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Second Graders Learn to Defy the Laws of Physics

Second Graders Learn to Defy the Laws of Physics

Under normal circumstances, five-pound pumpkins released from a second-story balcony onto a cement pavement would leave a big mess. Not so at The Rumson Country Day School, which held its annual Pumpkin Drop on October 23. The vast majority of pumpkins survived the 25-foot fall, thanks to the ingenuity of RCDS second graders and the contraptions they designed, built and tested, to defy the laws of gravity.

Second grader Ella Purcell considered a few strategies to protect her pumpkin. “At home, I put a pumpkin in a plastic bag and tested it,” she said. “That did not work.” Ella pivoted to plan B. “The next time, I put the pumpkin in a tiny box. Then I put the little box inside a big box with stuffing all around it. I was scared it was going to move all over the place so I added more stuffing so it wouldn’t bounce on anything.” Success. Ella’s pumpkin survived the drop unscathed.

Throughout the hands-on STEAM project, RCDS second grade teachers, Bailey Palmieri and Nikki Wehrhahn, encourage their students to test their ideas and if they fail, try again.

“It’s a really thought-out process that the students go through,” says Mrs. Wehrhahn. “One that involves a lot of reflection and self-thought in terms of what worked, what didn’t work and how can we make it better?”

“Students have to think about the elements of gravity and the forces that are involved and connect that to some of the science topics they’ve been learning,” said Mrs. Palmieri.

Similar to Ella, second-grader Gunnar Jones used a cardboard box as the foundation of his pumpkin armor. However, he attempted to devise a way to slow the contraption’s fall – a parachute made out of plastic bags.

“The more mass an object has the more gravity it has,” he explained. “I tried to make it not too heavy so I used a parachute so it would feel lighter and go slower and not have a big impact.”

While Gunnar’s strategy was backed by the lessons he learned in science class, he faced challenges. “The pumpkin was still too heavy so after it fell it had a tiny crack. Next time, I would use a bigger bag for the parachute and maybe add thick cushioning.”

As they strive to make sense of a bigger world, second graders can tend to be perfectionists about their projects. Mrs. Palmieri notes that designs often go awry in the construction phase of the Pumpkin Drop. “There’s a lot of resilience that comes out of an instance when the design doesn’t work quite the way you envisioned,” she explains. “It’s a great moment when you see them pivot and persevere through a challenge.”

The project also builds camaraderie among the two second grade classes. “When they drop the pumpkins, everyone is cheering for that one student. They are incredibly supportive of one another,” says Mrs. Wehrhahn. “There’s a lot of community and team building.”

The Pumpkin Drop is one of many STEAM challenges and hands-on projects at RCDS. From Mrs. Wehrhan’s perspective, the approach to learning produces a lot of light bulb moments. “The more hands-on and engaged second graders are, the more excited they are to learn,” she says. “That’s where the real ‘aha’ moments happen for our students.”