Anthony Grisillo’s first-grade students are learning physics and engineering while designing inventions to keep Humpty Dumpty from breaking into pieces. Grisillo, a teacher and librarian at Glenwood Elementary School in Media, Pennsylvania, gives students materials—small cups, clay, fake fur, plastic eggs, and more—and challenges them to design a contraption that will keep “Humpty” safe. The key is to get them to improvise to come up with something that works. Instead of jumping in with suggestions, Grisillo helps students problem-solve. “When they ask a question, I ask a question back. If a student says, ‘I can’t get it to stay in the seat,’ I might say, ‘What are some things you’ve experienced that help you stay in a seat?’”

This is the STEAM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) in action.

After kids have finished testing their inventions, Grisillo tries them out—with a real egg. Contraptions are placed on The Wall (a piano bench) and shaken vigorously. “The rule is this: If the egg stays in place, we applaud. If it pops out, we applaud, because it’s the trying that’s important. Then we brainstorm: ‘What could we change to make this better?’” Grisillo says.

Experiments like this are like jazz compositions: made more interesting through improvisation. And they’re often so much fun that students aren’t even aware they’re doing sophisticated STEAM-based lessons that meet the Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) K-2-ETS1 Engineering Design.

“When scientists do science and inventors invent, they’re not following a recipe and coming up with a pre-prescribed answer,” says David Crowther, president of the National Science Teachers Association. “They see a phenomenon, try to understand [it], and find new applications for it.” Kids undertaking open-ended science experiments are doing the same thing.

Read on to see how fellow educators have helped their students explore scientific concepts, and how you can test them out in your classroom.


Open-Ended Experiments = Instant Collaboration

Scientific knowledge is built through collaboration. All scientists build on the discoveries (and failures) of those who came before them, and draw inspiration and ideas from colleagues.

Step-by-step science experiments don’t offer much potential for collaboration. “What is there to debate if the answer is known and there are steps to follow?” asks Kathryn Lanouette,  a Ph.D. candidate in the Cognition and Development program at UC–Berkeley. With open-ended experiments, “there’s potential to talk about more.”

Test It Out Yourself: Give your students an engineering challenge, such as Grisillo’s Humpty Dumpty project. Because each student brings his or her own experiences and background knowledge to the challenge, as they share ideas, they’ll begin to build on one another’s thoughts—just as Grisillo’s students did when his questioning inspired one child to think of a “seatbelt” as a possible solution to keep Humpty in his chair. Soon, students were discussing the best material and design for a seatbelt. Set your students up for success by giving them sentence starters such as, “I disagree with X because…” and “In addition to…” to use during group work sessions.


Learning About Process Carries Over to All Subjects

Open-ended science experiments invite students to solve problems, which, they’ll soon learn, is easier with an overall process. As you guide students through scientific inquiries, they’ll develop the skills they need to learn anything.

“When you’re doing science, you’re building language. You’re using mathematics and mathematical processes. There’s no way to separate them,” Crowther says. Asking a good question and defining the problem is an NGSS science and engineering best practice, but it’s also a great first step for a social studies or art project!

Test It Out Yourself: Debbie Ericksen, a fourth-grade teacher at Adamsville Primary School in New Jersey, shows her students a time-lapse video of a plant growing from a seed, and has them record observations: The roots were growing down. The leaves were growing out, but when the light appeared, they tilted toward it.

In small groups, students generate questions based on their observations, which then guide their exploration. A student who’s curious about the effect of light on leaves may plant one seed and place it near a window and plant another away from the sun, and then observe both plants over time.

Kids become self-directed learners, not only in science but in math, social studies, art, and language arts, says Ericksen. She also sees tremendous carryover in communication skills. “The way students learn to communicate in science, you see that in language arts, too,” she says.


Students End Up Teaching One Another

“Kids appreciate learning from their peers more than they appreciate me telling them information,” says Darbie Valenti, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Minnie Cline Elementary in Savannah, Missouri. “Open-ended projects are a great equalizer because they help us appreciate others’ strengths.” Not only do they give more free-spirited kids a chance to shine, but they allow students who struggle with written and even verbal language a chance to contribute, too.

Test It Out Yourself: Try Valenti’s candy cars challenge. During her simple machines unit, after introducing the “wheel and axle,” Valenti has her students build cars using hard candies with holes for the wheels.

She begins by giving kids a variety of materials to construct their cars: index cards, construction paper, straws, stir sticks, and more. And then she lets them improvise. “They have to really think about how to secure their axle so the wheel still rotates,” Valenti says.

“One time, the car of one of our special ed students went farther than anyone else’s,” she says. “Other students, including a gifted child on [the special ed kid’s] team, changed the design of their cars to be more like hers. That was a huge moment for her and for the gifted child as well, to realize he had things to learn from her.”


Student Engagement Leads to Authentic Learning

When students generate the questions they investigate, their exploration aligns with personal interests. And self-discovered information that connects to personal interest and previous knowledge is far more meaningful than memorization and repetition. “Human learning always happens better when we’re doing while we’re learning,” Ericksen says.

Test It Out Yourself: The next time you introduce a big science concept, invite students to think about how it affects their own lives. When Shelly Vroegh, a fifth-grade teacher and instructional coach at Lakewood Elementary School in Norwalk, Iowa, began an ecology unit, the guiding question she offered was “What does ecology have to do with me?”

Her students’ passions led them to investigate ecology through a lens that mattered to them individually. Some researched wind energy, while others focused on recycling. One girl centered her project around recycling and her love of pets, using scraps of fleece to create braided dog toys, which she took with her to present at a community event on Earth Day.

“She felt so empowered by the project that she took what she learned and shared it with others—totally beyond the walls of the classroom!” says Vroegh. “It takes more time and effort on my part, but it’s worth it, because the kids learn at a deeper level.”