It's No Problem to Invent a Solution: Kindergarten Students Explore Inventions and Create Their Own
Graca, Rose M., Science and Children
"How does that work?" asked a bright little girl. We were taking turns sharpening pencils and she wanted to know how they went from dull to sharp points. I tried to explain the inner workings of our electric pencil sharpener, but all the important parts were covered. Then I thought, "What about a small, personal sharpener? No, it would not be the same, it only had one blade. Wait a minute ... what about an old-fashioned crank model that opened up? There had to be one in the school somewhere!" That was the beginning of our kindergarten class learning about inventions, inventors, and how we could be inventors, too. Engaging students in learning about pencil sharpeners led to researching and developing a lesson plan designed so students could learn how inventions are solutions to problems. Through identifying, researching, and brainstorming new inventions, the students practiced inventing a solution for a mock problem. As a class, in small groups, and individually, students were able to use scientific inquiry by posing questions, designing, and building solutions with natural and human-made materials. They tested their inventions, revised them, and reported results to the class.
This lesson integrated subjects such as language arts, social studies, math, and art while meeting national science education standards. Also, these types of lessons address the science and engineering practices from A Framework for K-12 Science Education, specifically, Scientific and Engineering Practices (1) Asking questions/defining problems, (2) Developing and using models, (6) Designing solutions, and (8) Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information, as well as Disciplinary Core Idea ETS1: Engineering design (NRC 2012).
Throughout the weeklong invention activities, students used many of the concepts found in this new generation of science standards framework, including drawing and writing in science journals, brainstorming solutions to real-world problems, building models and prototypes individually and cooperatively, presenting to the class, and evaluating their work. Creativity, noted as a characteristic of science and engineering work, was definitely the best part of the process. After the students learned about inventions, they were eager to make their own. Some things they built may have been more realistic than others; however, by thinking creatively and using science skills, they were able to learn that their ideas can impact the world. "How does that work?" was an excellent question to initiate a learning experience!
The first day, students participated in an "Invention Walk" (see Internet Resource) involving identification of inventions found outdoors. Before leaving the classroom, students were told we were going outside to find things that people had made. We discussed how these would be different from things existing in nature. They were excited about this and immediately offered ideas upon leaving school. I questioned why they believed things to be inventions, and my teacher assistant recorded their answers (Figure 1). When someone mentioned a naturally occurring object like a tree, I pointed out that people cannot make real trees or their seeds. After that, students rejected these kinds of answers with comments like, "No, that's a plant." or "People didn't think that up, it just happens in nature." After 20 minutes outdoors, we returned to the classroom, where the list was reviewed, rewritten on a poster, and the definition of an invention was discussed.
Students conversed about an invention being "something new someone made." Upon further questioning as to why someone would make inventions, one student suggested that "it would help fix a problem." Collectively, we determined that an invention was an answer to a problem "that you could touch," meaning that it was different from an answer to a question and instead had physical qualities. Students chose an invention to draw in their science journal. More advanced students drew improvements to their chosen invention. This activity emphasized the crosscutting concept of Structure and Function (NRC 2012), noting the relationship between nature and artificial objects. Students could now identify inventions.
The next day, I read aloud for 15 minutes from various trade books about inventors who invented things that students were aware of or commonly use (see NSTA Connection). The students enjoyed learning about the inventions and eagerly looked at the pictures in the books, even finding some inventions from our walk. A discussion ensued for another 15 minutes because they had not thought about a time without electricity and how much other inventions depend on it, or that a zipper is an invention. Some inventions, like Post-Its, were shown to the class to view and touch. I pointed out and we discussed that inventors have specific characteristics such as being problem solvers, tinkerers, and willing to work as part of a team. This experience gave them background information for designing inventions later in the week.
Next, the class brainstormed for problems that needed solutions so they could practice identifying problems and forming solutions as a group. First, children contributed answers that had solutions, such as one boy who said, "When I make mistakes on paper it's a problem, but I can use an eraser to fix them." Then, I tried to elicit some problems that we could solve with a new invention. We thought of a real-world problem--clothing that becomes too small--and sought solutions to this problem. One child suggested that extra cloth be added with some kind of connector like a zipper. This led to children relaying how they had pants that became shorts if they unzipped the bottoms; if they could take parts off, why couldn't they attach parts to the pant bottoms to make them longer? This could also be done with other clothing. Using a pen and dry erase board, I drew the solution discussed. Then students thought of how this invention could be tested and improved. I used the following questioning strategies to encourage higher levels of thinking (Bloom 1956) and to give them an idea of how to question their own ideas when given the opportunity:
* Application: How can you be sure this invention will work? How many times should it be tested before you are sure it works? How do you keep track of the information?
* Analysis: What will make your invention different from what exists? How is it better/worse than what exists?
