I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with a group of amazing first grade students today.  They have been studying force and motion, and were challenged by their teacher to build marble ramps.   What amazed me today was not the quality of their ramps (though they were impressive) but the quality of their thinking and their collaboration.


We forget sometimes that teaching is an inquiry-based practice as well.  While we’re trying to create experiences that challenge students and push their thinking, we’re also learning from our students and revising our plans in response.  Originally these marble ramps were meant to be 24″ tall, have a clear start & stop for the marble and students were trying to build a ramp that would have the slowest run time.  Today, during their second day of building, their teacher realized that the variable of slowest run time was not going to be attainable for most students.  The challenge was in achieving the other variables, in getting the marble down the ramp.  Rather than pushing kids past their construction abilities, a subtle shift was made in the classroom.  Students were designing, testing and redesigning, trying to achieve a ramp that “worked”.


I became fascinated by their problem solving and their articulation of how the ramps were going to work.  I asked most students what problem they were trying to solve and jotted down their responses:

  • I need to keep it from, you know, tipping over.  I think I just need more tape on the bottom to make it stable.
  • It was hard to make the marble turn the corner, it kept jumping out of the track.  I built a railing.
  • The marble keeps getting stuck right here.  I think its trying to go up hill so I need it to, you know, lean more.
  • I need a way to catch the marble at the bottom and tape is not going to work.  I think I will cut a hole here and catch it in a cave.
  • This (paper tube) was too straight up and down and I built a tunnel to hold the marble.
  • The marble kept not going the right way and now I can’t believe it really works!

This is engineering…persevering, solving problems, being patient, helping each other.  I learned a lot from my first grade friends today and I can’t wait to visit them again.