Sheila B. Irvin

Creating a “Model” Community:  Geometry and Social Studies Concepts Come to Life for Fourth-Graders

Sheila Irvin knows that her fourth-grade students at Egremont Elementary School learn best when they are given an opportunity to “play” with the concepts they are learning in their classroom, but finding the resources for hands-on activities can be a challenge.

With this in mind, Irvin developed a proposal for an NEA Foundation Student Achievement Grant to partner with a local museum, an architect, and an environmental consultant to bring to life the concepts she was teaching her students. Her goal was to build a bridge of knowledge between shapes and geometrical concepts they were learning about in the classroom and the buildings, machines and streets that fill their community.  As a culmination of the project, the students were tasked with creating a model neighborhood.

“Student learning has become so test-driven that the value of experiential knowledge is often lost,” said Irvin.  “Nine-year old children need an opportunity to play with materials that will ultimately contribute to their acquisition of knowledge.  This grant provided them with the materials to do just that.”

In order to prepare the students for the lessons in architecture and city planning, Irvin introduced the basic concepts to the students in the classroom by experimenting with Geofix and K-Nex construction kits to demonstrate the difference between plane and three-dimensional figures.  The students soon caught on and met their goal of identifying the shapes with 90 percent accuracy.

The students’ then visited the Berkshire Museum where they learned about the function of simple and complex machines through a collection of toys made by artist Alexander Calder for the Gould Manufacturing Company in 1927.   Using replicas of the toys as a guide, the students created their own models to gain a better understanding of geometry of the wheel and the axel and how these shapes affected speed and efficiency of motion.

Through these new experiences, Irvin saw the light bulbs turn on for the children. She observed how the students were growing in their understanding of the classroom concepts.  They were now ready to tackle the final activity and create their own model community.

Irvin invited architect, Erica Zekos a member of the American Institute of Architects, to teach the students about the elements of building design as well as city planning. The educators also brought in a consultant from the Housatonic River Initiative to teach the students about the importance of green planning.

Through the sessions with the guest speakers, students learned about how different shapes and sizes affected the stability and strength of buildings.  They also learned about how architects and designers used roof gardens and energy efficient techniques, such as solar panels, to make their designs more environmentally-friendly.  All of these elements were then integrated into their model city.  

After observing the buildings in their community, the students created their own model neighborhood complete with houses, parks, a pet store, and a gas station.  The students were thoughtful in choosing the types of building and the necessities of a successful community.

The students were eager to share their new knowledge and the Berkshire Museum willingly provided the venue. The Museum offered to display the students’ model city project for two days, but because of the interest from the community, they displayed the students’ work for a week. 

The students and teachers were also invited to present their project on the local cable television station.  Interviewed on live TV, the fourth-graders presented their knowledge by showing off their work and describing what they had learned about architecture, city planning, and design.  

For Irvin, the real measure of the project success was observing the students using the geometric and architectural design language when describing their activities. 

“Generally students follow the unit in their books with little hands-on application and as a result have a vague notion of the relationship between two and three dimensional shapes,” she said.  “These students were able to see how their knowledge went beyond a classroom activity to planning of buildings and the creation of a whole community.”

While the parents and community may have been impressed by the work of the students, Irvin knew that when students are provided with creative learning opportunities they really shine.