Picture books are an extremely valuable resource for learning. They come packed with amazing artwork, stories, humor, history, and science. They often teach about people in that wonderful genre of narrative nonfiction. I think of the book Snowflake Bentley, written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian, which provides students with knowledge about snowflakes but also teaches them about this very passionate man who tirelessly took pictures of snowflakes.
Whether it’s a fun story, an informational picture book, or both, these texts are a great tool to combine with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities to provide a fantastic cross-curricular connection.
It’s probably the librarian in me, but I think picture books are a great way to introduce STEM activities. You are presenting STEM within a literary lens. Reading a book usually leads to an engaging discussion about the person being written about or the historical time period during which they lived. I think of The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, by Natascha Biebow and illustrated by Steven Salerno. Students are in awe hearing about how Crayola crayons were originally made from charcoal and oil. They’re amazed when I tell them that William Kamkwamba, the man who cowrote (with Bryan Mealer) The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind—illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon—is alive, and we can watch an interview with him.
There are also many benefits for social and emotional learning. When students hear that Bentley struggled to get pictures of snowflakes because they would melt so quickly or that people laughed at Kamkwamba when he was picking through trash for his windmill, you have an opportunity to discuss perseverance.
Going Beyond Reading
After we read one of these books, I like to invite students to do activities related to the text. A popular activity with my students is to create a product based on what we read, which allows us to review the engineering design process for each lesson.
Like many of us, children want to rush. They want to create whatever task or item is expected of them because they’re excited, but I enjoy slowing them down and making them pause and really think about the design.
I like to get students to think about who will benefit from this product and how they will use it. How often and for what? I like to tell students that Binney had to remember that the crayon would be used by children, whose hands are smaller, so he would have to think about the size of the crayon.
Through a STEM project with The Crayon Man, I ask students to make a crayon holder. It’s helpful to pose design questions to students, such as, “Do you want a cover on your holder, or will you put a handle on it?” Students use consumables such as cardboard, card-stock paper, and pipe cleaners, as well as tape and cotton balls.
After reading the picture-book version of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, we discuss the environmental advantages of wind power for energy and watch a video to understand the process. Then we set out to make balloon-powered cars. This is a simple design: balloons, cardboard, sticks, bottle caps, tape, and straws. We review the simple machine of a wheel and axles and how they work. Some students run into problems with movement of their cars, which lead to design questions. If they grab a bottle cap that’s a different size, they discover that their car may not move as well or at all.
Making a pinwheel would be a great STEM activity for first and second graders. For upper elementary, have students create a windmill out of paper cups, tape, skewer sticks, and cardboard for the blades. Designing the blades can bring up great discussion in terms of getting them to work well and how the length and weight of them can affect their productivity. Have students turn on a fan or hair dryer and see how well their windmill works. You then can discuss how the wind is needed to make the blades turn, which creates electricity through the use of a generator. This could be a great time to show them some wind farms at work in the world.
Two books I have used to build catapults are The Marshmallow Incident, by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett, and Those Darn Squirrels, by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Students can make a catapult using craft sticks, elastics, and a plastic spoon. Upper-elementary students could have more of a challenge by creating a foundation or stage for their catapult.
Say “catapult” to a student, and they’re on board. But the science comes in when they try catapulting different objects of different weights. Use a pom-pom, then a penny, and then a marble. Have students use rulers to measure the distance the items traveled, and compare the distances. Pose the questions of why some items go farther, and then discuss mass. Now work on accuracy: Can you hit a plastic cup? Place it farther away. Can you still hit it?
For elementary students, read-alouds with STEM-related activities make reading even more fun. I often use the Tinkering and Storytime website, which is affiliated with the Exploratorium in San Francisco, to get ideas. Students are natural-born creators and tinkerers who enjoy activities that allow them to create and learn at the same time. I’m always amazed at the design ideas that students come up with, as well as their fresh perspectives on stories.