Jelly bean lockdown math

Homeschooling STEM: inspiration, not perspiration

Image credit: Corrina Thomson

Expensive kits and hours of preparation time are a luxury many parents don’t have, so what can you do to inspire tomorrow’s engineers? Two families try out STEM learning at home.

Sixty jelly beans and a tube of cocktail sticks might sound like leftovers from a post-lockdown party, but this is actually all you need to give your kids an understanding of engineering that ties in with what they will be learning when back at school.

As a fairly new STEM ambassador and a parent of a 10 and 12-year-old who have very different enthusiasm levels for schoolwork, I decided during the Covid-19 lockdown to put some STEM resources to the test. I was joined in this venture by another STEM ambassador with younger children, aged six and three.

The lockdown has resulted in raised awareness of online learning resources, some of which have been made freely available recently to help teachers and parents during this challenging period.

The ever-expanding plethora of resources range from those that are well-structured according to the curriculum across a range of subjects, like BBC Bitesize, to the more maths-orientated. There are activities and links on the STEM Ambassador website; the IET itself has a range of activities and games, and there are downloadable activities on the Royal Society’s website.

Schools are also making good use of Google Classroom to post STEM learning topics alongside other curricular and optional fun activities for children. For example, my children decoded Morse as part of their work on VE Day.

My main criteria in choosing activities were picking ones which did not require a great deal of components or resources that I would not already have in the house, and ones which were not likely, at an educated guess, to immediately turn off my children. I know from experience that what may look interesting to me can be boring or impractical for children. For example, my elder child was not at all interested in watching a programme about the rise of the microprocessor, and while a DIY dodecahedron may look impressive in a handout illustration, it rarely looks like anything more than recycling material when made in my house.

Over the years, I have also realised that when activities are too difficult for me to do without undue stress, they are probably not worth doing. This includes even seemingly minor ‘fun’ activities like using icing to join the panels of a gingerbread house. The lockdown has been stressful enough for everyone and STEM learning should be fun.

When Aristotle apparently said “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man”, he probably did not mean that over-sevens and girls can’t learn anything. Bearing this in mind, I went to the STEM Ambassador website and found the Polar Explorer Programme activity pack for our first activity. The programme is linked to the new polar research ship RSS David Attenborough, which carries the autonomous underwater vehicle called Boaty McBoatface. The pack covers topics like the engineering of the ship, polar exploration, arctic animal survival, climate change and investigating the oceans.

We chose the ‘design a boat’ activity (suggested for ages seven to ten) because it appealed to my 10-year-old son and only required Plasticine and dried peas. We had no Plasticine in the house, so during an essential shopping trip, Play-Doh was purchased. I also substituted the dried peas with ceramic baking beans as they are heavier and re-useable. The aim is to design a boat that carries the maximum number of passengers (beans).

My son quickly built what looked like a flat-bottomed work barge that promptly sank when placed in the water. It was then that we discovered what happens when you put Play-Doh in water. The dough becomes slimy, joints come apart and the equivalent of an oil slick appears in the water. Not to be put off, I decided to use the slick as simulated ocean pollution, which prompted further discussion about how we could get rid of it. I put my own leaf-shaped boat in the water, which floated for a short time until the joints came apart, the wreck contributing further ocean pollution.

After a Play-Doh salvage operation, we resumed the experiment with disposable cupcake cases, which have a waxy layer that held out the polluted water fairly well. He started to add passengers to the cupcake case boat and found that it held 30 before sinking. My daughter (12) then stepped in and created a double-hulled ‘ice-breaker’ cupcake boat, which held 76 baking beans before sinking.

To conclude the experiment, we used a toy boat to see how many passengers it could hold before sinking. After finding that it could hold many more beans, we discussed why this was. The reasons included: properties of materials (the plastic being sturdy and waterproof); design (load distribution and hull design), and water upthrust.

This activity was easy to do and inspired a lot of enthusiasm with few materials. It was also simple to adapt the experiment to use other items you may already have in the house. Taking the outcomes further through discussing different topics also felt easy. Of all the activities, this one became the most openly competitive and I did feel that explaining each boat’s usefulness as part of the experiment was futile in the competitive drive to carry the most passengers.

Temporarily crushing the philosophy of ‘l’art pour l’art’, our second activity centred on a fusion of art and science found on the Royal Society website. The Young Peoples’ Book Prize 2019 student activity pack’s Planetarium activity is about having an eye for detail – a skill, it notes, that is useful in both art and science.

An image by German naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) is given as an example of the use of this type of illustration by scientists of the day. The activity invites children to draw an image that can be used to explain something they have learned about science.

My daughter chose to draw an illustration of her seedlings, planted during lockdown, some of which have germinated and others not. She used the drawing to explain that her seedlings needed light, soil, and sunshine to grow. I fear that the basil and marjoram hastily planted out to the garden will not survive Spring in the Scottish Highlands, but we did not go into that level of detail.

My son chose to illustrate a scientific concept which may not be close to his heart, but the object of the experiment is – his skateboard. He made a line drawing of the skateboard and we used the BBC Bitesize KS2 science resource to refresh his knowledge of friction. We talked about friction between different surfaces and he then drew two different surfaces – rock and concrete – where friction would have different effects on the speed of his skateboard. This was a simple way of introducing the concept of friction using a subject that is meaningful to him and was then enthusiastically discussed in the context of the scooter, BMX and mountain bike as well.

