Indicator 6.4

6.4 Students work independently and collaboratively in an inquiry-based learning environment that encourages finding creative solutions to authentic and complex problems.

Students at Michael C. Riley are regularly involved in learning that is centered around open-ended problems and project-based learning.

During our school-wide STEM Day this November, fifth grade students researched the condition of our school’s campus and developed focus questions for enhancing the grounds by attracting and protecting wildlife around our school. Their initial research has stemmed into a year-long “Schoolyard Habitat” project, in which students are planning ways to attract native wildlife to our school’s campus. They have researched native birds, insects, bats, and plants, and are planning ways to design feeders and gardens that will sustain wildlife over time.

Short-term engineering projects, such as our Engineering Fair challenges, have been tied into this larger problem. Students were challenged with the option of creating rainwater collection containers that could be used to sustain the garden, in the absence of irrigation systems.

English Language Arts will become a focal point of this project when students write letters, create videos, and otherwise communicate with stakeholders to request permission, materials, and advice for help with their garden. Mathematics skills will be infused into the real-world skills of measuring and budgeting for these projects, and the citizenship and leadership traits built during this challenge will be authentic. The project also aligns with both the fifth grade science Earth Science unit regarding watersheds, landforms, and erosion, and the Life Science unit centered on habitats and food webs.

Students were provided with scaffolding to develop their own driving questions and to determine subsequent steps and tasks so that important components were considered. Teachers facilitated students’ inquiry with the help of resources from the “Schoolyard Habitat Project” from PBLU: Making Projects Click ( A few examples of those resources are shared below.

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Another example of a complex and open-ended question that students have worked through collaboratively was the “Holiday Lights” challenge that fourth graders took on as a culmination of their electricity unit in conjunction with the holidays. The challenge began as an adaptation of a FOSS activity which asked students to evaluate parallel and series circuits to determine the best way for a light company to produce strings of holiday lights for profit. Following the steps of the Engineering Design Process, students explored the advantages and disadvantages of each type of circuit, developed plans for creating strings of lights, then reevaluated their ideas to generate “proposals” regarding the best way to create light strings to the board of the light company.

Students had already explored types of circuits as part of their electricity curriculum:

6.4 Sample Lesson Plan


As a direct component of the challenge, students reviewed the types of circuits, and evaluated the appropriateness of each in producing strings of holiday lights. An organizer was provided to help students gather information, and teachers posed specific questions to help students think through the important elements.

Questions/Instructions to scaffold students’ explorations and approaches to problem-solving:



Our school-wide Science and Engineering Fair also gives students the opportunity to work independently and collaboratively to solve authentic problems in an inquiry-based format. Students are offere

d possible problems to solve through the Engineering Design Process, and also have the option of developing their own problems that relate to their lives. They are also given the choice of working independently or in collaborative groups, and both formats are well represented. The focus of the fair is to demonstrate how students worked through the process of asking questions, researching possible solutions, designing and testing their ideas, and improving to make their solutions more successful, based on specified criteria. They are also able to use evidence to create arguments and support their reasoning when explaining their projects to their classes and to the judges. 

In the clip below, a student explains his initial problem-solving strategies:

Click here examples of the instructions offered to students to guide their approach to problem-solving and paths through the design process while preparing their Engineering Fair Projects.