November 9, 2016

Thanksgiving STEM Challenge: Corn Cultivator

Thanksgiving STEM Challenge: In Corn Cultivator, students build one or more farming tools. Includes modifications grades 2 - 8.You're so close to a well-earned Thanksgiving holiday break! But trying to keep kids engaged as they inch ever closer to the holidays can be a Herculean task! 

As you might already know, this is one more reason I love STEM challenges so much. They're naturally enjoyable and engaging activities for kids that are chock full of academic rigor (when done properly/with intent). 

With STEM challenges, you don't have to lose instructional minutes because your kids have holiday fever; you can channel their energy for good! Win/win!

For the past few weeks, I have been giving walk throughs of a set of five (5) Thanksgiving challenges that follow the needs encountered by our intrepid Pilgrims as they set up their new settlements: 

- Mini Mayflower (Get to where you're going)

- Protect-a-Pilgrim (Build a shelter)

- Pumpkin Picker (Gather available food)

- Corn Cultivator (Set up sustainable food source)

- Turkey Transporter (Once all major needs are met, there's time for fun!)

We're nearing the end of the Thanksgiving journey this week with Corn Cultivator.


Students design one or more farming tools that will: till, dig holes, plant seeds, and lightly irrigate. Results can be measured in # of tools created and time it takes to fully prepare the farmland. Note of warning: this one can get a little messy, and you'll want to set aside more time than your average challenge.

Where Can I Find Out More?

The video walk-through of Corn Cultivator is embedded below. In it, you'll find all sorts of helpful information about materials, modifying difficulty level, extensions and some tips & tricks to guide you, so you can better guide your students through the challenge. Check it out. However, if you prefer to read, you'll find the video transcribed at the end of this post.

Where are the Others?

Between Oct. 20 and Nov. 13, I'll be posting one Thanksgiving STEM challenge video every Thursday to my YouTube channel and here on my blog. (The final post will come on a Sunday to give you time to implement before Thanksgiving break!)

Until then, you'll find the Thanksgiving bundle briefly described in this post

All challenges are available individually and in discounted bundles in my TpT store, as well.


Video Transcription

Hello, welcome to week four of the Thanksgiving STEM challenges. So far we have gotten the Pilgrims to the new world in Mini Mayflower, they've gotten shelter in Protected Pilgrim, and they gathered available food in Pumpkin Picker. The next task ahead of the Pilgrims is to create a sustainable food source, so they need to learn how to farm. And that is where Corn Cultivator comes in.

In Corn Cultivator students are gonna create one or more tools that help them do a number of farming tasks. They need to till the soil, dig holes, plant seeds, and then irrigate lightly. Before I get too far ahead of myself, let's take a quick look at the materials and the STEM Challenge Cycle.

This is the STEM Challenge Cycle you should follow for every challenge. I've defined each step in another video, you can click on the title now to see the cycle explained.

Before to start the challenge with your students, you'll probably want to review a few things with them in terms of vocabulary, like till, cultivate, and irrigate. You'll probably also wanna go through how the Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims learn how to farm. You're probably already aware that the soil in New England was not prime for farming, and so the Wampanoag showed the Pilgrims that if you added two to three herring fish, it really made the soil more fertile. And then they would also use between four and five seeds in each seed mound, so if want to stay true to the Pilgrims journey then you'll wanna do it that way. If you do decide that you wanna have fish in with your challenge, I would suggest to either use paper clips, or those little Swedish Fish candies.

So when you start the challenge, you can actually get the students started, and they can be working on their tools while you prep the farmland. For farmland you have a couple of choices. You can either do the challenge outdoors, and then just mark off a parcel of farmland for each group. That's always a little dangerous because you never know if the weather is going to agree to with you on the day you wanna do the challenge. So, I prefer to use little foil tins ... again, I get them from Dollar Tree. And inside you can either use flour, or soil, or sand if you want. If you do it this way, when you give it to the students make sure that you don't give it to them already evened out, so I like to give it to them in big clumps like this. You wanna make sure to tell the students that they're not allowed to shake it out to even, the tool has to do the tilling. 

