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.


Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.26.11 PM

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!

Creating Healthy, Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, Summer Numeracy Program

Marshmallow challenge

On the first day of summer numeracy camp, we decided to have the kids try the “Marshmallow Challenge,” as described by Tom Wujec on his website and during the TED Talk featured below. The students were provided with a paper bag kit containing all the materials, and they were instructed to build the tallest freestanding structure possible that holds the entire marshmallow on top. They were given 18 minutes to complete the challenge, while the teaching team circulated to give time checks and remind the teams of the instructions.



The results were very impressive! The tallest structure measured 47 cm, and a few other teams’ towers were close to that height. All the teams demonstrated great thinking, and persevered through disagreements, collapsed towers, and many other setbacks. It was an excellent way to get to know the students’ strengths and areas of opportunity right off the bat, and we were surprised by the honesty of the students during the debrief. For example, one team admitted that they struggled to agree on one idea and described how that influenced their process of tower construction.  This emphasized the importance of collaboration and communication among team members, which, as that team realized, is crucial for success. As always, the students’ creations exceeded our expectations: their creative, stable and TALL towers held the marshmallow in all sorts of ways, and even the towers that collapsed taught us all valuable lessons. All in all, day 1 was a definite success!

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).

Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts


As part of the ‘Maker Movement,’ Makerspaces (or hackerspaces) are physical spaces where students can come together to share, create, invent, network, build and learn. These community environments provide tools that could range from hardware supplies to a 3D printer. While they are often associated with fields such as engineering and computer science, this collaborative space’s primary purpose is learning through hands-on, self-directed exploration- however that may occur.

Makerspaces can be implemented in many different ways within the school environment. They may find a home in a computer lab, shop, or conference room, but in reality they represent the combination of all three spaces. In education, makerspaces provide students with the physical space and materials required for multidisciplinary, inquiry-based learning. Here are some tips when developing your school makerspace:

  • Guide students in developing metacognitive skills necessary to move beyond temporary failures
  • Create specific lessons and units that are project-based and align with curriculum
  • Ask the school community for donations of old electronics, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, balloons, toy cars, wire cutters, balls, adhesive, tools, cleaning supplies, safety equipment, etc.
  • Design your makerspace to accommodate many different activities, including: cardboard construction, woodworking, electronics, robotics, digital fabrication, building machines, sewing, metal working, etc.

While my host school during practicum was still developing their makerspace, students did get to experience a visit from the University of Ottawa’s ‘Maker Mobile,’ which is essentially a makerspace on wheels. The Maker Mobile visited grade 4 and 5 immersion students in early February and brought equipment such as a 3D printer and scanner, laser cutters, and Arduino microcontrollers. This makerspace connected the curriculum to programming and coding, and encouraged students to expand their learning goals. The Maker Mobile was an effective teaching strategy, as students were exposed to cutting-edge technologies and developed their creativity and problem-solving skills. Thanks to grade 4 and 5 teachers for the pictures!

Educause Learning Initiative. (April 2013). 7 things you should know about: Makerspaces.

Edutopia. (July 16 2015). Starting a school makerspace from scratch.

Edutopia. (March 21 2016). Makerspaces lead to school and community successes.

Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts

Hour of code

The 21st century workplace will require coding knowledge, which is regarded as a new type of literacy. Through coding, students not only learn problem solving and critical thinking skills, but also feel empowered by this tool for self-expression. ‘Hour of code’ is an initiative to actively teach coding skills to students of all ages.

There are numerous coding games and apps that can be used to teach computer science and coding. The following tools are recommended for teaching coding to students over the age of 8:

  • Hopscotch: free iPad app that allows students to make their own games and share them for others to play.
  • Scratch: used or downloaded online, this is a programming game suitable for beginners.
  • Lightbot: free online puzzle game that lasts an hour.
  • Alice: a programming environment that blends games with storytelling to keep students engaged.
  • CodeCombat: free to play (at the basic level) online multiplayer coding game (9 and up).

These are a few of many tools that exist to help students learn coding. The teacher’s focus should be on cultivating an environment where students are encouraged to take risks and fail safely. Coding requires learning through collaboration and a strong growth mindset!

At my placement school, the  “hour of code” session was implemented as an introduction to the language and uses of computer science. Students used apps such as Scratch and Kodable to explore the concepts of coding. Students were also given the opportunity to further explore coding at the school’s ‘Innovation Club’ meetings, where they could tinker with Dash and Dot robots as well as Lego Robotics. Many students thrived on the chance to learn the basics of programming and robotics, creating complicated series of movements and tasks for the robots. The students were learning a new language while simultaneously turning their ideas into reality through coding!

Edutopia. (December 4 2013). 15+ Ways of Teaching Student to Code (Even Without a Computer).

Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts

Sketch it out

Visual learning has many benefits, especially in the classroom. Sketching and drawing in particular can be used to develop students’ skills in observation, literacy, and creativity. By sketching, students not only learn how to represent and visually communicate their ideas, they also draw on background knowledge to meaningfully connect their ideas to the real world. Sketching is thus a powerful visualization tool that allows students to develop and express their individual voice, regardless of social, economic, cultural, or academic barriers that may exist.

The potential applications of sketching and drawing are infinite, so I will briefly outline a few possibilities that focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.

  • Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST): this is a simple exercise where students are asked to draw a scientist/engineer. It reveals important stereotypes that exist in terms of student (and teacher) perceptions of scientists/engineers, and encourages teachers to help students develop more realistic conceptions of these occupations.
  • Illustrated nature journal: require students to make weekly journal entries that document their relationship with, and observations of, nature.
  • Botanical drawing: use sketching to communicate students’ understanding of plant life cycles and anatomy.
  • Visualization: read a piece of scientific text to students and have them communicate what they learned by sketching. This will help to reveal students’ understandings and potential misconceptions.

During practicum, sketching was used many times in the classroom as a visualization strategy that helped students to reflect on and represent their learning. This strategy also helped me to gauge students’ understanding of certain concepts, and to identify any common misconceptions. It was an effective tool for documenting student observations (e.g. functioning of an electrical circuit, planetary configurations in our solar system) and provided a creative outlet for all students.

One activity in particular that demonstrated the students’ imagination and creativity was based on the book Rosie Revere, Engineer, written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. This book, which describes the brilliant inventions of a young aspiring (female) engineer, was read aloud to the students. The class discussion then centered on the importance of perseverance and growth mindset: as the main character’s great-great-aunt Rose reminded Rosie, failures are an important and necessary part of life and learning. After being inspired by Rosie’s contraptions in the book, grade 6 students in the class were tasked with brainstorming and sketching their own unique inventions. The results were truly amazing, and highlighted both the interests and ambitions of the students. I think it’s safe to say that there are some future engineers –and imagineers-in the class!

Beaty A, Roberts D. (2013). Rosie Revere, Engineer. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.

Planting Science. (n.d.) Sketching and drawing in science class (for teachers).

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!