It is sometimes a little scary to consider the fact that we are all very much at the mercy of “Mother Nature.” Our earth is shaped each day and over time by various natural processes and events, and those changes affect us – sometimes drastically. Fourth graders have been studying the rock cycle and earth’s processes. They’ve learned about volcanoes, erosion, and weathering, and the evidence that they leave behind. This week they turned their attention to the types, causes, and dangers of landslides. It’s a phenomenon that is particularly relevant to Alaskans after the landslides in Haines in December, which we discussed as a part of this activity.
The Next Generation Science standards for grade 4 call for students to understand, observe, and measure the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans. The standards also expect that students generate and compare multiple solutions to these impacts. In this way students begin to understand the process of engineering and how we use it to keep humans safe. Even at this young age, students begin to brainstorm ideas, refine them, examine them for effectiveness, and defend them to critics.
Our lesson this week, from the Mystery Science curriculum presented students with an imaginary situation in which they have won a new home: in the town of Slide City. The home is located very near the location of a previous landslide that occurred due to several factors: a very steep mountain near the town; a lot of heavy rainfall; and a homeowner at the top of the mountain who had heavily watered his land.
Students are tasked with either protecting their new home from a future landslide, or preventing a future landslide from occurring. We began with a brainstorming session in which students were encouraged to think far and wide for anything they could and not to judge or criticize an idea the moment. They were reminded that many current solutions and inventions originated from ideas that seemed far-fetched. After generating a large variety of starting points, students are now creating their own plans for solutions.
Listening to these young scientists toss ideas, questions, concerns, and hypotheses around was exciting. They debated with each other; pushed on each others’ thinking; defended their reasoning; asked questions. They sketched and erased and sketched again. At one point, a student came to me and asked: “When we create our plan, are we going to have to make sure that guy at the top of the mountain can get groceries?” While I smothered a smile at the way this was phrased, I was struck by his intuitive understanding that any solution must be considered from many angles and must take into account many stakeholders.
Though the lesson was meant to be finished already, it isn’t. Students are taking the challenge quite seriously and haven’t landed on their final plans yet; we will have to finish our work on Monday and students will present their ideas to each other. Watch this link for pictures of their final plans: they will certainly be unique and creative evidence of our young scientists’ budding skills as engineers!