Getting kids excited about math and science can be a challenge, but the teachers and students at Lawrence’s Sunflower Elementary School have their own recipe for success — pun very much intended.
Fourth- and fifth-graders spent their final week of the fall semester designing and constructing edible replicas of local homes and architectural landmarks as part of the 2017 Gingerbread STEM Community & Makerspace Global Project. The engineering challenge encourages K-12 classrooms the world over to recreate their communities in gingerbread and share their projects through social media and video correspondence.
Jocelyn Wilson’s favorite part? Building and decorating South Park’s beloved gazebo in miniature form, using peppermints in place of red brick and edible Easter grass in place of the real thing.
“It was really fun because my partners and I, if something didn’t work, we’d say, ‘Let’s try this,’” said Jocelyn, a fifth-grader with dreams of becoming an engineer one day like her older sister.
Jocelyn and her classmates spent Thursday morning walking their kindergarten buddies through the school’s giant display of gingerbread-style structures (actually largely made with graham crackers and cookie wafers), explaining the project and how they constructed their pint-sized buildings. Fifth-graders were paired with a class of fifth-year students in Kaunus, Lithuania, and after having already connected through Skype, will begin pen palling after winter break.
After their first video chat earlier this month, the Sunflower kids have learned a few phrases in Lithuanian and a bit about their friends’ city and school. They’ve also introduced the Lithuanian students to chocolate chip cookies, a thoroughly American dessert previously unheard of among the Lithuanian kids. Teachers even plan on baking and sending a batch, along with Sunflower students’ letters, when school resumes early next month.
Fourth-graders paired with Belarusian students, similarly, taught their new friends how to “dab,” an American dance craze that apparently has yet to reach the Eastern European country.
Camille Wheeler, a learning coach at Sunflower, helped bring the gingerbread project to her school this year after hearing about classrooms taking part. She said the initiative helps foster the kind of “21st century learning” strategies championed by the Lawrence school district.
“When they put a gumdrop on the roof and the roof caved in, what did they have to do to create that stronger structure? And then they had to discuss it,” Wheeler said of working in teams of three. “Sometimes, it might be easier as one person to know how you want to fix it. But when you have to discuss it with two other people, there’s that collaboration to come up with an idea to make it stronger.”
That’s a valuable skill in today’s workforce, Wheeler added, particularly among science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) fields.
Wyatt Hendricks, a fourth-grader, enjoyed decorating his gingerbread-style duplex with Twizzlers and gumdrops and gummy orange slices, but he also genuinely enjoyed working as part of a team, too.
The greatest lesson learned, in Wyatt’s experience?
“Working with a partner is more fun than working by yourself,” he said. “We had lots of laughs and stuff like that,” he added, referring to the time their house collapsed and had to be rebuilt.
“My mom is an engineer,” Wyatt said. “And I actually think it’s really cool.”
Wheeler, after taking a turn around the room of gingerbread-style houses Thursday, reflected on the project positively. She and other teachers are already thinking about how they’d improve the experience for next year, she said.
“It was a really neat, collaborative effort,” Wheeler said. “And they’re doing math and science and all of those skills — the standards we have — without even really knowing it.”