The Science of Superpowers: An Excerpt from STEM to Story by 826 National

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826 NATIONAL is a network of nonprofit creative writing and after-school tutoring centers dedicated to supporting students, ages 6 to 18, with opportunities to explore their creativity and writing skills, and to help teachers get their classes excited about writing.

This excerpt from, STEM to Story: Enthralling and Effective Lesson Plans for Grades 5-8, is an example of an engaging lesson plan that combines hands-on discovery in science and engineering with creative writing. In this workshop, students explore the science and engineering behind superpowers and heroic adventures using DNA extraction, paper airplane construction, cotton swab tower building, and egg drop design. In addition to lab note-taking, each activity is paired with a different genre of poetry inspired by the session’s theme and hands-on activity. The following example is one session from “The Science of Superpowers” chapter.

The Science of Superpowers

MATERIALS 
  • 8.5-by-11-inch paper to fold, accordion-style, into drying racks (2 to 3 per student)
  • Cotton swabs (40 to 60 per student plus extra for demonstration, possibly including some extra-long swabs for variety)
  • Clear rubber cement (at least 1 bottle for every 2 students)
  • Newspapers, scissors, and tape (optional)
  • Sample haikus
  • Copies of the “How to Be a Superengineer!!!!” handout
  • Copies of the “Secret Lair Blueprint” handout

Session 3: Quick, to Safety! (Secret Lair Building and Haikus)

Shelter is one of the basic needs of most animals. Shelter provides protection from extreme weather (heat, cold, precipitation) and predators. Shelter provides a safe place to sleep, to care for young, and to rest and recover from injuries. Human shelters are the most elaborate in the animal world. They are engineered to meet the needs of those who live in them with specialized rooms for different functions, though other creatures like bees and ants also build specialized structures (or rooms) within their shelters. Heroes have some of the most amazing shelters around—secret lairs that conceal their secret identity, protect them from supervillains, and allow them to rest and recuperate (and sometimes study or invent) between adventures.

Preparation

Before class, make some drying racks for the cotton swabs by folding paper accordion-style. You’ll also want to build a simple structure with cotton swabs predipped in rubber cement to give students an idea of how this building material works.

For this session, the students will also do a little prep (and be sure to see note on rubber cement at the end of these preparation instructions). As soon as students walk in, have them start prepping their cotton swabs. Preparing cotton swabs is quick—simply dip each swab end in rubber cement and set it on the accordion-folded drying rack to dry. Students will want to wipe the dunked swabs on the edge of the glue jar when pulling them out. If there is too much glue on the end of a swab, it will take a long time to dry (drying time is typically ten minutes). Once the swabs are “tacky”—dry but sticky—they can be used for building. Tip for instructors: If time allows, we recommend that you try this activity in advance of the workshop to get a sense of the right amount of dipping and tackiness.

Cotton swab prep can be done at stations with small groups of students working with adult helpers. In the absence of helpers, teach the early arrivers how to dip the cotton swabs in the rubber cement and place them on the racks to dry. Ask students to share how to prepare cotton swabs with any students who join their table later. Each student will need about forty to sixty prepared cotton swabs.

A note on rubber cement: It can get a little fumy, so you’ll want to be sure you’re working in a well-ventilated room. If your classroom is on the small side, crack some windows. Keep an eye on the students to make sure they’re not hovering over the jars of rubber cement too much, and instruct them to screw the caps back on once they’re done.

Introduction (15 minutes)

In the first session, students used the “Supercookbook” handout to design a new hero. They then used their understanding of structure-function relationships to engineer a flying vehicle to help their hero get where he or she needs to go. Today, students will continue engineering to fill an important need of every hero: a secret lair. When that’s done they’ll engineer a haiku that mirrors the secret lair’s structure.

The session starts out with a discussion of retreats. Humans, like many other animals, need a place to feel safe and protected. Ask your students where they go to feel safe. Many will say they go to their home; ask them where specifically in their home. Others will say school or church, or a friend’s house, or the neighborhood park or library. Whatever the response, make sure students are as specific as possible, and then ask what about that place appeals to them. Some will say they like the solitude; others will say they enjoy the company. Some will like that they can relax; others will look forward to challenge and excitement. Heroes have all the same reasons and more.

Move on to the next bit of the discussion, asking, “Where do you think a hero goes to feel safe and hide out?”

Discuss some well-known hero lairs. Where are they, what do they look like, what are the essential elements? What unique features do they have that help the hero be successful? Examples might include Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, Batman’s Batcave, the X-Men’s Xavier’s mansion, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ sewer hideout.

Brainstorm the elements that make up a “secret lair,” writing the results on the board. Students ideally will mention the following:

  • Location: Secrecy and camouflage
  • Solitude: A place to rest, heal, and think
  • Space: A command center for learning, practice, planning, inventing, and storing the hero suit
  • Entrance/exit: Easy accessibility

Unfortunately, most superfolks are not also superbuilders. They need someone else to design and create their secret lair: an engineer. And engineers have superpowers, too: they can design solutions to important problems, making the world better. There are engineers who design airplanes so that they can safely take hundreds of passengers from one point to another, engineers who study the flow of traffic and design streets (and time traffic lights) to reduce traffic jams, and engineers who design and build video games that you enjoy playing.

Heroes need engineers to help them solve a variety of problems. They need engineers to design gadgets that help them evade supervillains. They need engineers to design high-tech fabrics that protect them from their enemies’ onslaughts (and their own derring-do), and they need engineers to build their secret lair—a safe place where they can work, plan, practice, and recover from their stressful adventures.
Give students their task:

Today you will design a secret lair for the hero you created in the first session. Your hero needs you—to be an engineer.

