Building the Pyramids STEAM Style

There has been a lot of buzz around STEAM lately, which is STEM plus the Arts. What I'm really digging about it is how hands on everything must be, which is exactly what kids want and need to stay engaged and make content and skills really "stick."

In my social studies class, I try to pull in something STEM or STEAM every week, because let's face it, social studies can be a little boring unengaging... well, it can sometimes not hold students' interests as well , even with passionate teachers teaching it. Not everyone thinks so, and of course there are students who love it, but topics such as agriculture, geography, and branches of government are not always the most appealing to some students.

Students building pyramids using the "bottom-up" method
The best thing about using STEAM in social studies is how simply easy it is to find connections between those topics and the ones your class may be studying. For example, when learning about ancient cultures, art is a must! But think of all the other connections to science and math: the concept of surplus, population growth, ancient number systems and calendars, etc. Technology and engineering are a given based on all the inventions needed over time to support the growth of civilizations like the canals and roads made to bring water and supplies in and out of a city. There is a whole world of connections from social studies, ancient cultures, and STEAM that go much deeper than the examples I've mentioned.

Students examining a secondary source to find out more.
One of the easiest ways to begin implementing a more STEM-friendly approach in your teaching of social studies is the use of inquiry. I personally love Reading Like a Historian from Standford, and also use the methods from as well (I have their poster up year round and use it to remind students that history is a mystery!) Speaking of posters, another poster I keep up all year to probe inquiry in historical thinking can be found on this blog post.

Reading this book took time and teamwork.
Students filled out a graphic organizer on comprehension as they went.
In terms of how all this actually plays out in the classroom, the beginning of the year requires lots of explicit teaching about how to ask questions, what primary and secondary sources are, etc. Once we get into the swing of things (a couple of weeks after school starts), the hands-on stuff really begins!
In this unit on Egyptian architecture, students were asked the question "How did the Egyptians build such monumental structures without the use of our modern technologies?"

First, the students speculated and we wrote their speculations down on the board. Then we looked at some primary sources. Primary sources for ancient cultures usually consist of artifacts (or pictures of artifacts). We also took a look at a secondary source, first, the textbook, and second, a book about how the Egyptians built the pyramids.

In addition to inquiry and arts integration, collaboration
is a very important part of adding STEAM to social studies.
After having a discussion about these sources using various strategies, students were asked to share out how their thinking might have changed and also things they noticed or that stood out to them.

This all gets written down on the board (or students may use a graphic organizer) so we can all see each others' thinking. We went back to the original question, "how did the Egyptians build the pyramids without our modern technologies?" and they attempt to answer how.

Now, the engineering part began. I showed them this infographic on building marshmallow and spaghetti towers, asking them to think about how they could apply the concepts to building a pyramid. Students hypothesized that they could easily use these techniques of the "pyramid" shapes and the "bottomless pyramid" shapes (which they began calling "spiders") to create a pyramid without the use of the "buttresses." (That worked out so well because we had already learned about the mechanics of an arch during a unit on Greece and how they were supported... that post is coming up later.)

Students in the "tryout" phase. "Let's see how to do this..."
As with any hands-on project, it is super important to give the students try-out time with the materials. Plan for this. Artists and makers need to experiment with the materials to see how they work and what they do in order to know what they can do with them. I allow my sixth grade students about five extra minutes to "get their hands on" some materials and "free play" with them. Then I tell them it's time to build.

Students are usually quite eager to begin making something and often won't "mess around" with the materials quite like I picture myself doing before I set to work on something. Sometimes they just head into the objective of building the pyramid. Either way, my students are aware that this is the time they have and we spend LOTS of time talking about appropriately using the materials. They love to have the "what not to do" conversation... and it's a conversation we have every week before I "set them free" in an activity like this. Mostly every single time  we have the "What NOT to do" conversation, at least one suggestion goes something like "do no jump on tables, climb on your friends back, and act like a gorilla, while shouting at the top of your lungs." Why, yes, please don't do that. Ah, sixth grade.

Students on their second layer, using
the "bottom up" technique and techniques from
the "Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool 
Stuff" book
After the try-out phase, I had them freeze and I directed them back to some of the things we noticed about the way the Egyptians built their pyramids. Spaghetti and marshmallows make it quite easy to build all the parts, and then put them together later to form a final product/structure. But, one thing a student pointed out was that the Egyptians built their pyramid from the ground up. They didn't have the ability to build parts of the whole and then put them together. "How will we apply this concept?" I asked. They turned to neighbors to share, then a few answers were thrown out whole class.

The interesting thing about this project was that one class wanted to work in smaller groups and the other class wanted to do it whole group. Luckily I have fairly small class sizes, so this worked. It took a LOT of teamwork to get their pyramid built, and before the latter class began, we calculated using dot grids how many layers and how many "pyramids" and "spiders" we would need. One can see how the whole brain is needed to figure this challenge out.

A Production Line assembling different parts for the layers of the pyramid
The class that ended up doing the large pyramid with the whole class working on it ended up with a kind of rotational factory line, and while that worked most of the time, there were times when someone was either feeling left out or, finding their own thing to do while they didn't have something to work on immediately in front of them (and you know how that can go :) The class that worked in large groups still had to figure out the layers and how many spaghetti sticks, marshmallows, and "spiders" they would need for each layer, but it was obviously not as large numbers since their pyramids would be smaller (less people building meant less man power).

In retrospect, I think next time I will use toothpicks, though, spaghetti was cheap, plentiful (quite a few kids brought in donations) and it took some problem solving to figure out how to make the pieces pretty uniform, which is totally fine, but the toothpicks may make the pyramids more uniform next time.

The next day, I had the kids speak, then write about problems they ran into, summarizing what they remembered from the text, and how they applied the concepts to the project. This was great for speaking/listening objectives and writing objectives.  Having the students try to cite evidence/examples from our discussions and the texts for what they think worked well and what didn't gave them practice in backing up their statements.

In addition, the pyramids "hung out" for a while until my amazing colleague, and their math teacher taught a lesson on scale and ratio on a map. We used the pyramids in conjunction with a map of the Giza Necropolis to map out the pyramids that the kids built (with some of the smaller pyramids serving as the queens pyramids, the whole-class pyramid serving as King Khufu's, and the smaller (but still larger than the tiny ones) as the pyramid of  Khafre).

This student was allergic to marshmallows, so we used Dots candies instead :)
This was an extremely fun project for the kids and for myself, I loved listening to them problem solve and try to work together as a team to build something. It was a very bonding experience and I cannot wait to share more of what this amazing group of kids do each week.

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