Young Makers: STEAM Challenges in Grade One

Making Platonic solids with straws and pipe cleaners

A few weeks ago, Chris Colley and I were at Edgewater Elementary School (LBPSB) to try our hand at Making with our youngest group ever – Grade One. Since the last school year, we have visited over two dozen classrooms, and have held just over 10 Open Creative Space days at our offices or on the road, working with both teachers and students on the Maker Mindset through hands-on making. You can read about it here and here. We’ve been mainly aiming at the middle, that grade 5-6 sweet spot where maturity and flexible scheduling meet in the perfect learning storm. But we’ve been curious about 1) how our STEAM challenges would scale up or down,  2) how long it would take grade one students to complete each challenge and whether they had the requisite attention span and 3) how they handled some of the more complex materials.

Adapting our challenges to Cycle 1

Although at LEARN we use the inclusive term Open Creative Space for our own makerspace, many in the anglophone education community in Quebec have taken a shine to the STEAM initiatives that have swept across our neighbours to the south. With that in mind, we’ve called our Maker challenges STEAM challenges so that students engage with familiar terminology already in use in their schools. For Cycle 1, we chose those challenges that we could see young learners being able to complete with minimal adult intervention. As it was our first time working in a structured way with Grade 1 students in a Maker context (we are both parents of younger kids, so have plenty of recent informal experience to draw upon), we agreed to try out some challenges even if we weren’t sure they would work, in a spirit of joyful experimentation. We chose the following challenges:

  • Art-bot: Make a robot that draws using a small motor and simple dollar store items. Our hypothesis: Students will be able to do this with careful scaffolding
  • Lego design: work with Lego blocks to create something based on a design specification. Our hypothesis: Easy-peasy lemon squeezy
  • Pinwheel: make a working pinwheel that spins. Our hypothesis: Doable with some adult help
  • Turtle Art: Basic programming challenge using a Scratch-based interface and programming cards. Our hypothesis: Probably too hard for grade 1
  • Claymation: Create an animation featuring a moving object. Our hypothesis: No problem for grade 1
  • Straw solids: Create a platonic solid from straws and pipe-cleaners. Our hypothesis: No problem for grade 1

    Testing the ArtBot

Working with Cycle 1 students – a PMI*

Pascale Quenneville’s Grade One students were excited to being “doing Science”, as they phrased it. They were also used to working through stations, so we decided to use their existing class structure during the challenges. This was familiar to them and made transitions even more seamless than in older grades, and freed us up to focus on getting the challenge tables ready for the next group. Each student was able to complete three challenges over the course of the half-day we spent with them. I’ve divided the stations using a Plus-Minus-Interesting reflection model.


Lego design brief

In terms of sheer learning joy, the two clear winners were the Art-bot and the Claymation challenges. We felt good about these challenges for the age group and were proved right. At the Art-bot station, grade one students were able to work in pairs to power a small motor using a battery and alligator cables, to affix the motor and battery to a cup and to attach markers to the cup. The students struggled somewhat with the fine motor skills required to affix the alligator clip to the tiny prongs of the motor, so we gave them a break and cut their duct tape for them. Judicious scaffolding. The testing phase was full of squeals and questions such as “Why doesn’t my robot move as fast as their robot?” and ‘How come the blue marker isn’t touching the paper?”.


On the surface, the pinwheel challenge seemed a shoo-in for Cycle 1. However, we forgot about the straight pin that needs to go through the paper and into the wooden dowel, making this challenge impossible for grade 1 students to complete on their own. Creating a square out of a rectangular piece of paper and then cutting only part of the way along a line were also aspects of the pinwheel challenge that required serious adult intervention. After the first round of students, we switched to using pencils instead of dowels, and sticking the straight pin into the eraser part. This was easier, but still out of reach for grade 1. This challenge would be best done as a multi-age challenge where older students create the pinwheel and Cycle 1 students participate in the testing phase with a fan.

Another challenge that we felt good about for grade 1 was creating straw solids, using pipe cleaners. When we heard that Pascale’s grade 1 students had done solids earlier in the school year, we were even more confident. It turns out that threading pipe cleaners through straws, and twisting them together to form the solid was somewhat out of reach for a majority of students. It was another station at which adult intervention was required to a degree that made the challenge both uninspiring for some students, and inappropriate for our goal of having kids engage fully in the act of making.


Turtle Art with programming cards

One of our newer challenges is one where students choose a card and have to build something with Lego according to the design constraint identified. An example of a design constraint is “build something that is very tall and stands alone” or “build something that moves”. It was interesting to note that the boys in Pascale’s class were highly motivated to complete this challenge, even when they didn’t exactly know what to do. In the future, we will be trying to frame the design challenge questions in various ways to see if any resonate more with girls.

