Summer Numeracy Program

Boats that float!

During the last week of math camp, we challenged our Mathletes to use the construction and math skills that they had been practicing to individually and economically build a boat that would float. The parameters of the challenge were simple:


  • Using the materials from the list below, design and construct the least expensive boat possible that will float and carry plastic people on it.


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Steps of boat construction:

  1. Design and sketch your boat
  2. Decide which materials you will need
  3. Estimate how much you will need of each material
  4. Calculate the approximate cost of your boat materials
  5. Construct boat and adjust cost estimate according to materials actually used

As this was the third week of Math Camp and the students had completed various STEM-based challenges already, they were becoming more efficient at planning, designing and carrying out the process of construction. The added challenge of calculating the cost of their boat was a great differentiation tool, which engaged the older students in particular to minimize their use of resources through unique design. The boat challenge was completed individually, which revealed each Mathlete’s strengths and areas of opportunity more clearly. For example, some students initially constructed ‘rafts’ (i.e. no mast, sail, hull). While this was an economical option, we challenged them to adjust their design so it more closely resembled a boat.

Throughout the various steps of their boat construction, students faced many hurdles with regards to design, use of materials, calculation of cost, etc. Yet, the most striking observation from this task was the resiliency and grit demonstrated by our Mathletes as they adopted the ‘Keep Moving Forward‘ mindset and persevered with the task. There was a large variety in the finished products, and many students added colour, decorations and a personal touch that demonstrated immense pride in their boats.

They were very keen to test their creations, so we decided to spend time as a large group  floating their boats. One by one, each student placed their boat in the water (they all floated!) and added plastic people figurines until it sank. As a connection to our previous work on patterning, they added people according to the Fibonacci sequence (i.e. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…) and we recorded how many people each boat held.  While some students were initially hesitant to test their boats to the point of sinking, the fun atmosphere and support of their classmates encouraged them to give it a go! We discussed the strengths of their designs and the purpose of minimizing cost (i.e. minimizing use of non-renewable resources). It was a fantastic celebration of their hard work, and each Mathlete received a ‘Boat Building Award’ in recognition of their success!


Summer Numeracy Program

Building bridges through collaboration

To kick off the second week at Summer Numeracy Camp, we again wanted to challenge our Mathletes with a team-building exercise that required collaboration and communication: building bridges! We began with a simple question:

“What does good collaboration look, sound and feel like?”

This question generated a great discussion about the skills and attitudes necessary to work well in a team. Given this mutual understanding of what it means to collaborate, we let the students choose their own groups of 3 and each group received the following materials:

  • 100 craft sticks (with 1 elastic)
  • 5 pipe cleaners
  • 10 paperclips
  • String
  • 1 small bottle of glue
  • Bowl
Bridge building materials

The goal of the task was for each team to:

  • Design and build a bridge to span across a bowl of water.
  • Test the strength of the bridge (using pebbles)

On the first day, we gave groups a chance to design and begin building the different pieces of their bridges. The teams started by assessing the materials they were given, coming up with a feasible design, and constructing the different components of their bridge. Some teams also recognized the importance of including triangles, while others tried out the strength of the square.


After leaving their creations to dry overnight, our Mathlete teams continued with their bridge construction the following day. They carried on measuring, testing, and adjusting their designs to figure out how they could be improved. All the teams found something they could adjust or modify to make their bridges sturdier and stronger. We again created some extra shapes for support and let them dry overnight.

On our final day of bridge construction, everything came together beautifully! The students used their resources and demonstrated creativity, perseverance and impressive problem-solving skills to successfully finish their free-standing bridges. During the consolidation, one member from each team explained their design and reasoning to the whole group, and we discussed the differences and similarities among our bridges. As our Mathletes had shown true grit and determination to complete this challenge, we decided to have a bridge celebration and prepared certificates for each participant that highlighted a ‘special mention’ for each group (e.g. positive attitude, perseverance, design and architecture, creative use of materials, problem-solving).  They were very proud of their creations, and handing out these certificates was a lovely way to cap off another successful week at math camp!




Inquiry-Based Math, Summer Numeracy Program

Measurement with catapults

As a team building exercise to finish the first week at Summer Math Camp, our Mathletes created simple catapults designed to launch cotton balls. The full description for the catapult design and construction can be found at this Kids Activities blog post.

Each student created their own catapult from the following materials:

  • 7 craft sticks
  • 3 elastics
  • Egg carton piece (single egg portion)
  • Cotton ball
  • Glue

We let the students experiment with how to construct their individual catapults, and provided guidance to those who needed it. The general construction resembled the exemplar below, although some students made adaptations as they saw fit. After testing out their creations, we all traveled down to the gym where students worked in pairs to measure the distance traveled (or height attained) for their cotton ball catapults.

