed anywhere, thus students could collaborate via video conferences or work individually to create a mock-up of their plans. In our inquiry, we used the MakerBot Replicator + for the fabrication process (the 3-D printer we had access to), for remote or distance learning, you might consider stopping at the digital mock-up or having the class collaborate around one design to 3-D print while on a classroom livestream session. In our case, the printing platform was too big for students’ initial scaled drawings. Therefore, students were instructed to use a new scale of 4 ft. = 1 in. for their digital designs. The new scale provided an opportunity for students to practice their newly developed scaling skills.

Figure 7
Students acting as engineers.

Students acting as engineers.

Figure 8
Figure 8 Student group digital tiny home design.

Student group digital tiny home design.


While students presented a well thought-out claim and solved the inquiry under investigation, the real learning took place through their test and retest efforts, in their attention to detail, and most importantly, with their growth as persons. Students gained mathematics and science content understanding through authentic and meaningful experiences and they also developed empathy towards a family they had never met. Scientific understanding can be a driving force for the greater good. In this inquiry, our focus was on providing equitable housing options for a family in need. Students explored not only building and constructing a tiny home to scale, but also how insulators might contribute to the overarching needs of the Calder family. This investigation went beyond the science and mathematics content to include the humanistic side of solving problems for others. It is time we begin to position our students as tomorrow’s leaders, making the world a better place.

Daniel Edelen ( is a doctoral student in elementary mathematics education at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. Heather Simpson is a fourth-grade mathematics and science teacher at Fruitland Park Elementary School in Lake County, Florida. Sarah B. Bush is an associate professor of K–12 STEM Education at the University of Central Florida.


Bush, S.B., and K.L. Cook. 2019. Step into STEAM: Your standards-based action plan for deepening mathematics and science learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, and Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Edelen, D., S.B. Bush, K.L. Cook, and R. Cox. 2019. The power of building empathy in STEAM. The Elementary STEM Journal 23 (4): 10–13.

Edelen, D., H. Simpson, and S.B. Bush. 2020. A STEAM exploration of tiny homes. Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PreK–12 1 (1): 25–32.

Bybee, R. 2010. Advancing STEM education: A 2020 vision. Technology and Engineering Teacher 70 (1): 30–35.

Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). 2010. Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM). Common Core State Standards (College- and Career-Readiness).

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

5E Disciplinary Core Ideas Engineering STEM Elementary

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