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Last month, I shared some contexts and best practices for tinkering. This month, we’ll consider a specific example of tinkering in the classroom and ways to adapt tinkering for remote learning.

As with any future-ready strategy, tinkering has degrees of implementation.  From teacher-guided tinkering where the teacher determines intended outcomes to completely open-ended tinkering where the outcomes may or may not be identified at the start.  For this issue, we will focus on teacher-guided tinkering.

Identify Content Standards
Teacher-guided tinkering begins with identifying the content standards.  For this issue we’ll use:

K.P.4A  Conceptual Understanding: Objects can be described and classified by their observable properties, by their uses, and by whether they occur naturally or are manufactured (human-made). Different properties of objects are suited for different purposes,
K.MDA.1  Identify measurable attributes (length, weight) of an object.
K.MDA.2  Compare objects using words such as shorter/longer, shorter/taller, and lighter/heavier.
K.MDA.3  Sort and classify data into 2 or 3 categories with data not to exceed 20 items in each category.

In addition to content standards, any tinkering lesson will support students in meeting the expectations of the Science and Engineering Practices, the Mathematical Process Standards, and Computer Science and Digital Literacy Standards

Consider Space and Materials
Determine how much space students will need and what materials they will use for their projects.   Tinkering is improvisational learning, and it is through the working space and open exploration of the materials, tools, and resources that problem-solving naturally occurs.

Tinkering tools do not have to be high-tech or specially purchased.  Students can use scissors, rulers, and different types of tape, recyclable materials, office supplies (like paper clips and rubber bands), and household items (Like toothpicks and paper plates) and toys (see resources for homemade playdough) for their tinkering projects.  Most likely, students will also need an internet-ready device like a computer, tablet, or smart-phone to conduct research. For younger students, teachers should provide a list of websites and apps to facilitate their research. Materials are placed in a dedicated “Tinker Box” and placed in a dedicated “Tinkering Space”

Once the space and materials are determined, think, "What could students do with these things to learn about properties, materials, attributes, and data?  What might they create?”.   A common tinkering task for young children is “Design and create a toy or game.”

Provide Structures to Support Tinkering
As we introduce tinkering to our young students, we may begin with a song about tools such as .
After watching the video, ask:  “What is something you noticed about the tools in the toolbox?” and allow students to consider the question, discuss with a partner, and then share their thinking with the whole group (Think-Pair-Share).  Through this video and discussion, students should develop a shared definition of “tool”.  Possible responses are “they do things”, “they make things”, or “they make things easier”.
Once students understand the meaning of “tools”, they will explore materials and their properties.  Each student should have a set of items made of different materials.  For example, a set of cups of various materials (plastic, glass, paper, wood, ceramic, metal).  Children compare the cups (How are they different? How are they alike?), classify the properties (shiny, cold, green, tall, etc.), and make comparisons (the blue cup is heavier than the white cup.)
Next, connect materials and properties by asking students to write a description or draw a picture(s) of their favorite game or toy. Students identify the properties of the toy that make it fun. Create a class list of properties that make toys fun.  Using the properties that make toys fun, identify criteria for students to use in their tinkering projects as they design their toy or game. Before tinkering begins, students explore the materials in the “Tinker Box” and divide them into at least two categories: “tools” and “parts”.  Provide guidance on categories such as “each category must have at least three items in it” to avoid students creating a category for individual objects.  The goal is to identify common properties or characteristics in objects.  Students post a picture of their categories to a Padlet ( set-up prior to class.
Adapting Tinkering to Remote Learning
Space and Materials: Choose supplies that will be readily available in all of your students’ homes.  Ensure students have access to internet-ready devices and internet for research.  For students without internet, teachers might provide hard copies of resources that students might need for their tinkering projects.  Parents should create a dedicated “tinkering space” in the home to honor the ongoing and often messy nature of tinkering.
Adapting the Lesson to E-Learning: 

  • Teachers might ask students to watch the video about tools and answer the question on their own, then facilitate the group discussion in the whole class online meeting.
  • Instead of providing the cups for the materials and properties sort, students can examine the cups available in their home (with parent assistance), and post pictures on the class Padlet or a video of their sort on Flipgrid.
  • After exploring the tools in their personal tinker box, students post a picture on the class Padlet showing the categories of the objects in their tinker box.
 Time for Tinkering:
Now that students have the background knowledge and support for the tinkering lesson, it is time for tinkering! Students will discover how they might use the parts and tools in their “Tinker Box” to create a toy or game that meets the class criteria developed earlier.
As students tinker, teachers and parents should provide support and structure:
  • Resist the urge to help, correct, fix, or aid in the process.
  • Allow students to fail, and when they do congratulate them on a “great place to start” and help them discover what they learned.Ask open ended questions like, “what does that do?”, “why do you think that happened?”, or “what might you do differently?”.
  • When students are successful, have them share why they think they were successful with the whole class, other groups or larger community.
  • Provide opportunities for them to reflect, write and draw about their iterations, and encourage specificity (like labels and flow and observable data).
  • Tinkering takes time.  Allow students to return to the “Tinker Space” over a period of weeks for 15-30 minutes to continue working on their toy or game.
    When students feel like they have a product worthy of sharing then help them create a video demonstrating and explaining their toy or game to share with the class.
    Learning is Open Retrieved June 05, 2020. Copyright 2017.

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