I've been having a lot of fun doing engineering projects with my preschoolers this year.
I've created an engineering center, where six students can work at a time, with some help from me as needed. (Threes often have trouble cutting tape - their imaginations run faster than their fine motor skills!). Since our center time lasts about 45 mins to an hour, I typically need two days to allow each of my 23 students the chance to build their engineering solutions.
The children use a variety of recyclable and discarded materials to create. I have one "underbed storage container" that lives in the center, with a much larger bin of materials stored elsewhere, as backup. Families help me keep this well-stocked with egg cartons, meat trays, paper towel rolls, fruit nets, wine corks, etc.
Recently, I introduced the story Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen, a simple fiction story wherein five animals going "rowing in the bay" and, of course, the smallest animal - the mouse - manages to sink the boat.
I posed the problem of building a boat out of recyclables that could support five animals (counting bears, in our case) and not sink. We would test our boat in the water table.
My problem with this project was that ALMOST EVERYONE wanted to make a boat immediately!
What a morning we had! The weather cooperated - offering a steady downpour that prevented us from getting out to the playground at our usual time...we had some 90 minutes of engineering time.
Imagine - three year olds staying engaged on one thing for this long! This is the power of open-ended engineering. Scissors, tape, bins of recyclables, no directions, only time - what's not to love?
As the children worked at the engineering center, we looked through the materials and discussed which ones would work best in the water. What would happen to cardboard in water? Foil, cork, plastic, foam, bubble wrap - these were the best materials for use in water.
The variety of boats was wonderful. The ideas (and children's own descriptions) were even better. Let me share a few of these...
Engineer Lucca tells me–
“My boat is a valid choice. That’s a big word!”
Engineer Naia, explaining where the animals will go on her boat, declares
“Where these go is under the foil, so that they don’t get all wet.”
Engineer Ahmad creates a large flat boat using a cereal box, foil, assorted plastic pieces, and tape, tape, tape, and more tape.
“I’m making a barge. It will not sink. It will not fall over!”
Engineer Oscar is preoccupied with the water.
How to make sure that his boat doesn't sink?
He creates an entirely transparent boat, using a Ziploc bag...adding all sorts of details to the interior of the bag.
“I want the bears to go inside because the water is wet,” he explains.
Engineer Zaki creates a very detailed boat beginning with a cardboard base, which he covered w/foil.
He adds foam and plastic pieces to create compartments for the animals.
Finally, he adds a ramp on his boat -
“I made a slidey thing.”
He considered how the animals would get on the boat!
One engineer (Liam C.) created four different iterations of a boat before he was content with the outcome. Talk about perseverance!
1) He cuts out two long thin cardboard strips and holds a net from oranges. “Ms. Ingram, look - these are fishing poles, these are nets.”
Then he realizes that the cardboard will disintegrate in the water.
2) He decides to use foil, to make the boat more waterproof. He has difficulty cutting this and molding it into the shape he desires. Finally, after working with it and getting somewhat frustrated, he smashes foil into ball, “My boat is a ball.”
3) He cuts two long sections of cardboard, about 3 inches wide, 12 inches long; wraps them in foil, wrapping last four inches of them together tightly. “They are also tongs, so they can get dinner.”
Then he realizes that the five counting bears must fit on his boat.
4) His final boat is made from a recycled meat tray and bits of cardboard.
The reality was - 90 minutes was enough time to create a variety of boats, but it was impossible to test the boats at the water table as well. We decided to launch the boats the next day.
When the children arrived at school the next day, most had only one question for me -
"When are we testing the boats?"
The excitement was unending.
At our gathering circle, in preparation for the tests, I asked - "What if we put the five bears on the boat and the boat sinks to the bottom of the water table? What will you do? Will you throw yourself down on the floor and wail -'My boat didn't work! I am so mad! Waaaaa!' " and I gave my best dramatic imitation of a full-blown tantrum. The children laughed - they were on to me now. Several called out, "No! We will go back to engineering and fix our boat!" Yes!! These threes understand the engineering process: Plan, Build, Test, Modify, Test Again. A circular process.
Yes, I have a fabulous new group of engineers this year. They are engaged, persistent, creative, and questioning. They love to solve problems! They love to work together and help one another. We are having a whole lot of fun together.