All In with Hands-On Learning

The “Westward Expansion” simulation exercise has been part of the fifth grade curriculum at Rick Marcotte Central School for over 20 years. Each student is assigned the role of a pioneer. For example, some are farmers, blacksmiths, or shopkeepers. The pioneers are then grouped together in a “wagon train.” Over the course of several weeks, students navigate the fictional “Hackers Trail” in a quest to reach Oregon, meeting Native Americans along the way, and facing unpredictable fates caused by disease and foul weather. The pioneers advance or fall behind depending on the choices they make.

Fifth-grader Monty quickly explains, “If you didn’t bring salt, for example, you get delay points. If something good happens, you get energy factors which are like multipliers for your progress. But if your animal or family member dies, you lose energy factors.”

“Which is sort of like real life,” adds classmate Leo. “When you’re happy, you move along faster.”

The simulation exercise comes to a climatic end with a simple ball toss game in the school hallways to determine the ultimate destiny of each wagon. Fortunately, many early Americans were successful settling in the west, unlike these fifth graders. “Almost everybody died,” Monty admits.

Moving from history to engineering, students have more hands-on learning opportunities. This time, building with Lego’s. The two-week unit called pneumatics, a branch of engineering that makes use of gas or pressurized air, had students building devices like miniature sliding glass doors and dentist chairs. They learn how they can make parts move by flowing air through a series of rubber tubes.

While teaching students basic design principles, the project also reinforces valuable problem-solving skills and creativity. After meeting the standard requirements, they get to design and create their own device.

“I’ve seen some pretty exciting inventions since I started teaching pneumatics!” says teacher Kristin Couillard. “Students have attempted pneumatic garbage disposals, hot tubs, elevators. It’s a great way for them to show off their design creativity.”

“I never knew you could do so much with Legos,” said fifth-grader Andre. “We were building stuff that used pumps that actually worked. It was cool.”

With all this excitement in the classroom, you can imagine it may be hard to go back to: “Now open your textbook to page 63…”

By Michelle Rosowsky, RMCS PTO. Join RMCS PTO for morning coffee, Friday, November 11, 7:45-8:30 a.m. in the cafeteria.

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