‘Tis the season for science: Elf rescue teaches students fun lesson

By Mike O'Kelly

Lindsey Smith, a teacher in the School Program, demonstrates how patients guide the elf down a zipline.

Lindsey Smith, a teacher in the School Program, demonstrates how patients guide the elf down a zipline.

It’s all holiday fun and games until the elf gets stuck on the shelf.

Stranded on a cabinet high above the floor of the St. Jude School Program’s elementary classroom, tiny paper elves eagerly await their turn to return to snowy ground.

Students in the School Program were quick to help the elves escape the winter hinterland. The children spent a week devising clever ways to send their elfish friends down ziplines faster than the Grinch sleighed down Mount Crumpit toward Whoville.

Using small plastic cups, pipe cleaners, straws, tape and tiny felt balls, elementary school students created vehicles to balance and guide their elves to safety down a length of red twine. Vehicles with hooks, arched guides and various contents lined the classroom’s whiteboard and showed the students’ diverse thought processes. Elves had to remain safely in the vehicle during the ride and could not be taped or tied down.

The elf rescue is the latest School Program activity that teaches elements of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Other recent efforts involved students building a Thanksgiving turkey trap, creating a cloud in a jar, and learning about surface tension in water by crafting a small boat.

“We’ve incorporated STEM activities into their learning by giving them something fun that leads to creative problem-solving,” said School Program Principal Randy Thompson. “It’s part of our effort toward the inclusion of project-based learning.”

Students helped by building an Alpine landscape out of paper complete with handprinted Christmas trees and a cotton-ball snowman. The children took turns guiding their vehicles down three pieces of twine—each set at different heights to show the impact of angles. Teachers worked with the students to explore different launching points and concepts such as the effect of tension on the twine.

On Day 1 of the activity, patients quickly discovered that twine was a much more effective means of transport for the zipline than yarn. After her elf made a successful trip, a second-grade girl commented that the height of the launch and the steepness of the twine led to a perfect descent—an early lesson in geometry. Thompson and the girl later discussed the triangle shape created by the three sides of the twine, cabinet and floor.

On Day 2, vehicles journeyed down the slope past key vocabulary words such as “acceleration,” “balance” and “motion” written in marker on the whiteboard.

“It’s been great to see their creativity and imagination in finding different ways to rescue the elves,” said Lindsey Smith, an English as a Second Language teacher in the School Program, who coordinated the project. “This is a fun way for them to learn and to make the holidays special.”

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