* Evaluation: What would you say to someone who said this invention won't work? How could you make your invention better?
* Synthesis: If you could change one thing about your invention, what would it be?
Students considered the different questions, agreeing that testing their invention multiple times would be the best way to ensure it worked. They also wanted naysayers to try it out themselves, suggesting that problems would be fixed and tested again. Our productive discussion took about 20 minutes because so many children wanted to contribute their ideas.
Collaboration and Creativity
As our learning continued, the following day a guided experience was provided for students to apply their new knowledge about inventions. I described a problem of mine that needed their help: a need for new math games. Students were happy to help, so we quickly reviewed the idea of making a game. In playing games, turns are taken, some games have dice or spinners, and some games have cards or boards. I provided groups of students with small paper bags each filled with the same items: Post-Its, paper clips, paper, dice, plastic bags, stickers, and ribbon, and asked students to solve my problem by inventing a math game using the items they had been given. Students worked with a partner and were given 30-40 minutes to work on their invention with an additional 20-25 minutes devoted to presentations and revisions.
During this time, my teacher assistant and I circulated among students helping to encourage, question (Have you thought about doing ...? What would happen if ...? Do you think ...?), and facilitate making the inventions. We made suggestions that were accepted by some students and rejected by others.
All groups worked well, with the exception of one. This pair had difficulty coming up with anything and needed to be redirected several times. One time I took them around the room letting them see what others were creating and talking about what they might put together. Another time I stayed with them offering support for approximately five minutes to get them started on a simple project and returning frequently to scaffold their progress. Thinking back, one of their difficulties could have been that these two specific students could not work well with each other and may have done better being paired with different children.
On finishing, each pair presented their group's math game invention to the class and listened to others (Figure 2). As students walked around the room to view presentations, they commented to their partners about possible improvements to their games. Then, the students had the opportunity to use any extra materials or ideas from other games to revise and improve their invention. Some students returned to their games and made them more attractive with designs and decorations, while others added steps by creating cards to choose after dice were rolled. After seeming satisfied with their changes, students did a final show-and-tell about how and why they improved their games.
Individual Inventions in a Cooperative
On the fifth day of Invention Week to complete the study of inventing, I reviewed all of our invention activities and read aloud three final books about inventors (see NSTA Connection for a list of print resources). Then, I allowed the students some free playtime to explore the materials that were available for making inventions using their own ideas. For kindergarten students especially, allowing free play using different natural or human-made materials may get students to create their own inquiry questions to investigate. Free play gives children the opportunity to explore the properties of substances such as sand, wood, feathers, paper, cardboard tubes, dirt, plastic, aluminum foil, fabric, felt, string, yarn, paper plates, paper clips, cardboard boxes, glue, tape, crayons, and pencils. As noted in Invention at Play Educator's Manual, known inventors enjoyed many play experiences when they were young that involved experimenting with construction toys and machines, spending time in nature, and making different types of models of their inventions (Judd et al. 2002).
After investigating these items, students drew something they might like to build as a way to focus their thoughts. I asked students to share their idea with me before bringing it to life. This was useful because some of the children thought the drawing they were making was the entire activity; they had not realized that they would be making a model of their invention. After discussing it further, the students applied what they learned by building with the available materials. They each made their own project, but shared ideas and helped each other with construction. Students blended both natural and artificial materials in their inventions, most of which would not actually work in their intended way. For example, children who created toys that needed electricity to function were not able to wire their toy and plug it in. However, if they were able to test their model, then they did. For instance, a group of signs to communicate with others was tested to see if the writing was large enough to read from a distance. While not all of the inventions were testable, all students were able to experience the idea of inventing and to work with a variety of materials.
Finally, they presented their invention to the class. Some ideas were whimsical, such as the many robots that did things like teach people to skate or wash the floor. Some were possible ideas like an alarm clock that would shake your bed to wake you up, or a bike that would go faster because it had three wheels. The two inventions that seemed the most practical were a game that would teach students to identify shapes and a pointer for people who couldn't speak to indicate what they needed. The students enjoyed the building process and wanted to continue working much longer than the hour of time allotted.
Even though students are allowed to create and build things frequently, it is usually one small group at a time. This experience was different because everyone was involved and communicated improvements on one another's inventions for students to use in revising their inventions. Students even took time from their own projects to help others attach pieces or hold parts together until glue dried. There were no behavior problems that occurred during this time, since all the students were busily engaged. The large group all working together on different projects produced a great atmosphere for learning, similar to what we read about Thomas Edison and his Menlo Park, New Jersey, invention lab and other research and development labs where inventors work. Using a team of workers contributing ideas brings more brainstorming and creativity. I would repeat this activity knowing that a kindergarten group needs at least two adults to help students facilitate constructing their invention.
