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WSCS Blog
The Great Parachute Challenge

"This is the best STEM center ever!" a fifth-grade student was heard saying in the halls last Friday. As a teacher, I love it when my students enthusiastically embrace learning -- and they did just that last week.

STEM stands for Science,Technology, Engineering, and Math. Incorporating STEM activities that allow students to connect academics and real-world experiences has been a focus in education in recent years, and we incorporate a variety of STEM projects into our curriculum at WSCS too. These projects often involve students creating something out of certain materials and solving problems in the process.

Last week’s 5th grade STEM activity challenged students to make a parachute that would drift through the air and land safely. The students were given a Dixie cup, pipe cleaners, and an army man as the parachuter. They also received tissues, construction paper, grocery bags, napkins, and coffee filters -- their available parachute options.

Not only did they need to create a functioning parachute from the given materials, they also needed to predict and test materials to determine which worked best as a parachute.

First, they predicted what each material would do when it was dropped with the parachute. Then the 5th graders were each given one of the four types of parachute materials to create and modify their own parachute with. They really got into the design and construction process!

They discussed what methods or techniques they thought would float the parachute the best. I was impressed with their creativity and ingenuity; no two parachutes looked the same!

Mrs. VanderVennen and I ultimately wanted students to think about how different materials in our world interact with weight, gravity, wind, and air resistance. So as we walked around, we asked them questions such as, "I wonder what would happen if you shorten the pipe cleaners," or "hmm, that didn't seem to work very well, so what could you change?" Along the way, students used our comments and their own observations and experiments to make adjustments.

Eventually we headed to the playground to test their parachute prototypes.

Each student dropped their parachute from the bridge, observing and evaluating the various design elements and how they interacted with gravity, wind, and air resistance. Each and every one dropped differently, based on how it was created.

As a result of their parachute projects, the 5th graders better understand everyday materials and how they interact with the world around us. They noticed how even the slightest design changes caused parachutes to drop very differently.

In the end, we observed that the plastic grocery bag made the best parachute -- one even flew all the way over top of the school it worked so well!

And while we originally all thought that the construction paper would not work well, the students actually developed a way, through bending the paper a certain way, that caused it to fall very smoothly!

STEM activities like these connect seamlessly with our new FOSS science curriculum because they both have a foundation of exploration and discovery. Rather than giving students specific directives, they discover how to solve problems through hypothesizing and trial and error.

Lessons like our parachute STEM project are also highly engaging and authentic ways to learn about creating and problem solving. It’s important for kids to experience this in school, because it mirrors many situations we face as adults where we have to creatively think, theorize, and test different solutions to various problems.

What an amazing way to learn about science in our world. This really was the greatest STEM center ever.

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