Distribute the “How to Be a Superengineer!!!!” handout and spend a few minutes going over it. Engineering is like a superpower, and it’s what will help them—and their hero client—succeed in their assignment.

Engineering a Lair (75 minutes)

Distribute the “Secret Lair Blueprint” handout, and set the students loose to start designing. After a few minutes, announce a challenge. You can use one of these or come up with your own:

We’ve just learned that there is a worldwide shortage of lair building materials. Given this crisis, your hero client has challenged you to build the biggest lair possible, using the fewest materials.

or

Today’s newspaper includes an announcement by the Decimator, the world’s most powerful supervillain. He has sworn to find and destroy all hero lairs (and the heroes who inhabit them). He has developed a powerful new radar tool that can detect most lairs. Currently, there is one form of camouflage or shielding that can evade detection, but it only works when the surface area of the lair is under a certain size. Design a lair that can escape detection by shielding it with no more than a half sheet of newspaper (about eleven by ten inches, depending on the format of newspapers in your region). Note that you can be creative about how you apply the newspaper (think scissors and tape)—but the total paper area cannot be more than one sheet.

or

There has been a huge uptick in villain activity in Metro City, and all heroes are relocating there to protect the populace. Given several heroes’ need to construct a new secret lair (and zoning restrictions that require new buildings to be at least twenty-five stories tall), you need to design a stable skyscraper lair at least twenty-five centimeters tall.

All of these are model constraints, or limitations, that engineers face. There are often cost constraints on projects (a limit on how much money can be spent, or on how much of a certain material is available for use) or size constraints (How do we build a new freeway or bridge that doesn’t require us to demolish entire neighborhoods?), among others.

Once students have each sketched their design, disperse students into groups at tables to start building with the prepared cotton swabs. Show them the sample structure you made as an example. After they’re done, debrief with a discussion. You can ask:

  • Did any of you have a structural failure that you would like to share? How did you solve the problem?
  • What are some ways that you were able to add stability to your structure? Did connecting the swabs in certain patterns lead to a more stable structure than others? If so, how?
  • What was the most challenging part of building your lair? The most rewarding? The most exciting?
  • The next time a hero asks you to build a secret lair, what will you do differently? Are there any particular questions you might ask your client this time around? Are there different approaches to the problem that you think might be more effective? How might you test and evaluate these options to determine which is best?

Lair-Upon-Lair Haiku (20 minutes)

After students have done a bit of engineering, bring them back to writing, and highlight some similarities between writing and engineering. There’s a purpose to things people write, like there’s a purpose to things people engineer. And in both there are constraints to work around. Engineers may have size constraints (as with earlier in this session) or cost constraints (which, as already suggested, aren’t necessarily monetary—the amount of available resources, such as cotton swabs, is another kind of cost). Writers have constraints as well. A writer may only have a limited amount of time for a radio or TV commercial, or may have to hold back on complicated vocabulary so an audience can understand. Sometimes, these constraints are more codified or formalized—five hundred words on a statement of purpose for a college application, or an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme for a Shakespearean sonnet.

Here, students will further explore the client-engineer relationship, as well as structure and form, in their writing. Ask if they know what a haiku is; they probably do, but if they’ve forgotten, remind them of their five-seven-five syllable structure. Show some traditional and nontraditional examples of haikus (maybe show an example of your own haiku you’ve written about a hero, or see a student’s example in the “Acorn Avenger” sidebar). If need be, go over what a syllable is and have students practice counting how many syllables are in their own name to get warmed up for writing.

THE ACORN AVENGER
Here are some hero haikus one of our students wrote:
Surrounded with green,
a silver horn and curled tail
is where you’ll find me.
***
Abundant with gear,
woven from a straw basket,
hidden in the woods.
***
A perfect hideout,
a pyramid of supplies,
the place where I spy.

—Jalen Lisbon, age twelve, New York

To give the students a little more structure, ask them to write a client-engineer haiku. The first two lines will be a client request from a hero. For example, “Help build my lair, please. / I need to heal after fights.” or “I need to hide out / Where the Fox Man can’t get me!”

And the last line will be by an engineer, in response to the request. For the previous examples, finishing lines might be “Look, infirmary!” or “Have these iron walls!”

Encourage your students to write as many first and second lines as possible, taking on the persona of their hero client. Ten or more is not unreasonable to ask for.

Once that’s done, have them hand their partial haiku to a partner, who, as the engineer, will write final lines with resolutions to the problems. The completed haiku should be returned to the first author, the client.

Finally, the client will take a look at the completed haiku and decide which of the engineer’s solutions they like best. If time and awesomeness permit, students can revise their cotton swab model. For major bonus points, they can use the haiku as walls.

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ABOUT THE BOOK:

STEM to Story: Enthralling and Effective Lesson Plans for Grades 5-8 inspires learning through fun, engaging, and meaningful lesson plans that fuse hands-on discovery in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with creative writing. The workshop activities within the book are the innovative result of a partnership between 826 National’s proven creative writing model and Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds, an initiative dedicated to connecting young people to the wonders of STEM through hands-on learning. Authentically aligned with both the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, this book provides teachers, after-school and out-of-school providers, and parents with field-tested lessons, workshops, and projects designed by professionals in each field. Including reflective observations by arts and science celebrities like Jon Scieszka, Mayim Bialik, and Steve Hockensmith, lessons feature bonus activities, fun facts, and teaching points for instructors at every level. These quirky, exploratory lessons will effectively awaken student imaginations and passions for both STEM and creative writing, encourage identity with scientific endeavors, and make both science and writing fun.

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