Second Graders Put the Engineering Design Process to Work on Hurricane Houses

Second Graders Put the Engineering Design Process to Work on Hurricane Houses

Lower School Science Teacher Jennifer Grolemund presented a formidable STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) challenge for RCDS second graders: can you design and build a hurricane house that can withstand simulated floodwaters and high winds? The hands-on project gets underway this month as part of the second grade’s in-depth study of earth science.

Like with all STEAM challenges, Gators will tackle the assignment using the Engineering Design Process (EDP), a cyclical exercise that prompts students to think and solve problems like engineers.

“It’s the steps – ask, imagine, plan, create, test, improve, share,” explained Ms. Grolemund. “This is what distinguishes STEAM from science. It’s a step-by-step process, with students creating something tangible to meet a very specific function.”

Thinking like engineers is a familiar process to RCDS second graders. Ms. Grolemund, who has worked as a field biologist and holds an M.A. in curriculum and teaching from Columbia University, has a way of channeling Gators’ innate curiosity. She has tasked Beginners with inventing a back scratcher that can extend to a hard-to-reach area and asked first graders to design and construct hats that will protect them from the sun, among other projects.

A distinctive component of these challenges is their relevance to students’ lives. “We really strive to make the STEAM projects applicable to real life scenarios,” Ms. Grolemund added. “It’s not just, ‘Go and invent an alien.’ We reframe a question with real and meaningful connections to life that students can then solve as engineers. Asking our second graders to construct a house that can withstand a storm is applicable to real life, especially since we live near the Jersey Shore.” 

“We reframe a question with real and meaningful connections to life that students can then solve as engineers. Constructing a house that can withstand a storm is applicable to real life.”

The hurricane house project is a timely complement to the earth science curriculum that gives students the opportunity to practice all the elements of STEAM.

“Second graders have studied geology, tectonic plates and earthquakes, and now we’re moving on to extreme weather,” Ms. Grolemund stated. “Kids are very interested in storms, especially the physical damage they can cause. Seeing a tree that’s been uprooted from a hurricane really piques their interest. You see their eyes get huge when we start talking about, ‘How can engineers make our lives safer?’”

The students’ model homes can be built from a set list of materials and have to fit prescribed mathematical parameters in terms of height, width, and elevation. Testing of the elevated homes is done using a flood tray and wind machine.

Ms. Grolemund builds in a lot of time for testing of the designs. “That’s one of the biggest parts of the Engineering Design Process,” she said. “It might take a student three, four, or five tries to get it right. That can be frustrating at age seven, but we work through it. The STEAM process instills persistence. Students learn how to assess what’s working, what’s not working, and how to make improvements to better their idea. The bigger lesson is sticking with your idea until you get it right.” 

Pictured: Hayden Turkaly with her hurricane house in April 2020. Ms. Grolemund managed to pull off the project virtually even in the midst of last year’s COVID-19 lockdown. RCDS families rallied to support the project, with one family testing their student’s hurricane house in the shower and others going outdoors to test the structures using garden hoses.

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