Family STEM: Pass the STEM, please

By Lisa M. Blank, Oregon Coast STEM Hub

Engage the whole family in a lively mealtime STEM conversation!

bird's eye view of a dinner table crowded with dishes full of food and peoples hands passing the dishes around
Image credit: Shutterstock

Stress levels elevate when our ability to predict and control daily events erode. Given the unpredictability of life right now, establishing family dinner routines can provide a much-needed sense of security and feeling of belonging.

INSPIRE

Dinnertime can also be a great time to support STEM learning! Family STEM conversations can provide insight into how others think, a safe place to try out new ideas, and an opportunity to practice using evidence to support explanations while learning more about STEM concepts and careers.

STEM conversations can be any family discussion where topics related to science, technology, engineering, or math connections are explored.

TRY IT!

To get started, we suggest downloading the Family Dinner Projects STEM Conversations Starter Pack, which includes twenty STEM conversation starters such as, “Would you rather go for a walk in the forest or along the beach? Why?”                                                                           

“Would you rather go for a walk in the forest or along the beach? Why?”

Images: C. Goodwin


Here is one of our favorite STEM family conversation starters:

EXAMPLE

Hitchbot the robot sitting on a table

Have you heard of the hitchhiking travels of Hitchbot the Robot and how he met his untimely demise in Philadelphia after traveling throughout Canada and parts of Europe?                             

Image: Hitchbot in Canada (Wikimedia Commons)

If not, read this story with your family and start a conversation over tonight’s dinner with one or more of the questions below.

  • If you could drive, would you have picked up this hitchhiking robot if you passed him on the road? Why or why not?
  • Do you think we can/should trust robots? Explain.
  • Do you think robots should trust humans?
  • While some people are mourning the demise of Hitchbot, his creators see his journey as a success. What do you think about Hitchbot’s experiences?
  • Imagine you could invent a robot. What would it do?
  • If Hitchbot’s creators tried his journey again, do you think the same kind of thing would happen to him? Why or why not?

Questions provided by the Family Dinner Project

TIPS: 1) Hide a question under each family member’s dinner plate, or 2) pass around a bowl and have everyone randomly pick a question.

Hitchbot the robot sitting at a bar and a man hands him a bottle
Image: Hitchbot in the Netherlands (Wikimedia Commons)

CELEBRATE AND SHARE

To help keep your STEM conversations going, create a conversation jar to store your conversation starters. Leave a supply of blank strips nearby so family members can add their own ideas as well.

jar full of folded paper
Image credit: Shutterstock

If you have family members who do not live in the home with you, consider scheduling a virtual dinner party. Have each family member take a turn inviting a loved one and connect using Zoom, Facetime, Google Hangouts, etc.

GOING FURTHER

Not Just for Dinner
There is no one way to have a STEM dinner conversation. In fact, STEM conversations don’t have to happen at the dinner table. There are many opportunities throughout the day that may work better. Perhaps when going for a walk, washing the dishes, or as part of a bedtime ritual. Find what works for you and your family.

Bon apetit!


Lisa M. Blank is the Director of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lessons on our website: https://oregoncoaststem.oregonstate.edu/

Reedsport Third Graders Learn About Watersheds through Meaningful Field Experiences

By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant

Think back to when you were in elementary school. Did you participate in a field experience that was so impactful you can still remember it today? “Out of classroom” experiences provide teachers and students the ability to explore local places and relevant issues through hands-on activities and interactions with community partners. These meaningful learning experiences build exposure, connection and curiosity, and often resonate with students well beyond the trip.

Third grade teachers Cristina Bettesworth and Anna Villegas from Highland Elementary School in Reedsport have spent the 2019-20 school year attending multiple professional development workshops to learn strategies for providing meaningful watershed-focused experiences for their students. With guidance from local partners at Oregon Sea Grant and South Slough Reserve, they designed a learning unit filled with lessons and field trips that helped students learn about coastal ecosystems, human impacts, and stewardship. These Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences (MWEEs) are part of the MWEEs by the Sea project, funded by NOAA Bay-Watershed Education Training program.

MWEE Professional Development

MWEEs by the Sea workshops help teachers plan and implement lessons focused on local and global environmental issues.

Photo credit: C. Goodwin

Cristina and Anna planned their third-grade unit together around three main topics: watersheds, salmon, and marine debris. Each topic was introduced in the classroom, followed by hands-on field experiences and connections with environmental professionals that served to further solidify and expand on student learning.

WATERSHEDS

A watershed is the area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet, such as into a river, bay, or other body of water.

