Tag Archives: engineering

Designing a 1st Grade Unit with Making in Mind

Students Sketch Plans for their Lunchrooms

Students Sketch Plans for their Lunchrooms

Now that we have the I.D.E.A. Studio  (Imagination Destination at Episcopal Academy), a new space at my school for interdisciplinary work, I have been excited to collaborate with teachers to imagine new student projects. Our first grade social studies work is centered around an exploration of places, starting with students’ bedrooms and expanding out all the way to the Earth. This exploration begins by reading students the book Me on the Map. From there, students begin following a similar examination of places and maps that the girl in the book explores. Over the past few years, I have developed a variety of projects that integrate technology into this work in meaningful ways, such as the intersections between mapping, coding, and the distance between home and school. This year, I wanted to see if we could bring more hands-on making into the curriculum.

I began to design a new unit (check out this Google Doc to see it) that would bring together students’ expertise and knowledge of current spaces they frequent (e.g., their bedrooms, the classroom, or the lunchroom) and allow them to consider the design elements involved in creating one of those spaces together as a class. This type of project would integrate ISTE standards, Next Generation Science Standards, reading and writing standards, and connect directly to students’ expanding exploration of places from Me on the Map.

It was important that the technology aspects of the unit be integrated with the curriculum because that is the model for all technology work at the school. We strive to have technology learning happen authentically, providing lessons on new skills as they are needed and often directly in the classroom. For this unit, I thought students could also learn some new maker skills: building 3D models with recycled materials and creating working circuits to light up LEDs. Plus, students would continue to use technology as a tool to document learning and communicate ideas with external audiences by creating an ebook.

After brushing up on my knowledge of Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), I decided to specifically use that framework when designing the unit, starting with the standards and then examining what assessments would best help show evidence of learning, before planning the actual project work. I also wanted students to have voice and choice in the project, so I found ways to incorporate their wants through voting and integrating their personal ideas and designs, as well as their contributions to a how-to ebook (Culatta, 2013). Part of this process also involves students giving one another feedback, striving to empathize with the needs and desires voiced by their peers. Later in the unit, students have a chance to work as a team to remix each other’s work to create a shared product, a skillset that is growing more and more valuable (Lessig, 2008). Since the unit follows the entire engineering design process (with some design thinking empathy work added in), I knew I would need a lot of scaffolding to support students (O’Donnell, 2012) so the unit was designed with resources like checklists and a chance to revisit ideas multiple times throughout the project.

We are just starting to try out this unit with the students now and so far, they seem to be very excited to engage with their designs. Last week, we had a discussion that brought some of their learning and empathy work to the forefront, as a class that was designing a “lunchroom where everyone would feel comfortable and happy” took time to reconsider the addition of TVs. At first, many students suggested adding them as a way to increase enjoyment at lunch but then some students said that this might cause students not to talk to one another any more or fight over the choice of shows. We spent some time problem solving the issue (e.g., we could have a TV and no-TV section, etc) and ultimately decided that to make everyone happy and comfortable, we could find other ways to bring enjoyment (like bubble blowers and music!) instead of TVs.

Although most of the unit is hands-on and active, I cannot wait to get to the circuitry lesson and showing students how they can actually bring lights to their 3D models. I hope to write up a reflection post after the unit is finished to share out things I learned and want to remix myself after doing it with students.


Culatta, R. (2013). Reimagining learning: Richard Culatta at TEDxBeaconStreet [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Z0uAuonMXrg

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press.

O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI: 10.1037/13273-003. 

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition. Prentice Hall.