4 Wonderful Things We Learned from Water Slides

Time for a Summer Edition of What is Going on in the Lab! We actually tested this project back in May and then I repeated it with a summer school class! Kids loved it! Of course, they did! It involved water and building a slide- kid heaven!

It's Water Slides! 

Seasonal STEM Projects that can work all year! Here's a STEM challenge that kids will love all year long, but it also works perfectly for summer time! It's about Water Slides! Check this blog post for details!

Third graders were so excited!

I promise, cross my heart when my third graders saw my schedule board and read "Water Slides" they cheered. Seriously. Right there in the hall.

Mind you, I think they were expecting to get to slide on them, but even when I told them we were building water slide models, they were still excited!

So, take a look at the photo below and you will understand this wonderful little challenge.

STEM Challenge: Build a water slide and then test it- with water! Have plenty of towels on hand! Read this blog post for details!

The challenge had some fairly wacky materials, but included items to cover the slide part so there would be no leaks. Kids also had to build some type of ladder or ramp so the top could be accessed.

STEM Challenge: Build a water slide and then test it- with water! And, just for fun, add a toy figure to the slide to try it out! Have plenty of towels on hand! Read this blog post for details!
Check out that fabulous ladder in the photo above. They did a great job. Also, notice Lego man sliding down that slide! How fun was this!

Will it Work?

STEM Challenge: Sometimes our mistakes help us learn! This group learned that the slide part of this water slide needed to be covered. When the cardboard soaked up the water, they had a real 'aha' moment!
Well, I know what you are thinking. It couldn't have been all fun. Cause they are kids, right? Right!
Look at the photo above. Do you see what that group did? They put foil on the outside of their slide. That cardboard tube soaked up water and got mushy and soggy. Boy, did they have a real moment of learning with this thinking!

Yeah, I could have told them when I saw this little mistake. But, I never do. I let them mess up.
Friends, this kind of learning is priceless. They remember this stuff.

STEM Challenge: Build a water slide and then test it with water! Will it leak? Have some towels ready!
Isn't that a great photo? I caught the water traveling all the way down that slide! 

So, what did I learn with this challenge?

  1. I learned that third graders don't all know how to pour water! Mind-boggling how many of them missed the slide and poured water on the table. Like right on it. One sweet little girl even dumped the ENTIRE water cup down the slide in one giant dump. It splashed everywhere!
  2. You truly learn from your mistakes. When the water slide leaks you quickly know what to patch or change.
  3. Water slides can be messy! It's all good, though. It was just water. We used a lot of towels- which, by the way, is a great thing to have in your classroom. And I mean real towels, not paper ones. Real ones work better!
  4. Not kidding! Third graders LOVED this challenge!

You can see more about this Water Slide challenge in my Teachers Pay Teachers store


That Moment When You Read a Well Written Line

Do you ever read a line in a book that is so startling or profound or just mindlessly silly that you read it again? Isn't that the best!

Welcome back to my monthly book review! I know this is a science blog, but I am a reader too! I always have a book or two that I am in the middle of reading and I love to read book reviews! So, here are five that you can try!

Book Review for June! Here are five books I read recently that I can recommend- all for different reasons. You will love all of them. My favorite was the last one in the post!

5 Fabulous (and Practical) Ways to Use STEM Time Wisely

It's Part 3 of my Summer Series about STEM!

This week I am focusing on ways I am challenged by time constraints and some little things I do to help with this! I hope you find a tip or two to use- especially if you teach multiple classes like I do!

Tips for specialists that have many classes! The use of time and being prepared is paramount and this post has some tips and hints that may help you!

Bins for Materials

One of the first things I discovered as a teacher of multiple classes is that giving out materials was going to be a problem!
Lab class: Giving out materials is a huge process! Do you know how long it takes for kids to count out 10 straws, 12 paper clips, 50 toothpicks, and six cups? Too long- check this blog post for some tips about this topic!
This was a surprise to me. I thought laying everything out in large bins and having kids come to a supply station to get their own things was the way to go.

uhhhh..... no
Do you know how long it takes for kids to count out 10 straws, 12 paper clips, 50 toothpicks, and six cups? About an hour and a half. Not really, but it takes TOO long. By the time seven groups have collected their items half our time is gone.

So, here's how I solve this dilemma: I use plastic shoe boxes and load the materials into them myself. It takes me less than 5 minutes to count everything into the bins in an assembly line style and then I deliver those bins to each lab table. The materials are ready to use and those plastic bins serve other purposes, too! 

TIP: Don't buy those plastic shoe boxes from the dollar tree. They are $1, but at Wal-Mart the better quality bins are about 90 cents.