Another thing you can do if you have older students and you wanna increase difficulty a little bit, is you can add, like, kitty litter, gravel, marbles, to make the soil more rocky. You can also compress the soil down, you can even add a little bit of water to make it a little bit more hard, and dry and cake-y. By compressing the soil and adding some rocks, it does make that a little bit closer to the actual soil, and it adds just a little tiny bit of difficulty.

Okay, so I'm gonna do a quick demo using this tool. The next step is to dig the holes for the seeds, and you do wanna have the students know ahead of time how many mounds of seeds they need. I usually choose between twelve and sixteen. If you are using the fish, then you need to place your fish in the mound. Followed by the seeds. Then they need to cover the seeds. Finally, you're gonna need to lightly irrigate, and so what I put in the criterion constraints lists is that it has to evenly and lightly irrigate the farmland, without exposing any of the seeds. If any of the seeds do become exposed, then you need to go back and use your tool to cover them back up again. Let's see how this one works. Well I found lots of places to improve on that irrigation system, it did not work well. You can see this side was flooded, this side didn't get any water. I used too much water in general, the seeds are exposed, many of the herring are exposed, and this has created quite a mess.

Sometimes that's going to happen in your challenges, and, you know, stay calm, be all right with it, because a big part of STEM challenges is identifying your failure points, fixing them, and doing a second iteration. And while it might not always be possible to do a second iteration, try where you can. Certainly I'd give students an opportunity to talk about what they would need to fix. So I would try to identify either ways to fix my designs, or even maybe just start from scratch. And you know, even when I'm thinking about my design for the irrigation, even if it had worked it would have blocked the sun, so it wouldn't have been a great choice all in all. You wanna give students an opportunity to really analyze their designs in this way, even if they're successful there might be ways to make them better.

And don't be nervous or scared if a challenge doesn't go well the first time, they're not always going to. You have to think of it like a process, very much like the writing process. The first draft is not always a fantastic read, and the first design is not always a smashing success.

If you wanna measure results for this challenge, I like to have students record the number of tools they designed, so in this case I would count this as one tool, and then the irrigation as a second tool. And also, they should keep track of the amount of time it takes them to completely prepare the farmland and irrigate it.

As I said before, if you wanna increase difficulty, make the soil more difficult to work with by compressing it and adding pebbles, gravel, kitty litter. You can also require that all the tools be in one. So, this almost fits the bill, but it doesn't irrigate. But perhaps when I redesign, since I didn't like my irrigation tool, I can find a way to maybe pour down off of the spoons perhaps.

For extensions on this one, of course you can continue studying the Pilgrims' journey. How did they farm, what kinds of tools did they have available to them. You can compare how the Pilgrims farmed to modern farming techniques now. Otherwise you can extend on the idea of parts of the plant, photosynthesis, how do plants grow, all of that.

So with all this you have the basics, but of course there's always more, so check out the resource.

I know I'm always thankful when I can get a little bit of time back in my day. This resource contains everything you need, including modifications for use with second through eighth graders. You'll still need to gather the simple materials of course, but the hard parts are done. You'll get Aligned Next Generation Science Standards, links to my STEM challenge How-to videos to help you get the most from each challenge, and the Corn Cultivator Materials list. In Teacher Tips you'll find premise and setup, how to increase or decrease difficulty through the Criteria and Constraints list, measuring results, and cross-curricular extension suggestions. You'll find an editable Criteria & Constraints List, so you can tailor the challenge to your students.

For Student Handouts there are two versions, four-page expanded room for response for younger students, and a two-page condensed space paper saver version. You'll also find a set of group discussion questions. In the Extension Handouts you'll find task card directions, examples, and templates, as well as process flow templates. This resource is available individually, and as part of the discounted Thanksgiving and Mega STEM Challenge bundles. Links can be found in the description bellow the video.

This one is not for the faint of heart. It is a little bit more challenging, it does take a little bit of extra time for you to set up, it's gonna be a little bit messier, but I think you'll find it's really worth it. Your kids are gonna really enjoy it, it's a fantastic thing to do right before the Thanksgiving break.

Make sure you like and subscribe. Next week I'll be back with the final Thanksgiving challenge, see you next time.

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