For younger students, it provided the opportunity to practice:

  • Measuring distance/ height
  • Recording numbers in a chart
  • Comparing distances/heights

For the older students, they worked on:

  • Adapting catapult design to achieve greater distance/height
  • Adding up the total distance/height achieved over multiple trials
  • Estimating an average distance/height over a certain number of trials (for more advanced students)

We consolidated this activity by posing questions such as:

  • What was your longest cotton ball launch?
  • What was your shortest?
  • How could you have modified your catapult to launch the cotton ball further/higher?
  • Are there differences in the catapult designs that make some better at launching cotton balls further, and some better at launching cotton balls higher?

It was amazing to see how engaged the students were during this rich learning task. There were certain students who had been dead-set against anything resembling traditional math throughout the first week; yet even these students were eagerly measuring, adding, and comparing distances for their catapult cotton ball launches. Another great testament to the power of hands-on learning!

Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts

Scientists in school

This week I had the pleasure of participating in a visit from Scientists in School (SiS), which is a Canadian science education charity that brings science workshops to K-8 students.

As the grade sixes are working on their biodiversity unit, their workshop focused on the science of classifying organisms. The facilitator briefly reviewed the process of classifying organisms before allowing the students to dive right in to the three stations, which were composed of unicellular and multicellular (invertebrates and vertebrates) organisms. The starfish and sea anemone were clear favourites at the invertebrate station, and the vertebrate station boasted a wide range of creatures, including a sea lamprey, bat, chicken, pig, painted turtle, snake, and many more. The students also had fun learning how to use microscopes to check out various unicellular organisms, and tried their hand at sketching what they saw.

It was a well-organized and engaging workshop that had every student smiling throughout the afternoon. The facilitators provided all the materials including gloves and a booklet for each student, so all the students had to bring was a pencil! It was a great example of hands-on, experiential learning that brought the biodiversity unit to life for the students. Even the reluctant learners demonstrated a new-found enthusiasm for the subject matter.

The Scientists in School website states that their mission is to “ignite scientific curiosity in children so that they question intelligently…” From my observations during this workshop, they are definitely succeeding in reaching elementary school students and helping them to learn through discovery. I would highly recommend this program to science teachers, and I hope I get to host it in my own classroom one day!


Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts

Misconception check

To use this strategy, the teacher gives a common misconception about a topic, and students explain why they agree or disagree with it. According to constructivism, students interpret new learning through the lens of previously developed beliefs and ideas about the world. These preconceived ideas could be misinterpretations of generally accepted explanations for a phenomenon, which can cause difficulty and frustration when students are learning something that conflicts with what they already believe. It is thus very important for the teacher to identify misconceptions and address them directly through classroom activities. This ensures that students will more readily accommodate new concepts that are being taught, especially in science education.

I usually used this strategy during whole-group discussions with grade sixes. I would ask a leading question based on a common misconception identified during formative assessment, and challenge the students to explain whether they agreed or disagreed. For example, during math and science discussions, questions could be something like:

  • Can we use a bar graph to represent this weather data?
  • When using partial products multiplication, is each partial product a separate answer?
  • If the switch is open, is our circuit still a closed circuit?
  • Are the colours of the wires important for our circuit to function?

Each question was developed based on observation, anecdotal notes or formative assessment that revealed a common misconception held by many students in the class. By posing the question and having a class discussion about the right answer, students were able to correct their understanding in a collaborative environment. This straight-forward approach led to many productive discussions!

Edutopia. (Sept.14 2015). 10 Fun-Filled Formative Assessment Ideas.

Tippett C. “Constructivism and Science Teaching.” (PED 3131 Course Notes).

Science Shorts

Foldable Fun!

Foldables are an excellent way to help students organize and visualize their learning, especially in science. They can take the form of:

  • Mini books
  • Shutter-fold books
  • Layered books
  • Four-door books
  • Three-tab books
  • Index tab books
  • …and many, many, MANY more!

Dinah Zike offers resources and professional development on the use of foldables in education, and her “Big Book of Science Middle- High School” is a gold mine of ideas and directions for science teaching with foldables. From my experience, they are a fun and engaging way for students to record and present information. Foldables allow students to draw on their creativity and organize what they’ve learned in a way that makes sense to them- and you will be awed by their creations!

One great application of the foldables strategy is for documenting field trips.  Below is my “Field Trip Foldable” for a class trip we took to Ottawa’s Museum of Agriculture in October. While it’s not a classic foldable (it’s more of an adapted flip book), this is just one example of how foldables can be used to present science learning in a fun and informative way. It would be important to establish expectations and requirements for the field trip foldable with the students prior to the trip. If students know they must create a field trip foldable, they are more accountable for their learning and it creates a more purposeful experience. Try it out, get ready to be impressed, and enjoy some foldable fun!