Cleanup Time

Cleaning up at the end of the class time is another thing I didn't adequately prepare for when I started my specialist job!
After STEM class clean is easy because of something we started doing a long time ago! Check this blog post for some clean up tips!
So, after about a month I went to the dollar store and bought eight tiny garbage cans and 8 broom/dustpan combos. Now, every lab table has its own garbage can and sweeping tools. When we finish our building and sharing time every table gets out its cleaning tools and gets to work. Learning how to do this is part of the beginning of the year procedure learning (more about this below).

Every student takes part is this process- some are disassembling structures and recycling materials, others are sweeping, others are collecting garbage, and others are wiping down the tables. I also keep a bin of washcloths in my sink area and a laundry basket. I have found that washing things in the school washers/dryers works better than purchasing wet wipes!

TIP: Work on the cleanup routine and practice it. We do this in the first month even if we have not made a mess. We still sweep, wipe down the tables, and pretend to throw away garbage!

Routines and Procedures!

Classroom management is an essential ingredient to using time wisely. This was true with my regular classroom and, oh so true with a STEM class!
Here's why kids don't do all those things we tell them on the first day of school: They only hear about the first seven words you say on the first day of school. After that they are thinking about PE and lunch and recess and snack time. I learned the hard way to actually teach routines and procedures just like a lesson. And now I do that with STEM. Check this post for more tips about time management!
I still remember those days when I stood before a group of kids on the first day of school and told them everything. EVERYTHING. Then when they didn't do any of the things I told them, like sharpening two pencils before class or how to check out my classroom books, I wondered why.
Here's why. They only heard about the first seven words I said on the first day of school. After that, they were thinking about PE and lunch and recess and snack time.

I learned the hard way to actually teach routines and procedures just like a math or language lesson. And now I do that with STEM. On the first day of class in August they line up at my door, I talk for a few seconds and then we go outside or down the hall and approach the lab again, but with my procedure for it. Then we go in the lab. I explain how they will find their seats. We go back out and repeat the whole thing. And so on....

You get it. I know you do this same thing in your classroom. And that investment of time at the beginning of the year is richly rewarded later when the kids automatically do things. 

TIP #1: Do you have a routine for getting pencils? Check this vintage blog post of mine for a way to take care of your pencil problems forever. Pencils and More Ideas Post
TIP #2: Dealing with pencils in my lab is even more perplexing because so many students use them. This coming year I am trying something new. We are going to use Bic pens. Yep! They cost very little, don't smear, last a long time, and are almost indestructible. I will let you know how it goes!

Recycle, Reuse, Don't throw it away! 

This is good for the earth, but excellent on my budget for a busy classroom of STEM projects!
Materials for STEM class are fun and easy and best of all most can be reused! At the end of class I tell kids to sort their unused materials or gently used materials into bins and then I add those things back to our main supply. We reuse everything.
So, remember when I mentioned way back up at #1 that those plastic bins had other uses. Well, here you go... I place about 5 or so of these on my main work table. At the end of class, I tell kids to sort their unused materials or gently used materials into those bins and then I add those things back to my main supply. We reuse everything.

Kids take apart structures when we can and they know what I mean by gently used. (Because this is one of the procedures we work on back in August- see #3 above!) We reuse straws, craft sticks, cardboard, toothpicks, paper clips, or just about anything that can be used again. I also have a scrap box for pieces of card stock or construction paper that was cut or slightly used. (Like most of them have a hole cut right out of the center...)

Why is this a time saver? The kids are part of this process and it's all part of our clean up procedure. It saves a lot of work for me!

TIP: This year I even saved pieces of straws for no real reason except I hated to throw away the colorful pieces and then, bam, I had a group use those pieces to decorate a bird feeder. So, if you can store things - do it. I use large zip lock bags for pieces and plastic bins for larger things.


The one major thing that helps me is to prepare for storing. I have a plan for storing materials and for storing projects that are not completed!
Do you teach multiple classes? This is something to prepare for. Where will you place unfinished work? It will save you oodles of time to have an idea about this before it happens! Check this blog post for some ideas!
This is another one of those things I had no clue was going to happen. The first day I had a STEM class working on a project, I was scrambling at the end of class about what to do with their unfinished projects. I learned VERY quickly I needed to be ready for this every single time a class comes in. You never know what is going to happen to delay us- can you say "Fire Drill"?
Anyway, I have a ton of plastic dish pans that I have ready to fill. Kids grab one and load it up with their folders and partially completed projects and their materials not used yet. We store these pans in our large lab tables. If you don't have lab tables to store pans in, then this is something to prepare for. Where will you place this unfinished work? It will save you oodles of time to have an idea about this before it happens!

