STEM meets Social-Emotional Learning

If you were to ask me where I’d rank roller coasters, physics, and engineering as to my expertise/interest, it would not have made my top ten. Not surprisingly, studying the concepts with my fourth graders, have me hooked, and I’m finding it difficult to keep my hands off their paper roller coaster creations.

Today, I’m celebrating our process.

It’s been a process. At the beginning of this unit, students knew the goal was to build rollercoasters. But to do the work, we needed to do a lot of reading, experimenting, and thinking.

Newtonian Laws of Motion are kid-friendly concepts; they understand because they see or do every day. And our experiments required not much more than marbles and rulers. Find amazing links to our process here.

With the theoretical knowledge of the laws of motion, we stopped and worked on building together.  Each design team had experience working together in reading research and presentation projects. Creating a paper tower made of index cards was their first engineering project. Interestingly, what made a successful team was not about design or engineering ideas, it was about how the teams worked together.  Those who found success as teammates in reading research projects found the equal success in engineering and design. A fascinating lesson for all. Collaboration skills are essential, no matter the academic domain.

Building structures required students to “hear” each other’s ideas. For some, this came quickly. For the majority of teams, the motivation to create prevailed over the desire to give up or fight about an idea. For a few teams, teamwork is the most significant hurdle. Proving kids need more time to play and interact with each other to be successful in cooperative academic work.

paper towerspaper towers 2paper towers 3

After all the study and our initial building experience, roller coaster designs were imagined and planned. Materials were presented: cardstock, tape, and a base of cardboard. The timeline was established: Six days.

And, I was nervous.  Would students be successful? Would the science concepts transfer? Would they be able to work together through the troubles?

Day one building conversations, materials, and emotions were everywhere. Words like “you need to have more supports” and “there’s not enough potential energy” and “can you hold this” and “that’s a good idea” made me smile.  While words like, “they aren’t listening to me” and “I’m stupid” hurt my heart.  Both things were happening around the room. How similar life and engineering can be. The bumpy teamwork moments required some to stop, think, and collect their emotions before they could listen to each other. STEM meets social-emotional learning.

The beginning.

day one rollercoaster.jpg

Early attempts.

roller coaster day 1.jpg

Early success. Test, re-engineer, and work from the ground up.


Day two the designs get more dramatic.

day two designs.jpg

And yes! They work. Sort of. More re-engineering needed.


Three more days of building are in front of us. And while I can’t wait to see what will be created, the biggest lessons are outside the science standards.


  • Kids are fearless explorers. They venture in, eyes wide open.
  • Kids expect the good. They want the challenge.
  • Desire, motivation can overcome trouble.
  • Play matters. Getting along as humans first is essential to our student’s success.


3 thoughts on “STEM meets Social-Emotional Learning

  1. What fun learning for all! This is what makes learning contagious! Love the way you watch and observe your kids and give them the chance to make the learning their own. Wish I was out there to see this in action.

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