We were also unsure if grade one students would be able to do basic programming with Turtle Art on the iPad. After some back and forth, Chris went through the programming cards and chose the simplest ones, with the simplest series of commands. After a brief intro, the kids were off and running, with very minimal adult intervention.

Overall, our first foray into engaging Cycle 1 kids in Maker activities was very successful, with both teacher and students full of enthusiasm and plans for the future. Pascale Quenneville suggested that her school create a continuum for maker skills and attitudes, so that kids in grade one would be already developing competencies needed for more complex making in Cycle 3. We have seen Cycle 3 students be extremely capable when faced with our pre-planned open-ended Maker challenges. The ultimate goal, however, is for those students to have the competencies necessary for their own projects. Starting as early as Cycle 1 would mean that by the time students hit Cycle 3, they would be familiar with the practical (not just theoretical) notions of circuits, of simple machines, of building, of planning, of trial and error, of perseverance. That’s the dream.


*PMI – Plus, Minus, Interesting

Other posts about Making and our Open Creative Space initiative

She Said, He Said: On Makerspaces

The Power of Words: Dismantling the fixed mindset

Getting Started with Makerspaces: LEARN’s STEAM challenges

Other stories of Making in Cycle 1

Singing the Grade School Blues

Rob Lutes singing the Blues.

When I was about twelve years old I was flipping through my parent’s record collection and came across B.B. King ‎– Live In Cook County Jail, an album cover faded and textured like prison denim.

From the moment I put the needle to the record I was transported by the sounds of inmates laughing and booing in response to introductions of the prison director and chief justice of the criminal court.   Then comes the introduction of B.B. King who immediately kicks off with “Every day I have the blues”. It was at that moment that I understood how the blues easily communicates loneliness, sadness and hardships of life to an audience.

As B.B. King says “Blues don’t necessarily have to be sung by a person that came from Mississippi as I did, because there are people having problems all over the world”.

There is power in playing blues music to a group of people that seemed to have lots to be blue about. There is power in teaching students how to express their emotions through lyrics and music.

This post is not meant to be a total downer, but rather a chance to introduce Rob Lutes, an accomplished singer songwriter who has been providing a blues songwriting workshops for students in Quebec, across Canada and in Europe. What he does is work with students to learn about the intersections of history and music. The workshop shows how the blues was a vehicle to comment on important societal issues, personal feelings and emotions.

Rob starts his workshops with the story of the blues as rooted in the history of slavery in North America and extending through the African-American experience of racism, segregation and discrimination. Reflecting on the history of music in North America, he quotes the Willie Dixon line “the blues as the roots, the rest is the fruits” crediting the blues as the basis for much of the modern music that we enjoy today.

The second part of the workshop is where the real fun and learning begins. Students engage in writing and performing a blues song in 20 minutes. Rob works with students to brainstorm subjects, vote on a single topic and then facilitates the writing of a collective song using the Delta Blues style following the traditional AAB rhyme scheme. This style and the songwriting portion of the workshop as a whole is successful because “creativity flourishes within constraints”.

Some might say it’s impossible to write a song that fast!  Let me try one real quick.

Writer’s Block Blues

I don’t know what to write

I don’t know what to write

I’m begging please, don’t let it take all night

During my conversation with Rob, he tells me that he is pleasantly surprised to see students typically disengaged throw out lines that get the whole class enthused, building off each other. Encouraging students in this way has potential to provide valuable opportunity for student voice. Opening a space for students to write about issues in society or realities in their community.

Last year Rob brought his workshop to three schools in the Gaspe. Talking about important community realities (or at least the reality of 16 year-olds), the secondary 5 students collectively came up with a song called the “The Lifted Truck Blues”.

Last summer, grade 4 students at Clearpoint Elementary School wrote The Bad Dream Blues as part of the Montreal Folk Festival’s inaugural Artists in the Schools program. You can hear their song here.

The Bad Dream Blues

I went to sleep, I saw a shadow in my room

I went to sleep, I saw a shadow in my room

The shadow had eight arms, it was flying on a broom

I thought it was a ghost, so I called the ghostbusters

I thought it was a ghost, so I called the ghostbusters

They showed up right away with a big duster

Something woke me up saying you got to follow the rules

Something woke me up saying you got to follow the rules

It was my Mom saying it’s time to go to school

I got The Bad Dream Blues 

If you are interested in organizing a workshop or talking about education and the blues you can contact Rob at

Rob Lutes Blues Playlist
Diddie Wa Diddie – Blind Blake
No Love Today– Chris Smither
It’s Tight Like That – Tampa Red and Georgia Tom
Fishin’ Blues – Taj Mahal
Tight Money – Bobby Rush

Getting Started with Makerspaces: LEARN’s STEAM challenges


At LEARN we’ve been reflecting on how best to increase student engagement in school, as it has been closely linked with academic achievement and students’ perceptions of their ability to succeed. One of our initiatives has been harnessing the power and appeal of the Maker Movement in the school context. To this end, we’ve been inviting teachers to Open Creative Space days at our offices and also working directly with teachers and their students in classrooms. We’ve also done whole-staff ped days at schools where there is interest in setting up a Makerspace or Open Creative Space. Working closely with teachers and students has been rewarding and has allowed us to refine our thinking about Making in schools. This post discusses one of the main ways we’ve been introducing Making to teachers and students – our STEAM Challenges – and explores how these challenges are just a pathway into a more holistic view of Makerspaces.