Science Shorts

Science saturdays

Founded in 1993, Let’s talk science is a Canadian charitable organization that strives to prepare learners to thrive and lead by increasing science literacy through their support of learning and skill development.  The Faculty of Education at uOttawa partners with Let’s talk science to offer workshops linked to curriculum expectations for preservice teachers (Science Saturdays). As I have been lucky enough to participate in this program, I wanted to share some of the highlights from the workshops to date (which have been awesome!).

Human Body

In this workshop, we ran through a few different activities that addressed Gr.5 Human Organ Systems, including the skeletal system, the digestive system, the respiratory system, the nervous system, the circulatory system, and the muscular system. These activities were hands-on and engaging, and would help students to understand the functioning of each system.

Life Systems

The focus of this workshop was on life systems (other than the human body). For example, students in younger grades (K-2) could work on sorting wildlife and getting a basic understanding of the tree of life, while older students (Gr.6) could work at an advanced kingdom sorting level. The bird’s nest activity (K-4) would be applicable for units on Strong and Stable Structures (Gr.3) as well as Habitats and Communities (Gr.4), as the students must choose materials and build nests like birds do.

Structures and Mechanisms

This workshop touched on the topics of Materials, Objects, and Everyday Structures (Gr.1)Strong and Stable Structures (Gr.3), Pulleys and Gears (Gr.4)Forces Acting on Structures and Mechanisms (Gr.5), and Flight (Gr.6). The four forces of flight (gravity, life, drag and thrust) were explored through various stations and, of course, a paper airplane contest. Simple machines such as a wheel and axle, inclined plane, and lever were examined through the creation of a playground. My personal favourite was the balloon car activity, as you could draw in concepts of energy as well as math problems for older grades. We also channeled our inner beavers to build a beaver dam that would keep a beaver safe and protected while withstanding external pressure (you could also tie in ecosystem/habitat/biodiversity themes for this activity).

Looking forward to future Science Saturdays!

Science Shorts

The truth about bogs

As my master’s thesis focused on an examination of methane emissions at an ombrotrophic bog here in Ottawa (Mer Bleue), I am all too familiar with some of the common misconceptions surrounding the notion of bogs. When you hear the word “bog,” most people envision a foul-smelling, flooded area that would be a great setting for a horror film. This could not be further from the truth!

Bogs are beautiful and unique landscapes (see feature image above), and they actually have quite a nice, spicy scent originating from the dominant evergreen and deciduous shrubs covering the bog surface. While Mer Bleue does not have an adorable bog turtle, I did get to see insect-eating plants (Pitcher plant, left) and rare orchids (Lady slipper orchid, right):


Needless to say, I was pretty excited to find this Bird and Moon depiction of bog myth vs. fact. For anyone that asks me in the future if I worked in a swamp, I will be sending them this cartoon! With respect to teaching, Bird and Moon is an excellent source of science and nature cartoons/comics that are both educational and fun for the students (and teachers!) to read. They could be used to introduce a lesson, spark interest in a topic, or even prompt a creative writing activity… Just try not to get too bogged down by the plethora of choices !

bogs myths vs fact

Image source: Bird and Moon science and nature cartoons.

Science Shorts

Picturebooks for teaching science

This beautifully illustrated picturebook, A Rock is Lively, is an excellent introduction to the topic of rocks and minerals, which is part of Ontario’s Grade 4 Science and Technology Curriculum under the Understanding Earth and Space Systems strand. The book addresses Overall expectation 3 to “demonstrate an understanding of the physical properties of rocks and minerals” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007). It also addresses Specific Expectations 3.1 and 3.3:

  • 3.1: “describe the difference between rocks (composed of two or more minerals) and minerals (composed of the same substance throughout), and explain how these differences determine how they are used.”
  • 3.3: “describe how igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks are formed […]” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007).

I would use this book in teaching science to find out what they already know about rocks, to teach them more about the characteristics of rocks and minerals, and to introduce important vocabulary pertinent to the rocks and minerals curriculum expectations. For example:

  1. Teacher reads the book to the class, emphasizing key vocabulary and concepts.
  2. In groups of 4, students look at 3 different rocks for 5 minutes and individually write down what they notice about each rock (i.e. properties of rocks) and what they are still wondering.brainstorm
  3. Next, students discuss in their group what they found. They write down the common rock characteristics and one common wondering (i.e. they must come to a consensus).
  4. The teacher would then ask each group for one of their rock characteristics and one wondering.

A rock is lively

Aston, D.H., & Long, S. (2012). A Rock is Lively. San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books LLC.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2007). The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8- Science and Technology.