In this unit students will combine math, technology and art in the creation of gingerbread houses. Students will use math and basic engineering skills to test various gingerbread house building materials for strength and other important building characteristics. Students will also study various building techniques and the materials to which they have been applied throughout human history. Using information gained from these two exercises, students will design and construct gingerbread houses.
This unit will be very good for a class with many different types of learners. It will have strong visual elements to it, but it will also have very kinesthetic aspect to it as well as spatial and mathematical elements. Because of the many skills required, this unit will lend itself well to a class that can work in small teams. All of the projects involved in this curriculum unit could be accomplished by individuals, but most of them could also be done in small groups or teams. In this way, this unit can be adapted to use in a much larger class setting than the one for which I am designing it.
Correspondence with Curriculum
This unit corresponds with parts of the science curriculum for the city of New Haven as well as parts of the science curriculum for the state of Connecticut. Both curricula are based on recommendations in the National Science Education Standards. The Connecticut and New Haven Standards may be found in the appendix at the end of this unit. Essentially, though, both standards call for students to be able to explain how forces act on materials, why certain materials are chosen rather than others, and how technology is used and has been used to improve living standards.
In this unit, students will study the forces that act on structures. The method of study recommended by the State of Connecticut for these phenomena is to study bridge construction. However, the same forces apply to house construction, and there are far more houses than bridges to study in the neighborhood where my school is located. I am in favor of taking a walk to see actual phenomena in action rather than reading about them in books whenever this is possible, so this unit is focused on houses and other similar structures rather than on bridges. The students will, therefore, be experimenting with various materials that in some way resemble housing construction materials to test the ways that the materials react to stresses that might be typically found in buildings. They will be learning about the same forces that act on bridges, but they will be using a different medium, gingerbread houses.
In this unit, the students will observe the choices that builders have made in their selections of building materials in the houses in our neighborhood. The students will then use their observations of the buildings to evaluate the choices that they make in choosing building materials for their gingerbread houses. There are hundreds of different gingerbread recipes and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. In addition, "gingerbread" houses can be made from many other materials. In this curriculum unit, students will have certain guidelines, but they will have to decide what materials they wish to use to construct their houses. Of course, the students will be expected to defend their decisions.
Finally, the students will also study the advances that have occurred in building construction. We will look at the basic problem of enclosing a space while still leaving a usable space underneath the roof. After all, young children are very good at building castles out of sand at the beach, but there isn't a whole lot of living space inside a sand castle. The student will consider how different societies have used different technologies to solve the problem of supporting a roof without taking up all of the space underneath.
A word about my student population is essential in the introduction to this unit as my students are very unique. Students are not admitted to my school without a proof of pregnancy. As a result, all of our students are female and most are in high school. We admit students as they come to us at all times during the year, so in planning units, including this one, I plan for several contingencies. The most common contingency is that there will be more students at the end of the unit than are present at the beginning. This generally means that students will need to be able to work on some parts of the unit independently while I work with the student who just entered. This sort of planning is also useful when some students work more quickly than others. The second major contingency is that students will legitimately be out of school for various reasons relating to their pregnancies. This means that any classroom work needs to have a similar component suitable to be sent home. The third contingency is caused by our policy that we will take any student who lives in the district and has proof of pregnancy. This means that my classes are small, but they tend to have very diverse levels of ability. For example, this unit is aimed at an eighth grade level. This class typically has fewer than five students, but they may or may not have been in eighth grade before and may or may not have already covered the particular material that is being covered on a given day. As a result, the five students in the room may all need different levels of instruction. So, in writing a curriculum unit, I try to include variations on the theme which would allow the unit to be taught at different levels. Furthermore, I try to teach the material in the curriculum in a way that is unique in the district, so the students who have covered the material before are not bored and therefore disruptive.
What is Architecture
Architecture is many things to many different people. This unit will focus on architecture, that is buildings, their materials, their structures, and their artistry, in which people live. Architecture is a holistic discipline which combines structural engineering with art. It combines the mundane necessities of building sturdy buildings with the necessity of making the buildings comfortable living spaces. Buildings must not collapse, but they also must not be irritating to the eye, mind or body. Architecture is the discipline which improves basic structures with pleasing aesthetics.
In this unit, we will study architecture as a discipline, but we will also study the results of this discipline. We will study buildings which have been built over the ages in various parts of the world before building our own houses. We will study structural principles, but we will also study aesthetics. The students will be required to use information from both aspects in their final constructions.
Why Gingerbread Houses
This project obviously could have been done with any of a number of different building materials. Tooth pick constructions are common, as are popsicle sticks and balsa wood, but their frequent occurrence in curricula around the country and around the world is one of the reasons I have chosen not to use them. Many of the students have been in eighth grade before coming to my class. Many teachers have written or used curricula which build bridges with the above mentioned materials, and students tend to resent having to redo work that they have done before. Gingerbread is not a common material, and, therefore, it is unlikely to have been used before.
Furthermore, gingerbread houses are a traditional winter holiday construction. It is a tradition of which many students may have heard, but most of my students will not have built a gingerbread house before. This project has the potential to expand the experience of students beyond what they might get at home. It also gives my students a chance to experience a project which, if simplified, they might share with their child when he or she is older. This project will be timed to finish just before the winter holiday break. The project will give students something that they can contribute to their families during the holidays.
Finally, gingerbread is fun. It combines learning with one of students' favorite activities, eating. The students will have lab reports to write and will have other assessments, but they will do most of the learning while "playing". This approach encourages laughter and a relaxed atmosphere, both of which promote healthy pregnancies, while still engaging in education. In this way both of my school's missions, educated mother and healthy babies, are accomplished.