It needs to be said that our ideal scenario is one where each school has a dedicated Makerspace or Creative Space, equipped with a wide variety of materials and tools. Teachers would be able to book the space for projects, as well as have a time in their schedule dedicated to Making, Passion Projects or Genius Hour. Some of the schools we’ve worked with have a dedicated room that they have designated as their Makerspace, and some are looking at their libraries as multi-function spaces that include Making. Currently, many teachers are interested in the Maker Movement, but are looking for a pathway in, something familiar enough to allow them to feel secure with trying out a new risky and potentially time-intensive practice. Some of the concerns expressed by teachers are:

  • Students don’t have the practical skills needed to make the things they want to make
  • Teachers don’t have the practical skills needed to make the things students want to make

    (c) LEARN BY-NC-ND
  • Many students lack ideas about what they could make
  • Making something worthwhile takes too much time
  • A shared Makerspace is messy and disorganized
  • Do Makerspace activities fit into the QEP (Quebec curriculum)?

At LEARN, we have been addressing many of these concerns by working with teachers and students on a series of open-ended challenges. These STEAM challenges allow for many ways of proceeding and for many possible discoveries and end products. Typically, we plan nearly a full day with a class, starting just after recess and often going until the end of the day. In that time frame, we are able to have 3 challenges blocks of about 45 minutes each, with an intro and a debrief at the end. We work with teachers remotely to choose the challenges offered to students, and ideally students pre-select their top three challenge choices from the 6 or 7 options offered to them. Each challenge is set up on its own table or pod and comes with a laminated challenge card which gives students the goal of the challenge and a basic overview. We circulate and give students clues or ask questions to help them get started or help them over hurdles. Sometimes, students will need to have the goal of the challenge explained to them in more detail. All our challenges and the challenge cards can be found via our working blog

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.28.06

Let’s be clear about one thing. The challenges are hard. They involve skills the students don’t have for the most part. They involve concepts that students may or may not have been exposed to, and often very peripherally, such as the idea that batteries provide power to devices, and come in many different shapes. Teachers who see the challenges for the first time are often surprised. Students who see the challenges for the first time are often surprised – “But what do we have to DO?” they ask. But, in spite of this, there has not been a single group of kids who have been unable to complete the vast majority of challenges in the timeframe provided.


When the LEARN team came to Dorset, the experience was so enriching and fun we begged them to come back a second day…The students problem-solved, used their creativity, discovered, shared, learned, got frustrated, persisted, encouraged each other, discussed and had fun. The students and teachers got so much out of the LEARN visits. – Sylviane Martinis, Dorset Elementary, LBPSB

So far, the reactions to our LEARN Challenge days have been unequivocally positive. Teachers like the challenge model because we bring all the necessary materials with us and offer a wide range of challenges. Many teachers appreciate learning along with their students, and having us handle the immediate pedagogical aspects allows them to see how they might do it in the future. We also work in their own spaces: classrooms, Makerspaces or libraries. But if there were ever any doubts as to the success of the challenges, they would be dispelled upon witnessing the reactions from the students. From students spontaneously shouting out “This is the best day EVER!” as they get their ArtBot to draw, or their robot to follow the course they programmed for it, to clamouring for their teacher to take a video to send to their parents, to spontaneous hugs received in the hallways… Every day we spend with students, we are recommitted to growing the hands-on experiential Maker Movement in schools. Every time we see a student who struggles academically experience success, we are re-energized about our work.

Ultimately, though, the goal is not to have all students doing STEAM challenges ad nauseum. The challenges, after all, are just somewhat less structured activities, which, while making them an excellent first foray into the Making journey, do not stem from students’ own passions and ideas. The challenges give students exposure and above all, basic skills. When coupled with a growth mindset in the classroom, these three elements combine into a powerful cocktail of creative potential that can find free rein in an unstructured makerspace or open creative space, where there are no challenges, only materials, time and distributed expertise. Is Making a panacea for all the ills of education? Probably not. But the transformative power of creating has the potential to breathe new life into our system and ignite passion for learning. We’ll take it.


Read more: