Integrating Making into Curriculum: 3rd Grade Circuit Blocks

For the past month, the 3rd grade classes here at Lighthouse have been exploring a unit on electricity during science.  While many lesson plans have students end a unit like this by exploring with and making real circuits, our teachers Lauren Hofmayer and Zoe Sylvester have decided to flip this on it’s head by having have their students start here instead. 

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The table of materials used for the circuit block exploration.

They began by leading their students in a semi-guided exploration with our circuit blocks.  Rather than telling the students what to do, they offered a challenge: could the students make a lightbulb light up, or a motor run?  Within about 15 minutes, they had answered the challenge with a resounding “YES!”, and by the end of the first class, most of them had managed to make multiple items run off the same battery, by creating a variety of series and parallel circuits.

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A pair of students share the series circuit they created with a battery pack and three motors.

They went on to explore insulating and conducting materials, and then got to build their own blocks.  They created a design by looking at the blocks they had been working with so far, then began to build.  Within 4 days, nearly every student had finished building at least one functioning block; some had finished several.

Throughout the unit, the Ms. Hofmayer and Ms. Sylvester have viewed students’ “mistakes” as opportunities to cement the learning that has occurred already.  For example, when a student accidentally created a short circuit, it was an opportunity for the whole class to explore the question of “where is the energy from the battery going?”.  Later on, several students decided to hot-glue their wires together, which became a chance to revisit what they had learned about insulating and conducting materials.  At the end of each class they take time for reflection, and to share what they have learned so far.

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The class receives semi-guided instruction as a group before exploring at their tables.

At the beginning of this unit most of the students completely lacked the vocabulary to describe what they were doing in technical terms.  They knew they were working with electricity, and came to understand what would and would not create a functioning circuit, but the vocabulary has been introduced gradually as the words become more relevant to their work.

The purpose of this is to allow students to construct their own understanding of what is happening, and to have that become part of the scaffolding their teachers use to help them develop a more complex level of understanding of the way electricity works.  At this point, nearly every student has created a parallel and a series circuit; after their lesson today, they have a name to go with their creations, and the information they need to develop a deeper understanding of the work they have done for the past month.

The unit will continue into the holiday season, culminating with their creation of their own paper circuit cards for their families.  In addition to paper circuits being a fun and engaging project for students this age, it also broadens their understanding of what a circuit can look like.  A circuit doesn’t have to blocks and motors and wires; it can also be copper tape, a small coin cell, and an LED.

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Synthesis of what the 3rd grade class has learned about switches.

About Cissy Monroe

Cissy has been a Maker long before the term came into popular usage. She is a seamstress, origami and papercrafts enthusiast, and occasionally has the patience for knitting, crochet, and woodworking. For the past 5 years, she has worked as a cook — most recently at a public school in Sonoma County that provides organic, made-from-scratch breakfasts and lunches for their students.

She returned to college a year ago to complete a degree in Environmental Studies, and from there plans to pursue a teaching credential for high school biology. She joined the Creativity Lab staff through the AmeriCorps VISTA program this August. Her position as the Curriculum and Documentation Coordinator at Lighthouse will allow her explore new (to her) aspects of Making, while also supporting teachers to integrate Making into their curricula. She looks forward to sharing their projects with you here.