Okay, friends, that's a list of tips and hints and funny things to get you to think about ways to manage time best. 

Click on the images below to get back to parts 1 and 2 of my STEM series!

Next week is Book Review week. Join me back here on July 1 for Part 4 of my Summer Series!


5 Ways I Can Help You with STEM Best Practices

Hold onto your hats, folks, as we dive into a few Best Practices for STEM!

Now, let's start with a little disclaimer.....
I teach STEM classes for three grade levels- after teaching in the regular classroom for 20+ years. Best practices or best strategies means something different to everyone. All I aim to do with this blog post is run a few ideas by you and suggest, from my experience what works in my classroom! So, just know that I am not trying to be preachy, just helpful!

Are you thinking about STEM in your elementary classroom? This blog post will give you some answers, some ideas, and some great strategies to try!
(And, by the way, best practices do not include sitting in those old desks in straight rows....)

BEST PRACTICE Hands on Learning

STEM is the ideal place to allow hands-on learning to help kids learn, apply different strategies, and learn to persevere. Hands-on learning is one to fabulous strengths of STEM! Read more on this blog post about best practices!
I know you have heard this- Experiential, hands-on learning is the best way for kids to learn.

Before we talk about how this relates to STEM, let me tell you a little history about me. I started teaching many, many years ago. Here's what science looked like: we had a textbook. We read a section. We answered the questions at the end of the section.  About every 25 pages in the textbook we came across the infamous Experiment page. This page was always blue and as soon as we turned to it all the kids would look up and stare at me, silently hoping this time, this time, we would actually get to try the experiment. Nope. If I could demonstrate something I did so from the front of the room and the kids gathered around. NEVER did the students have their own individual experiments, because science just was not done that way.

Sad. So sad.

Now, we know better. Science is the ONE place that hands-on experiences make all the difference. When every student is part of a team, when all of them are building and trying something, when they can move and manipulate materials, when they can add to their design or change one tiny thing and it works, they learn so much more.

How does STEM come into this? Easy, the trial and error of STEM projects is the best learning we can provide. Kids learn to persevere even when the task seems impossible. They approach the task in many different ways, improve on their designs, and finally prevail with something that works. I think it's actually magic....

BEST PRACTICE Failure IS an Option

STEM Class is the place kids learn that failing creates new learning. It teaches perseverance, dedication to task, and that projects don't always like we expect. It is the place where kids learn to never give up! Read more on this blog post about best practices!
I have written about this so many times. I have recorded the thoughts and spoken words of children about this topic so many times.  I have told so many people about this.

Kids need to fail. How else will they learn what works? When every solution is the perfect one, they never learn what to do on that occasion when something goes awry. And, you know, something always goes wrong. That's life.

How does this fit with STEM? Folks, we fail in our classroom every single day. We even have a phrase for this. We call our mistakes, goof-ups, miscalculations EPIC Failures. Let me explain this in kid words:
"I can't tell you how many times we have failed at this?" (At which point the kid dived right back into the task to try again.)
"I just can't see what to try next." (But, he did try something!)
"This looked so different in my head than it is working out."
Just think about it. The materials need to fit together a certain way and they just don't. You take it apart and try something else. The kids talk it through, try something new, and then hit upon something that does work. Eureka!

Take a look at the photo above. That team stacked all the craft sticks on top of one another and glued them together. However, they needed a dowel stick to go through them. They should have left space where all the sticks come together so the dowel would fit. Yes, they took it apart and laid all those sticks out again and had quite a discussion about what to try next. In the end, they decided to leave a tiny opening and glue the edges of the sticks together. It worked.

One last thing-- go back to the statement above in which the student said he just couldn't see what to try next. I talked to him and his teammates for several minutes and with purposeful questions helped them think through what to do. At some point in this conversation, the young man said, "You know, we are going to try a new idea because I am just not giving up." 

BEST PRACTICE There is more than ONE right answer.

STEM Class: Don't tell the kids what to do, how to do it, or intervene when you know it won't work. Kids need to be free to explore and experiment without fearing that they are doing it wrong. STEM Projects have many, many correct answers and they will eventually find one! Read more on this blog post about best practices!
Oh my, this one is tricky. Especially if you are a Type A person, like me. I want every little project to be perfect and cute, and well made and, of course, completed the way I WOULD DO IT!

Kids don't play along with this. They think way differently than adults and they try things I NEVER would. Take a look at that water slide above. I knew those straws on the back would not hold up the slide when water was added. Did I tell them? NOPE. It crashed.