As my son likes drawing but not particularly writing, this was a good activity for him. My daughter enjoyed it too, but said it felt more like schoolwork than something you would do for fun.

There are numerous useful engineering activities available on the IET website, categorised by age, duration, educational key stage and subject. Our family is also thinking about entering the IET Virtual Faraday Challenge, a competition to design a product that will assist Airbus in helping people around the world in times of need.

For our own engineering activity, I decided to go for an unstructured approach to construction and just asked the children to make a structure with jelly beans and cocktail sticks. The structure could be a tower, bridge, cantilever etc and there were no criteria for the design.

Both children had already taken part in similar activities at home and in school with marshmallows and cocktail sticks and other building materials, so they had a good idea of which structures would be stronger. My son whizzed into action, surprisingly not eating the jelly beans, and made a pyramidal structure, followed by a cuboid with a reinforced deck. The latter went on to win a load-bearing challenge by holding the weight of two oranges.

My daughter built a triangular structure, which worked well until the jelly beans started to fall apart from adjusting and rejoining the cocktail sticks. My own buttressed triangular structure owed less than I had hoped to the Forth Rail Bridge and fared badly in the load-bearing challenge.

My son said the construction was a “good activity, but not as good as the Polar Explorer” and my daughter agreed.

I have seen several resources online where you can add certain weights to structures, note the failure weight of each structure and go into greater detail about depths of spans and so on, but I suspect that adding paperwork to this activity would have made it less appealing to its audience. Further detail would be a good way, however, to make it more relevant to the curriculum, particularly for older children.

Fellow parent Kathleen McDougall Mutton, who is also a STEM ambassador, tried some activities for younger children with her six and three-year-olds.

She first tried the IET’s Pizza the Action, which teaches fractions through slicing pizza. Conscious of time constraints and lack of a printer to print off blank pizzas from the materials, she adapted the activity to ‘lunchtime maths’ with a quiche.

“My daughter already understood about whole, half, quarter etc and the concept of sharing. However, she didn’t seem familiar with the term ‘fraction’, so I’m guessing they haven’t explained that in school yet,” Kathleen says.

“She did like doing ‘lunchtime maths’, although we only spent a short time on this. We did it again the following day with more quiche. Other types of food would work too. Overall this was easy to adapt for parents and fun for kids.”

Their second activity was the IET’s Material World, which looks into physical properties of materials and groups them based on their properties. Kathleen’s six-year-old had already completed a similar activity at school and during lockdown home schooling, so was not engaging with it.

Kathleen continues: “I think this would work in school, though. We did discuss the shopping bag example with bags in the house and also talked about which option – fabric or plastic – might be better for the environment. Overall, it felt too much like a school lesson for home. However, it did reinforce learning from school and, as a parent, you could integrate the ideas and questions about materials into day-to-day conversation.”

The McDougall Muttons also completed the Royal Society Planetarium scientific communication activity and adapted it to their children’s ages. Kathleen explains: “I just asked my daughter to draw a picture to explain some science to me and she told me about how birds flap their wings to fly. We got a bird stencil and she drew a picture.

“I also asked her about what shape geese fly in and she said ‘pyramid’, which was close enough, and drew more birds in a V-shape. We then talked about why birds use that formation.”

She continues: “I liked this exercise as I think sharing science via imagery is a great skill. This exercise didn’t need any preparation from me as a parent and she enjoyed it, particularly using the stencil. She has since spent ages on YouTube, teaching herself to draw with more confidence.”

Kathleen’s younger child also took part in this activity and drew a rocket on his chalkboard.

The children then did a non-specific construction activity, which was similar to any other playtime with building toys and was very well received. Kathleen says: “It is easy to engage them in conversation as they play, and introduce questions about strong shapes and structures, and look at how to modify designs to make them better.

“As a parent this was easy as there was no preparation involved, we have all the materials, and the kids don’t have to be persuaded to participate. We just did this with their normal toys, as we didn’t have marshmallows, spaghetti, etc, although I have seen construction activities done before at science festivals and even with PhD students, as this is a good team challenge or ice-breaker activity,” she continues.

“There are also some materials in the British Science Association Crest learning packs for primary school age kids that include making structures from paper and Sellotape. I’ve also seen another challenge where secondary students had to make a structure to support a toy helicopter using only A4 paper sheets and paperclips.”

Kathleen adds: “In theory, these could also be a good resource for parents in the school holidays; certainly the construction exercise, as the kids do this anyway. However, as a parent in lockdown, I felt I didn’t really have time to prepare anything else on top of working from home and the homeschool lessons provided by the teacher.”

Whatever the age of your children, there are a variety of online learning resources that you can take off-the-shelf or adapt to suit you as a parent. While formal activities can be a source of inspiration or motivation, when it comes to STEM learning, your own activities are just as valuable for you and your family.

If you would like to give your children a greater understanding of engineering careers, take a look at the IET Education website, where there is a Future Focus top trumps card game. This gave my own children a good insight into engineering and careers.

Also, E&T has been running weekly ‘Lockdown Challenges’ offering fun engineering activities for children.

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