After students were introduced to the topic of watersheds in the classroom, they took a field trip to South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Charleston in February. With the help of South Slough staff and volunteers, students explored the flora and fauna of the watershed. The students observed how the coastal forest stream is connected to the estuary, experiencing the components of a watershed first-hand as they hiked down from the ridgetop.

Students learn about natural inhabitants of a coastal watershed on a hike down to Hidden Marsh. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth

To expand on their knowledge of different watersheds, they also visited other sites, including a local beach. After observing different watersheds in person, the students were able to head back to the classroom and create clay models of regional watersheds to show how water flows through local systems.

SALMON

Given the importance of salmon as a coastal resource, the Highland Elementary teachers knew it would be a natural fit to incorporate salmon studies into their MWEE unit. Salmon migrate between inland streams and the open ocean, showing students another way that land and sea are connected. In addition, parts of salmon life cycles can be experienced in the classroom, enabling students to study life cycles, an important 3rd grade learning standard!

With the help of volunteers from the Gardiner STEP (Salmon Trout Enhancement Program) facility and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife STEP biologist Evan Leonetti, the students set up tanks for hatching salmon eggs in their classrooms. Students collected water quality and other data and observed the salmon life-cycle in action as the eggs hatched and grew. When the fish were big enough, they were placed in a transfer tank and taken back to the STEP facility.

Young salmon hatched in the classroom are ready to be transported to the STEP facility. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth

In addition to hatching eggs in the classroom, the third graders headed off-school grounds and toured a hatchery, visited local salmon habitat, and some students even travelled to Salem to discuss salmon sustainability in south coast rivers.

MARINE DEBRIS

Marine debris is any solid, persistent, human-created waste that has been deliberately or accidentally introduced into a waterway or ocean.

To engage their students with a human impact that they could not only see and relate to, but also do something about, Cristina and Anna built lessons around the topic of marine debris. The students started this section by learning and researching about marine debris, answering question like: What is it? Where is it? and What are the impacts and possible solutions to the problem of marine debris?

“Sometimes garbage ends up in a stream or river
and will flow into the ocean.”

– Annabelle A., Third Grade, Highland Elementary

To further excite students, teachers arranged to have Elizabeth Roberts from Make Art Not Trash visit their classroom. She shared her experiences cleaning up marine debris from remote beaches in Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine, and told the students about the ways she uses art to help people understand the issue.

“Marine debris is a big problem that affects all of us. It happens in all waterways and is not only a problem in the ocean. We can all do our part to solve the marine debris problem. We just have to pick up trash and make sure our trash gets into the correct places.”

– Brody S., 3rd Grade, Highland Elementary

Prepared for their field experience, the Highland Elementary 3rd graders took a field trip to Bandon, Oregon, to conduct a beach clean-up at Seven Devils State Park, and to visit the marine debris art exhibits at Washed Ashore. The students took the marine debris that they collected from the beach back to school, separated the trash by types (plastics, microplastics, foam, nurdles, etc.), and graphed their results so they could see what types of debris were most commonly found in their samples. Inspired by the art they had seen from community partners, students used some of the marine debris they collected to create their own art projects. In addition, they wrote essays about the problem of marine debris to help explain marine debris impacts and solutions to others.

“We can help the marine debris issue by picking up our garbage and cleaning our beaches.”

– Bodhi L., 3rd Grade, Highland Elementary

Students cleaned up a Bandon beach and were inspired by art made from marine debris. Photo credit: Cristina Bettesworth

Today, the students are working on creating and sharing their essays, art projects, displays and slide presentations with others. You can see some of the student work generated by this project here.

“We can help deal with the problem of marine debris by not using plastic products. We can reuse products so that they don’t end up in the ocean.”

– Uriah I., Third Grade, Highland Elementary

Cait Goodwin is a Special Projects Coordinator with Oregon Sea Grant Marine Education, and she coordinates the “MWEEs by the Sea” teacher professional development program in partnership with Jaime Belanger from South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Reedsport teachers Cristina Bettesworth and Anna Villegas from Highland Elementary are two of 17 South Coast teachers participating in the 2019-20 cohort.

Family STEM: Rube Goldberg Machines

By Lisa M. Blank, Oregon Coast STEM Hub

Now that many of us are home 24/7, are the dirty dishes piling up beyond control? Is the laundry everywhere? Perhaps a Rube Goldberg machine can help!

