Creating STEM: an Electricity Unit

Saturday, April 7, 2018
This term in my 8th grade STEM classroom, we are moving into physical science. I am focusing on teaching an Electricity and Circuits Unit, and a Simple Machines Unit, with the final project for the term to build carnival and table top arcade games for the end of the year celebration.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never taught a STEM centered class before. (That is probably about to become REALLY apparent, lol...) This year has been a lot of a hot mess- I have been trying to find my bearings, but I am starting to feel pretty confident, so what follows is my own personal musings on how I am planning my units, lessons and projects. Feel free to disregard at will...

Let me first say, that I have not applied any standards to my class this year. Not state standards. Not NGSS. This year has been all about design, engineering and learning how to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Because i teach STEM, I am kind of outside the normal realm of academics in our school. I plan to spend some time this summer looking at the desired outcomes of my lessons and aligning them to NGSS. But ain't nobody got time for that right now- I am doing my best to stay one step ahead of the students.....

When designing units, I look at what I want my students to be able to do, or a project I want them to complete and think about what skills/knowledge they will need to have. Often, during the middle of a project, I will realize there are better ways to do what I am doing. Sometimes I will adjust; most of the time, I take notes for next year...

My overall end goal/desired outcome for this unit was that students would be able to use basic circuitry  and knowledge of simple machines to construct carnival games and table top arcades.

These kids have had STEM since 5th grade, but this may be the first class where they were truly thrown out on a limb and told to figure it out (you know, GRIT) so it has been an interesting learning curve (for everyone).

I started with basics- making paper circuits, and then beginning a circuits challenge, and ending with creating an electronic game. Some of them had done paper circuits before in earlier grades, but luckily, they remembered nothing, so we were starting from a clean slate.

I started with paper circuits to give them an gentle introduction to circuits and electricity flow.  By completing the basic series and parallel circuits with batteries, aluminum foil (none of your fancy copper tape, THANKYOUVERYMUCH) and Christmas lights, they were expected to come to an understanding that electricity will always flow along the metal (or I called it the path of least resistance). So if they did not leave a break in the foil and insert the light, no luck-no light! I also wanted them to start making a connection to the number of batteries and the number of lights (Mrs., it works really well with one light, but more than one and it doesn't work/gets really dim! REALLY? Fascinating....) My final expectation for this challenge was that they would have a working knowledge of series and parallel circuits.

This was an interesting challenge- some of them got it right away, some struggled to the end.

After the paper circuits, we moved on to something a little more common- using batteries, lights, switches and copper wire to create circuits. I created a 10 part Circuits Challenge that started with  simple instructions and amount of materials (for example: create  a series circuits using 1 battery, 1 light and 1 switch) and got increasingly harder, until they were building mixed circuits. For each of the challenges, they had to diagram the circuit, build it (and get it working), experiment with it (such as opening and closing switches or unscrewing a light bulb) and then record observations. Some of the circuits had them adding more components, and then observing the changes. 

This was an amazing exercise in grit for some students! As the challenges got harder, there was a lot of frustration, followed by triumph and success. Some got a few challenges along, then realized they were mixing up series and parallel (middle school student heartbreak). There was a lot of interesting observations, especially when adding switches into the mix. 

The desired outcomes of the Circuit Challenges was to fully understand flow of electricity, the importance of connections, and the function of switches and their effect on current. During the process of building the circuits, they had to learn how to test for current, using multimeters, and calculating voltage requirements. 

After they completed the Circuits Challenge, they were tasked with creating an electric game. For this final project, they had to create a working electric game, with 12 activated points. Many opted for making an "Operation" style game, or a matching quiz game. I have several who created sports games and mazes- I even have a mini-golf game! 

This unit was a lot of fun for my students. It even got a number of students really involved and thinking critically, as well as problem solving and trouble shooting. 

It also got them really excited about our final unit of the year- Carnival Games! We will be exploring simple machines, with a final project to create a working carnival game for our end of the year carnival! I cannot wait to see what they come up with!

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