Bringing Purpose to Science

Water creation

Written by Andrea Isogai

“The skills, aptitudes, and attitudes necessary to industrialize the earth are not necessarily the same as those that will be needed to heal the earth” (David, W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect).
The previous knowledge that has been used to industrialize the natural world and given humans many of the comforts and advances we have today, has caused many threats and challenges to the natural world we rely on (The Laboratory School, 2011). These threats and challenges have caused many to rethink how education “nurtures” students’ curiosity, knowledge, understanding and responsibility (The Laboratory School, 2011: 1). Within education many are now looking to foster the child’s natural curiosity and provide meaningful opportunities for them to apply this curiosity in order to grow their knowledge and understanding of the world around them (The Laboratory School, 2011; The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8, Science and Technology, 2007).

This switch in thinking also comes paired with the idea of “21st Century Learning,” going beyond just doing something because it’s an assignment. It means providing students with a real world purpose that allows them to use creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication in ways that promote their strengths and interests in ways that are relevant in society (Kolk, 2011).

Science has become an area that provides students with those opportunities, in particular the Ontario Curriculum focuses on students’ gaining and applying skills related to inquiry, problem solving, and communication, all of which are skills real scientists use to tackle challenges facing our world today. The Smarter Science Framework provides teachers with guidelines to creating lessons that allow students to gain the necessary skills and knowledge to become scientists within their own classroom. The framework provides teachers with a model that contains 5 stages: 1) Engage 2) Explore 3) Explain 4) Extend 5) Evaluate.

My lesson looks to use the 5 Es from the Smarter Science Framework in order to build an engineering design process lesson (Capobianco and Tyrie, 2009). This type of lesson puts students in the roles of engineers, where they are looking to plan, design, create, and communicate forms of renewable energy sources.

Grade 5: Conservation of Energy

In this unit, students begin to investigate and learn about the environmental impacts energy consumption has on the natural world. We had been exploring a unit about different types of energy and where energy comes from (natural resources).

The learning goal for these lessons is for students to describe how energy is stored and transformed in a given device or system” (The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8, Science and Technology, 2007: 109). These lessons were delivered in two days; the first day consisted of three 30-minute periods and the second day consisted of two 30-minute periods.

Students had their glossary on hand with terms and definitions they had been learning related to energy conservation. They also had examples of sources of energy they found from the “energy audit” they had done of the school in a previous lesson. These materials, as well as books and information pages on renewable energy provided within the classroom, allowed students to investigate further. An important piece to note is that students had just completed a non-fiction unit in Language so they had prior knowledge and understood how to use key characteristics such as an “index” and “glossary” often found in non-fiction science texts (Elliot, 2010).


“Suzie” (that is the teacher in a lab coat) comes in to the class and introduces herself as an Engineer visiting from the University of Waterloo. This begins a discussion of what an Engineer does. Using the Smartboard, interactive videos and slides, we activate students’ prior knowledge of renewable energy sources and types of energy.

Students are then introduced to the task where they will take on the role of an Engineer representing their school. Each group must design a creation that uses a specific [given] renewable energy source (wind, water power, and/or solar). For example, the solar energy group is asked to “design a creation that will melt [a given amount of] chocolate”, another group was asked to use water power to “design a boat that floats and moves forward (Monkey See, 2014)”, and a third group was asked to use wind energy to “design a car that moves forward” (PBS Kids, 2010).

Students first reviewed the safety instructions posted on the Smartboard, then, in groups, reviewed their tasks. Each student was given an investigation workbook to fill out as they went along. These pages were styled in the form of graphic organizers and prompted students to make predictions, design, discuss conclusions, and make connections to real world designs using alternative energies.


Students were given a set amount of materials based on their task (e.g., 2 straws). They were told ahead of time to use their materials wisely and carefully. Before students could start building, they needed to come up with a plan using the graphic organizer in their booklet. This was an important time for the teacher to walk around, listen, and use prompts to ensure students were considering all aspects of their design.

Once students’ plans were complete, they were able to collect their materials and begin collaboratively building their creation (Appendix A). The teacher needs to ensure that students have sufficient time to not only build their creations, but also to test and make any changes they feel necessary to their design before their final test. While students are exploring the design process, they are also filling out their workbook, which prompts them to write about their process and to discuss their findings.


Each group was then given time to prepare a short presentation, focusing on explaining their creation. They needed to explain the energy source it used, how it transferred energy, and how it connected to a real world energy source. This was also the time for the teacher to prompt the groups’ processes and findings further. As well, while a group was presenting to the class, the rest of the class was gathering information about that renewable energy source.

Since each group only focused on one type of renewable energy, it was also a way to give the rest of the class a purpose for actively listening to each other’s presentations. Further, students were given a self-reflection prompt to take home after the experience that required them to use their experience and knowledge gained from the lesson, and provided a final opportunity for students to communicate what they had learned.

Extend and Evaluate

This step is not part of this specific lesson; however, it is integrated into the unit as the lesson scaffolds the students’ knowledge and skills in order to complete the summative task. This task required students to design and build an energy conservative home which is powered by a renewable energy source.

Lessons Learned

The students really enjoyed these lessons and were engaged throughout the process. The 5 Es allow teachers to critically design an engaging lesson that truly incorporates the “doing” aspect of science and allows students to gain the skills needed to become scientists. Taking on the role of engineers provides students with a reason and real life connection to the work they were doing. The hands-on task and problem solving design challenged students and required them to work collaboratively with one another to come up with solutions. One piece I took away from this lesson was to ensure a balance in the hands-on and writing components. Students also seemed to struggle with making a connection between their creation and a renewable energy source; I would also remove this component and save it as a separate lesson.

21st century learning is an approach that is expanding and requires teachers to incorporate aspects that students interact with in their daily lives. Using the 5 Es also allow you, as the teacher, to think about creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. In this lesson, students needed to work as a team to problem solve, design, and communicate with the rest of their peers and teacher in multiple ways. Using these approaches helps science lessons stay relevant and engaging for students to make connections and learn about its purpose in the real world.

Appendix A: Solar, Wind, and Water Power Creations

Solar creation

Wind creation

Water creation


Alliant Energy. (n.d.). Cool Projects to Try at Home. Retrieved from

Capobianco, B.M., and Tyrie, N. (2009). Problem Solving by Design: Using the engineering design process to build problem-solving skills for fifth graders and methods students. Science and Children, 47(2).

Kolk, M. (March 30, 2011). The 21st Century classroom – where the R’s meet the C’s!  Retrieved from

Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. (2007). The Ontario Curriculum: Science and Technology Grades 1-8. Ontario: Queen’s Printer.

PBS Kids. (2010). Zoom Activities: Science rocks. Retrieved from

The Laboratory School. (2011). Natural Curiosity: Building children’s understanding of the world through environmental inquiry. Toronto: ON: The Laboratory School at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study.

Andrea Isogai is a 2014 Galbraith Science Education Award recipient.  

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