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Circuit Challenge Hits the (Learning) Targets

by Jennifer Peterson, Lower School Teaching and Learning Coach Graded- The American School of São Paulo, Brazil

Students love a challenge. But if you mix in a little science, technology and engineering, they may just get crazy. And if the challenge is open-ended enough to demand creativity and innovation? Oh, that may just make them gaga. Now imagine students taking on the circuit design challenge the final 4 days before the holiday break.


CHALLENGE: Design and create a gift or card that uses stored energy to produce light. 


The grade 4 teachers and I were cautiously optimistic as we planned this hands-on, STEAM-focused experience for students as a final activity of the Energy and Our World integrated unit. To add to the excitement of the challenge, it was to be their first experience in our new collaboratory. We were confident that they would be engaged. They had already worked through the investigations in the FOSS kit and took the final assessment so we were also confident that they had mastered the supporting knowledge and skills. Our only concern was how to keep the excitement from getting in the way of the learning. We knew the answer almost as soon as we posed the question…clear, visible, student-friendly learning targets.


  1. I can explain the movement of electricity through circuits.

  2. I can construct a simple electric circuit.


The challenge was kicked off in one classroom session (see presentation) which was followed by time for students to brainstorm and ultimately design their product using a planning sheet. Students were introduced to the engineering design process and understood where they were in the process throughout the challenge. We moved into the collaboratory as students entered the create stage. In an area set up for reflection and documentation, students were asked to track their progress over the 3 days using a different color to represent each day.

The results were astounding! So what did WE learn?

  1. Students were almost as excited about putting a mark next to mastered as they were about seeing their LED light up in the product they created. Almost. They were amazingly committed to and thoughtful about tracking their targets. They truly reflected on their learning each day and recognized mastery. Tracking targets was critical to the learning.

  2. Though students had mastered the supporting knowledge and skills, many of them had trouble applying them in the new situation. Perhaps the structure of the FOSS investigations did not prepare them very well for the open nature of the challenge.


  1. Students were gaga over the challenge. The ownership and pride were clearly visible throughout the 3 days. They wanted to stay in for recess to work on their products!

  2. Tears. We had tears. Tears of frustration that, thankfully, ultimately (even if it took a couple of days) turned to tears of joy. A lot of time was spent in the try it out and make it better stages of the engineering process. Our days were filled with problem-solving. The problems were not limited to the circuits. We had many problems with the creative design side of the challenge.

  3. There was lots of grit and hard work. I remember several girls telling me that they were not good at science as we kicked off the challenge. This experience pushed them into the growth mindset.

Students love a challenge. And we are convinced that even engaging, STEAM-focused, hands-on experiences can be further enhanced through the use of learning targets.


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