As part of a unit on natural disasters, third graders headed to their invention lab to develop avalanche barriers and test them on a cardboard “mountain.”
The lesson started with learning about tornadoes, volcanoes, floods, earthquakes and landslides, and each student interviewed someone who survived a natural disaster to gain empathy for the human experience. Then, they took on a design challenge to create an effective protection system that can save lives in the event of an avalanche.
In the Gates Innovation Lab, third graders worked in small groups to assemble everyday material like cheesecloth, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners and straws into barriers that could stop a rolling object in an avalanche simulation. To test their invention, they placed the barrier at the base of a cardboard chute and rolled a clay ball from the top. If the barrier wasn’t successful in stopping the object, they went back to the lab and made improvements. If their catch system worked, they went into design phase two and tried to accomplish the same result with fewer materials. Catches were built in layers, so if the first layer doesn’t stop the boulder, the second or third layer hopefully would.
“I liked building the catches and helping solve the problem of avalanches,” said third grader Anna Wang.
To be successful in the design challenge, students had to understand how an avalanche occurs, such as when a weak layer of snow is covered by a heavy layer. Another important factor is the slope of the terrain; an angle of 30-45 degrees is common.
“I learned that there’s a lot more to avalanches than just snow falling down a mountain,” said Brady Dawson, another third grader. “When weak layers and strong layers build up, it can shift and sweep away rocks and trees.”
Teacher Michelle Benge believes the lesson engaged students in unique ways. “They loved the hands-on piece of it and working with material in the Gates Innovation Lab,” she said. “It also connected them to a natural disaster that happens right here in Colorado.”