Now, go back to point number 2 of this blog post. This team learned by failing at their first slide. They took it apart, dried everything off, and regrouped. They talked, made some decisions, and rebuilt it. If I had stopped them from the beginning by inserting my beliefs they would have built a great little slide but would have NEVER learned the lesson they learned by failing.
Now, take a look at the one below.

STEM Class: Don't tell the kids what to do, how to do it, or intervene when you know it won't work. Kids need to be free to explore and experiment without fearing that they are doing it wrong. STEM Projects have many, many correct answers and they will eventually find one! Read more on this blog post about best practices!
Same thing. I knew this was going to be disastrous. I bit my tongue and let them pour water down that cardboard tube. It got soaked and soggy and they had to start over, but I heard one of them say, 
"Wow. That's not what I expected, but it makes sense. The cardboard is paper and paper and water don't work together." 
Their second version of the slide had that piece of foil on the inside of the tube instead of the outside.
So, how does this one fit with STEM? You, the teacher, have to stay out of their way! Don't tell the kids what to do, how to do it, or intervene when you know it won't work. Kids need to be free to explore and experiment without fearing that they are doing it wrong. STEM Projects have many, many correct answers and they will eventually find one!

BEST PRACTICE Collaboration is paramount.

STEM: Make sure students know what team work looks like. Spend a lot of time in the beginning of the school year completing team building activities and talking about what it means to share the work load, make collaborative decisions, and do what is best for the team. Read more on this blog post about best practices!
It's easy to say, "Work as a team"! What is hard, however, is making sure students know what this looks like. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the school year completing team building activities and talking about what it means to share the workload, make collaborative decisions, and do what is best for the team.

I have a very set-in-stone procedure we follow for every STEM Challenge.

Every team member sketches or writes about an idea and then everyone must stand before the others on the team and talk about that idea. The team then decides what to do based on all the shared ideas. I encourage them to make decisions on what is best for the team. Students learn quickly that getting your way is not always best for the entire team or the design. Ultimately, if one idea fails, the team can always go back to a different idea and try it next!

BEST PRACTICE It's not always on the Lesson Plan!

STEM Challenges are not cookie cutter projects! Kids try things that you know will not work, but you need to let it happen. Read more on this blog post about best practices!
Some of the best things we see happen are things I could not have foreseen. There are so many moments that I am just as amazed at the kids at the results of an experiment or attempt to construct something. These are teachable moments that cannot be planned for and are very unlikely to be part of that lesson plan so carefully crafted.

And, you just have to go with it.

Seriously, I am a control freak and like to plan for every possibility, but STEM doesn't work like that.
First, of all, kids don't think the way I do and they build things that cannot possibly work and somehow it works anyway. Look at that photo above. Students are building a flood barrier. We are going to pour water into that tub and see if their barrier will keep the water out. What do you think?
I would have voted NO and was quite surprised when this messy little contraption worked.
Go with it!

STEM Challenges are not cookie cutter projects! Kids try things that you know will not work, but you need to let it happen. Read more on this blog post about best practices!
The above picture is another example. Kids were building water slides. They had one long tube and some smaller ones. I thought they would use the long tube for the tower of the slide, but so many of the groups used the long tube for the slide itself. This left them scrambling to support the slide---- with those straws.

No, this one did not work. It toppled over immediately. But, I let it happen. Go with it! STEM is not cookie cutter projects. (I think I said that in this post already.)

Okay, STEM Friends, these are some best practices or best strategies that I have learned in the last few years. Click on the image below to get back to Part 1 of this series and join me next week for Part 3 which is all about ways to use time wisely in STEM class!


Let Me Help You with 5 Myths About STEM

It was the spring of 2013 when I first heard these words, 
"We are going to have a STEM Lab next year!"
Well, I didn't exactly know what that meant, but I researched a little and then went back to my principal to let her know the job was going to be mine. And it was!

Now, two years later I have learned so much.  Last summer I created a summer STEM series that was so much fun to write and also had great feedback from readers. So, here's a new version. Ta da---this is the Summer Series for 2016!

This week's topic is all about five myths concerning STEM and how I can clear up those misconceptions for you!

SUMMER STEM Series: This first week is devoted to myths about STEM in the elmentary school. If you are thinking about trying STEM this post will give you some practical tips and answers!

Myth Number 1: STEM curriculum is not creative. You just build stuff.

STEM Myth: STEM projects are not creative. Kids just build stuff! Read this post to see why this myth is just not true!
Seriously.  I read that in an article. STEM is not creative. Kids just build things and everything looks the same. 

Y'all. This is just not true. Even with the same task constraints and the same materials, the structures I see in class are all different. And, let me just tell you this: KIDS ARE AMAZING! They have no fear! Most of them are not striving to be PERFECT. They just want to complete the task and add their own special touches to the devices. And that's when I see their creativity!