Example of a Rube Goldberg machine
Image from https://www.designboom.com/design/kyle-bean-jonathan-knowles-lauren-catten-complex-simplicities-rube-goldberg-machine-07-05-2017/

Rube Goldberg machines use a series of chain reactions to perform a simple task in the most ridiculously complicated way. In fact, the more complicated the better.

Rube Goldberg cartoon of a self-operating napkin

Why are these contraptions called Rube Goldberg machines? Because the idea began with a man named Rube Goldberg. He was an engineer turned cartoonist whose most famous cartoons chronicled “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butt.”

Image: Rube Goldberg comic
Wikimedia Commons

Today, Rube Goldberg machines are not just whimsical cartoon images, but are required projects in many engineering programs across the US and a growing national obsession. Learn more about Rube Goldberg and how he viewed his cartoons as social commentary.

To join in the fun and support your family in designing and building your own Rube Goldberg machine (and possibly picking up the laundry), follow the steps below.

INSPIRE

Spark your family’s interest in building a Rube Goldberg machine by sharing this video about someone who uses one to serve himself a piece of cake.

Challenge your family to watch the video a second time with an eye for the materials and strategies used.

Don’t be intimidated! Your family’s Rube Goldberg machine need not be as complex as The Cake Server. (Also, we don’t recommend using open flames in your design!) Check out these cool builds by young learners:

And these by elementary-aged learners:

IDENTIFY A PROBLEM

What will your machine do? As a team, decide what problem your family would like to solve. If this is a struggle, consider sharing some of the ideas below.

hand bell
  • Place dirty clothes in the hamper
  • Drop soap into a hand
  • Water a plant
  • Turn a light off/on
  • Fill a glass with water
  • Ring a bell

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

Depending on the ages of your team members, you can set a minimum and/or maximum number of steps to solve the problem.

FUN FACT: In the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, engineering college students compete to design a machine that uses the most complex process to complete a simple task. Competing machines must be composed of a minimum of 20 steps and a maximum of 75, and they must complete their run in under two minutes. Teams are permitted to use no more than two air compressors, power cords, or water hoses. Elements of the machine may not travel beyond a 10-square-foot footprint, and machines can be no more than eight feet tall.

BUILD IT!

  1. Sketch out your machine before building it.
  2. Identify the materials you need. Here is a suggested material list from Tinkerlab.
  3. Start building! Test your designs as you go and make adjustments as necessary.
  4. If your team gets stuck, here are some Rube Goldberg techniques you can try:
(Image used under license from Shutterstock.com)
  • Auto-tilt
  • Trigger
  • Flip Switcher
  • Page Turner
  • Ball Riser
  • Small Nudge

See each technique in action

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Explore how Rube Goldberg machines demonstrate Newton’s Laws.

NEWTON’S LAWS

Newton's Cradle

First Law: An object at rest stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 

In other words, if an object is not moving, it will not start moving by itself. If an object is moving, it will not stop or change direction unless something pushes it.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com


F = ma

Second Law: Force is equal to the change in momentum with a change in time. 

In other words, objects will move farther and faster when they are pushed harder.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com


Example of Newton's Third Law

Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

In other words, when an object is pushed in one direction, there is always resistance of the same size in the opposite direction.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

To learn more visit:


Challenge your family to find examples in your team’s machine that demonstrate each of Newton’s Laws.

For example, let’s take Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the video below, how can you use Newton’s Third Law to explain why the dominoes failed to fall in certain places?

Answer: Without an action or force, there can be no reaction.

CELEBRATE AND SHARE

1. Make a video of your creation and share it on the Oregon Coast STEM Facebook Page, or email OregonCoastSTEM@oregonstate.edu a YouTube or Vimeo video (set to Public view). We can’t wait to see it!

2. Is your family tired of washing their hands? Give it a new twist by joining the Rube Goldberg Bar of Soap Video Challenge. Submit your video by May 31!

GOING FURTHER

Career Connections
Building a Rube Goldberg machine uses many of the same skill sets as a mechanical engineer. Most of the products in your life have been touched in some way by a mechanical engineer, from your shampoo bottles and microwave to your family’s car. If you enjoyed this challenge, check out the links below to learn more about a career in mechanical engineering:
* Educating Engineers
* OSU SMILE Mechanical Engineering Project

Real-World Connections
What problems have emerged in your recent daily life that could be enhanced by a silly Rube Goldberg solution? Tackle a challenge that is relevant to a current situation, such as:

  • Turning on and off the sink faucet without touching the handle, or 
  • Delivering something to someone quarantined in another room

Lisa M. Blank is the Director of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lessons on our website: https://oregoncoaststem.oregonstate.edu/