In this unit, one of our most important goals is to get students to think about structures broadly. We'd like to take the topic of structures out of the abstract, and to have students become aware that they are surrounded by a wealth of both natural and manmade structures in everyday life. Further, we want them to understand that many of the elements of natural structures are imitated in human design, for example, how a spider spanning a distance with a web between two tree branches bears a relation to engineers spanning a river with a suspension bridge. We have tried to get students excited about both the common patterns and the diversity in structures by bringing structures into the classroom (wasp nests and slides of bridges), by bringing students to structures (nature walks and architecture jaunts) and primarily, by creating opportunities for students to consider their observations while they design, build, and test their own structures.
As they build bridges, houses, and towers in this unit, the students explore different materials and their properties, including clay, plastic straws, paper, and wooden toothpicks. In their designs and building, the students investigate the lines and parameters of different shapes, and we would like them to realize in particular the importance of the triangle, as well as discovering the strength and stability of various joint types. After they have built various structures, in the unit we often have students test them and record their data, for example, in relation to weight load and wind movement. Our students have learned a lot by their mistakes as they build--"messing about" with structures is often "messing up." In this way, we have felt that the unit has really helped students to see that experimentation and failure play key roles in the whole learning process.
As a topic, we have found that structures readily connect in many ways to other disciplines, and we have tried to build interdisciplinary links into our unit. We describe how students can make connections to social studies by building model communities, can work on mathematics concepts, including geometry and measurement, and we also suggest relevant student literature. While many of these ideas are suggested as extensions, given for discretionary use as time permits, we have found that our students have spontaneously made many connections with other topics in surprising ways--including oceans!
We hope that this unit will help your students will fall in love with structures as much as ours have, and that you will experience the joy of watching them become more attuned to the diversity of structures around them and follow their own inquiries. If you would like to contact us further about our unit, you can e-mail Donna. We would also be especially interested in hearing your examples of natural structures, and their relationships to human design, as we continue to develop our unit.
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