4th Graders Design Solutions for Del Mar's Coastal Erosion Dilemma by Nancy Swanberg, Del Mar Hills Science STEAM+ Teacher

posted Oct 27, 2017, 2:18 PM by Laura Spencer   [ updated Oct 27, 2017, 2:26 PM ]
What do we wonder?
She stood apprehensively looking at the bluff as the waves crashed against it. Her house was up on top and she was not sure what would happen next. He too was anxiously watching, as more of the bluff eroded beneath their house. The waves were getting bigger and more destructive as the sea level rose, a result of climate change.  Finally it happened, the crest of the bluff gave way and their house tumbled to the beach below. They cheered! Their simulation had been a success! They now had some first-hand experience about what it would feel like to watch one’s home tumble off a bluff and how erosion by waves can make that happen.  The Deputy Mayor had been right! He had outlined the importance of this issue for their community and now they understood how crucial it would be to find a solution to stop or at least slow erosion in the California coastal region. After all, this could have been their actual home or their neighbor’s.


PrototypingUnderstanding more about the science behind a local problem, as well as having empathy for the people involved, ignited a passion in our students. They were on fire!  As teachers, it was exhilarating and a bit overwhelming at the same time. This was our first official Design Thinking project and our team of two specialists, two classroom teachers, with the support of two district design engineers, wanted it to go well. We hoped the students would learn standards in science, engineering, social studies, and English language arts as they tackled this real-world problem.


Deputy Mayor Worden discusses a solution with students.The project was not without its moments of uncertainty though, as when a large number of our students, in focusing on the part of the problem they would address, decided total bluff erosion was inevitable and got caught up in potential pet loss as they imagined it raining cats and dogs (literally) from their cozy homes on the bluff tops into the waiting sea below.  That was something we hadn’t anticipated and it took some skillful redirection in the moment to get the students back on track, focusing on preventing erosion in the first place. Other challenges arose too, but when we couldn’t figure out a good way to accomplish the next step, a lesson plan from our design engineers would magically arrive in our inbox or when we were short on time, one of them would swoop in to make poster headings. It wasn’t always a smooth process and finding time to touch base with other teachers was challenging and often done on the fly between bites of lunch as the project unfolded. However, by the time our students eagerly presented their prototypes and “pitches” to a crowded room of parents representing different community stakeholders; we got to just stand in the background and let them take the reigns. After all, that is what we had hoped for from the start.