Learning was assessed through teacher observation of the use of scientific inquiry, the ability to identify an invention and produce a model of an invention, and being able to test it (if possible), revise it, and present it to others (see rubric, Table 1).
Table 1. Unit rubric. 1 point 2 points 3 points 4 points Cannot Described Described Distinguished distinguish inventions as inventions as between inventions objects. having been made inventions and from natural by people. natural objects. objects. Used question Used question Used main parts Used all parts of portion of and action of scientific scientific scientific portions of inquiry. inquiry. inquiry. scientific inquiry. Attempted to Created an Tried to use at Used many varied create an invention using least three materials to invention. one or two types different produce an of materials. materials to original create an invention or invention or improve an improve one. existing one. Did not test Attempted to Tested (if Tested an or revise an test or revise possible), and invention (if invention. an invention. revised an possible), invention if collected data, necessary. and revised invention if necessary. Presented an Briefly Presented an Presented an invention idea presented an invention to the invention to to the invention to the teacher and class in detail teacher. teacher and class with clear by clearly class. explanation. explaining all parts of the invention and process.
During this valuable experience, these 14 kindergarteners of varying levels from an average classroom used the inquiry process and creatively thought of solutions to real-world problems. Although the pre-bagged materials promoted more useable projects, freely choosing materials and classmates to work with stimulated more creativity and collaboration. A focusing activity of drawing their idea first was added because I felt some students needed to concentrate on their idea first rather than only on the many different materials they had explored. Incorporating this type of activity into the regular schedule would let the students know they would have time to build, create, and invent as a large group and should be thinking, in advance, of something they would like to design. Materials could be added a few at a time to explore from the beginning of the year so that students have time to explore the different properties of materials. To extend the project, idea cards with pictures of inventions could be given to students for inspiration or to create possible improvements upon, a problem of the week could be used to encourage familiarity with identifying problems, students and families could be asked to add different materials to the building area, and parents could be invited to share their time or expertise on building days to scaffold the children's building experience. As Lewis (2009) states, solving problems is thought-provoking for all involved; teachers and students alike!
Bloom, B.S. 1956. Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook i: The cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.
Judd, M., J. Lacasse, M. Smith, and K. Reilly. 2002. Invention at Play Educator's Manual. Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Lamelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. www.inventionatplay.org/iapeducatorsmanual.pdf
Lewis, T. 2009. Creativity in technology education: Providing children with glimpses of their inventive potential. International Journal of Technology and Design Education 19 (3): 255-268.
National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Download the list of trade books used in the unit at www.nsta.org/SC1212.
Math games invented by students.
* Stop and Go Math: A die is rolled, players take that many cards, which have been turned over so they cannot be seen. Any cards that have problems the player can solve are kept by that player. Cards are in the shape of a traffic light. The player with the most cards at the end wins.
* Decorated Flashcards (a memory game): Cards are turned so they cannot be seen. Some have addition facts, others are answers. Players turn over two cards, if they make a correct addition sentence, cards are kept, if not they are turned over again.
* Roll and Walk: This game was a model for players to use without a board. Two lines are formed. The person at the front rolls two dice, adds them together, and takes that many steps forward toward the goal. Players take turns rolling and walking. The first team to get all players across the goal wins.
* 3-D Math: This game board had sides that stood up to make a sort of container. Dice were rolled and players proceeded around the board answering addition facts that were placed around the edges of the board on Post-It notes, until they reached a goal.
* 1 to 101: Circle stickers placed around the board formed a path to the center. Players roll the dice, add the two numbers rolled, and move that amount of spaces. Then players choose a number from a bag and determine if it is an odd or even number. If they are correct, they can move one more space. Landing on the "X" spot means you go back to start.
* 1 to 42: Similar to 1 to 101 game with dots around a board for spaces. Players add two numbers rolled on dice and move that many spaces until they reach the 42nd space to win.
* Bag of numbers: A paper bag was flattened into a game board with addition facts written on Post-It notes stuck all over it. Dice were rolled determining which Post-It was yours to answer. Correct answers allowed players to keep the note. The winner is the player with the most notes.
RELATED ARTICLE: Connecting to the Standards
This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Standard A: Science as Inquiry
* Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
Standard B: Physical Science
* Properties of objects and materials
Standard E: Science and Technology
* Abilities of technological design
* Abilities to distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans
Standard G: History and Nature of Science
* Science as a human endeavor
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Rose M. Graca (email@example.com) is a kindergarten teacher at St. Richard School in Chicago, Illinois.…
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Publication information: Article title: It's No Problem to Invent a Solution: Kindergarten Students Explore Inventions and Create Their Own. Contributors: Graca, Rose M. - Author. Journal title: Science and Children. Volume: 50. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2012. Page number: 34+. © 2009 National Science Teachers Association. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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