Take a look at that photo above. The kids were building a box. The constraints required that the box be a certain size and it had to have a handle. However, what we ran into was that the boxes would not stay closed when picked up by the handle. So, teams had to add a fastener to hold the box closed. Do you see what that team did? Look at the purple arrow. It is showing you the little hook they created to hold their box shut.

That is creative!
If you want to read more about problem-solving that takes exceptional cleverness you can try this vintage post: PROBLEM-SOLVING

Myth Number 2: STEM focuses on only one subject- Science. 

MYTH: STEM is only about Science. Read this post to see how false this myth is! STEM is so much more! The integration of other subjects is phenomenal!
Yes, Science is a major focus. But is that all?


Our favorite challenges involve the scientific method and experimenting. This means we must keep data and this involves research, calculating, averaging results, analyzing results, and concluding from those results. We write in every class. The kids must write explanations, draw or sketch ideas, jot down notes about what is happening, record improvements in their designs, and then write reflective paragraphs. We don't always research, but we do use electronic devices to find information when we need it, we find ideas to help with designs, and we use recording devices to view our presentations or create our presentations. But, here's the BIG advantage of STEM. It's not just about the academic subjects. The collaboration and teamwork are profound. Kids learn to work together as a team with the best interests of the team at the heart of the task. They learn to take on jobs and responsibilities and share the workload. They make DECISIONS! Good gracious, this is a big issue- making the right choices.

I would have to say that STEM encompasses just about everything. It's not just science.
(The photo above is showing the fantastic Barbie Bungee Jump Experiment and Design challenge we completed this year!)

Myth Number 3: STEM is only about gadgets and robots and circuits.

STEM in the Elementary classroom is about more than robotics.Check this blog post for more about that topic!
For some people, the acronym STEM brings on the vision of robots, robotics, engines, and complicated circuitry. Those are part of STEM class, certainly.

But, there is so much more. STEM includes the T for Technology and again, you immediately think of computers and then probably robots. However, technology is defined as this: It's the purposeful application of information in designing and producing goods and services or for use in human activities. Here's another meaning: Technology means using materials in a way to solve a problem.
This might include using materials in an unusual or innovative way. Wow, does that sound like only robotics? No!

It sounds like designing and building a device to solve a problem, maybe using materials that might not be the ordinary ones for that problem. Yet you tackle it anyway!
Now, think about that! Isn't that real life? If you have not seen the movie called Apollo 13 you need to watch it. In that movie, the astronauts have to build a device to replenish their oxygen supply and they must use only the materials they have on board the spacecraft. The materials were not meant to be used for this purpose, but it's all they have (they are in space!) Friends, this is STEM!
It's not just robots!

Myth Number 4: STEM is only for kids that are planning to be engineers when they grow up.

STEM for Elementary Students is for all kids! Read this post about myths concerning STEM and you will learn why it's for all kids and not just those that will be engineers when they grow up!
This myth just makes me laugh! Seriously, who would believe this?
Let me just set this one straight. STEM is for every kid! I see a little more than 350 kids each week and of that number, I would say about 10 don't like STEM projects. The rest think coming to STEM is the best part of their week. This is for so many reasons. Kids that are artists are the creative part of a team. Kids that like to build things are the construction crew. Kids that like to be exact are the tape managers or the person that keeps the group on task.

My best students are NOT always the natural engineer type students. My best students are the ones that don't do well in other subjects. Struggling readers, reluctant writers, not so great at math kids... those are my best students. They work hard because of one simple fact- in STEM class, failure is part of the process and being able to re-do and improve is what they need to do all day long. 

STEM is for all kids.
(Climbing off my soap box now.)

Myth Number 5: STEM is expensive.

STEM Challenges for Elementary Kids! THe materials to gather are so much easier than you think! Check this blog post for ideas and links to even more!
Okay, friends, I will not lie. Materials for STEM can be daunting. Goodness, I have made pancakes for THREE weeks with two grade levels and that amount of pancake stuff was over the top. But, they sure did learn a lot! I have another challenge that requires five-foot lengths of PVC pipe, but once you buy them you have them forever. And, you can always substitute broomsticks. Go see the custodian!

Anyway, yes, materials can be a lot to purchase or have donated, but you can also build about anything with straws and craft sticks.

So, let's just dispel that myth about materials being expensive. Good grief, go to the dollar store and buy a box of foil sheets. Your kids can build all kinds of things with one foil sheet!

For more about the materials for STEM try these posts:

Come back next week for Part 2 in this series! It's about Best Practices for STEM!

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