A Good Dam Lesson

Wanted to throw up some thoughts and photos on the end of a pretty good dam lesson (hah) that I led this past week.  Briefly: it was built on the back of a unit about the interaction between water and landforms, which used stream tables (pictured) to do experiments about how water flow, slope, etc. change patterns of erosion and deposition.  Much of the unit was focused on the process of scientific investigation: asking questions, making predictions, running experiments, collecting and analyzing data, using that data to write a conclusion in which we also change our ideas about the mechanisms behind phenomena, and speculate about further experiments.


This particular lesson took the unit in a new direction: kids got to create and imagine, and also got to learn about the design process.  They had a prescribed amount of certain materials (Popsicle sticks, straws, toothpicks) with which to build a dam in order to protect a tiny fictional town from flooding.  The lesson progressed from a class discussion about dams (including analysis of a picture of a dam on the Skagit river and discussion of the design features of that dam) to group-work on designing dams, to actually testing them in class last Friday.

The kids were SUPER into testing the dams, and as we tested them one-by-one, I made sure to ask 2 students who hadn’t been part of the dam in question’s design team what they noticed about the design (which resulted in lots of good vocabulary use) before the test, and ask 2 students who had been part of the team what they’d change, after the test.  All in all it was a very engaging lesson which clearly resulted in solid learning on the part of the students involved.

Coming out of this week, one of the main challenges I’ve set for myself is to be much more conscious about differentiation of instruction and assessment – to be much more intentional and explicit about these issues in my lesson planning.  In this particular lesson, this mainly manifested in me making sure to check in with as many students as possible about how the lesson was going for them – specifically, giving as many students as possible to answer my questions about the dam designs.  I feel pretty confident that I managed it with this lesson – I’m sure that the format of the lesson, with everyone gathered around and commenting excitedly about how the water was moving through the stream table, really helped some of my “focus students” stay engaged, and checking in with them throughout resulted in a strong impression on my part that they were getting the learning targets for the lesson (namely, parts of the design process and important design elements of dams, specifically).



8 thoughts on “A Good Dam Lesson

  1. growingateacher

    It is really wonderful to hear your thoughts about planning and teaching a science lesson. I have been teaching science all week and have had two lessons that were heavy on the number of materials. I find the level of engagement with the materials can be so intense that the balance comes in what information to discuss ahead and then when to rein them in to translate their observations into evidence of concepts and ideas. Then again, your 5th graders are probably more capable of making charts and writing observations than my 2nd graders. I have been surprised how hard the science writing can be for them. this lesson of yours looked very engaging. did you have a hard time bringing them back to write up their observations and discuss their findings?

    1. 1bluedot Post author

      A little. Even with my fifth graders, the writing part is the hardest to get them going on, and certainly the part they most detest. Even for this lesson, which was pretty writing-lite (they wrote a few sentences about the results of their tests, and what they would change for next time), the gear-shift from experimenting to writing was a little rough.

      I’m talking to my CT about the possibility of making the science writing tasks more authentic – about having them write for an audience that’s not just me and my CT. I’m hoping that will help with motivation; right now they have a hard time seeing why they should do any writing in science, or why it has to be so precise. I’d like to see what happens when, say, another class has to duplicate their experiment from their notes, or they have to defend a conclusion to another class, or in a class blog… or something.

  2. Veritably Clean

    I like where you are going in terms of writing to a specific audience. I know this is somewhat of a problem in my own placement class, as well. If the audience is unclear or just “for the teacher” then it can be an obstacle to motivation. My wife works at a biotech firm with scientists and doctors and I’m trying to think if there is a way to leverage them (through skype and other tech tools) to help make the writing tasks more authentic by making some real-world connections.

  3. emilyed18

    My class just did a lesson like this using the Foss kits. I love that in your class the kids went from dam to dam to watch the dam in action – it seems like this would encourage discussion and engagement and pride in their work. In my class, the kids built their dams and tested them all within their table groups, which worked well for some of the groups, but not for all.

    1. 1bluedot Post author

      It absolutely encouraged discussion when the whole class was involved in each dam test. Was also a great opportunity to model and foster scientific discourse – giving observations and inferences.

  4. Pingback: Quarterly Revue | Ten Thousand Small Steps

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