STEAM, or STEM education with arts added in, is the latest in a trend towards teaching integrated, meaningful lessons that bring science, technology, engineering, and math to the forefront. The Art + Design movement aims to integrate arts and design in education so that the creativity necessary for innovation can occur. Earth Day, a progressive holiday aimed at bettering the world for the future, is the perfect reason to bring STEAM to the classroom. I use century-old tunnel books with computer lab technology for an engaging lesson on the world’s biomes.
Tunnel books are from the 19th century and were used for promotional materials and tourist souvenirs. The books have little writing and are made with parallel frames that give the viewer a 3-D look at what’s inside. They take a bit of engineering to assemble, but are really impressive works of art when finished. To give my students more room to write, I have them leave flaps as “doors” on the front of their books, where we include our writing.
My students begin by researching world biomes on the Internet. Kids Do Ecology has an easy-to-read, but thorough site on biomes for kids. I give my students a short research sheet and let them get to work. They choose the biome that interests them and record their information. It is a valuable lesson in research and they often bring me insightful questions about the text. One of the questions asks students how large the biome is. Depending on the research, students have to think about this in different ways and decide how best to record their information.
Besides researching online, students have to find pictures of their plants and animals to go with their project. I have them search for “coloring page” plus the name of the plant or animal. This returns them black and white images that they can color and cut out later. Students have to copy and paste each image into a document and then resize the image so that it will be a reasonable size compared to the other animals in their project. We discuss the word ratio and how to decide what animals will be best in the foreground and background of their project. I don’t see this as a copyright issue with the images because we are using them to create new projects and they are posted as coloring pages for kids to print and use.
The engineering part of this project lies in the design. I use the Engineering Design Process throughout lessons and with my afterschool engineering team. Students have to imagine their final project and plan so that the layers will line up correctly. At the end, many realize that their plan was faulty and want to improve on it. To make life simple, I give my students a template to create the different parts of the book. They have a template to make the background, frames, and folded sides of the book. Final assembly can be tricky, so students who want help can work one on one with me to get it all put together.
The Key Points in English Language Arts Common Core state that research, even with short projects, is emphasized in writing. Students should “gain, evaluate, and present increasingly complex information, ideas, and evidence . . . through media.” And that media and technology should be integrated in schools just as in life. My students use what they read about biomes to take research notes and then write their information in a short summary paragraph about their biome. To add some Earth Day flair, they write short Earth Day poems to go with the final project.
Once students have researched and written about their biomes, they color, cut out, and assemble their plants and animals on a decorative background. Students show their understanding of the biome characteristics by how well they design a background that represents the real destination and how realistic and reasonable their plants and animals are. Hopefully they pair colors that are realistic and work well together. They have to understand contrast so that animals stand out from the background. Space has to be considered so that everything can be seen when all the pieces are in line. The concepts of background and foreground are integral to the finished piece.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t have a math objective when I planned this lesson. What I realized, though, is that math is unavoidable in almost any lesson. Students had to understand ratio and proportion to get their animals to the right size. I showed them the template while I made it, and we decided on the proper width of the frames. Students helped measure the background so that they could get paper that would align. Spatial reasoning was working overtime on this project.
Earth Day holds a special place in my heart (my youngest son is an Earth Day birthday boy!) but this STEAM project adapts easily to a variety of classroom activities. Students can make tunnel books to tell the tale of a literary story with key elements and characters forming the scene. The background becomes the setting and each layer adds a dimension, like the characters of the book. Older students can create books with many layers to represent pieces of difficult topics, show layers of a diagram, or take readers back in time. History and world destinations come alive. Adding a flap to the front of the book opens up the writing possibilities, which range from short stories and summaries to poems and fact cards.
What topics do you teach that would work well in a tunnel book? How can this Earth Day celebration work into your springtime themes? Download the lesson plan, get the research page, and print the templates to get started!