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STEAM Starters case study: Where are the stripes?

STEAM Starters case study: Where are the stripes?

We have recently embarked in the second half of our STEAM Starters project to explore tinkering practices in the context of Early Childhood education. This time, Lianna, Steph, and I are co-developing tinkering approaches to Light Play and Marble Machines at two new preschools in San Francisco. This case study focuses on Modesto* and his exploration of shadow tracing.

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Our tinkering series of investigations began with Light Play, an activity we plan to continue exploring for about eight weeks. We followed a more structured approach than we normally do in the context of the Tinkering Studio, focusing on different aspects of light and shadow each week. This week we decided to focus our investigations on shadow tracing. This was a topic that emerged the previous week from an exploration that Nancy * and Lianna began, when Nancy wanted to trace the patterns made by her shadow caster. We decided to pick up that investigation again and expand upon it for all the kids: we introduced the idea of tracing shadow by demonstrating how I could get two different-looking shadows from the same object just by moving the light a little bit.

Each kid worked with their own light, shadow maker, and a large piece of chart paper as projection/drawing surface.

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Modesto was focused on animals, and specifically tigers. He started with a small figurine of a tiger, and showed me that he understood the relationship between distance and size by moving the tiger really close to the paper when he wanted a small shadow, and close to the light when he wanted a big one. For a while he worked independently tracing various animals.

When I checked in with him again a while later he has switched to a larger figurine of a tiger, and was starting to trace its tail when something appeared to be bothering him; he couldn’t find the words to express it, so both Richie and I tried to understand why he was so upset.

Richie: “Are you having a hard time copying it?”

Luigi: “Is your shadow in the way when you’re tracing it?”

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He drew three small arcs on the paper and pointed repeatedly to the shadow, then to the tiger. Suddenly I understood: he was showing me that the shadow of the tiger was lacking its stripes!

I immediately considered the importance of this moment, Modesto had just made a connection between the shadow caster and its shadow that was not about what was there, but what was lacking!

In this apparently simple moment there is the seed of a big idea: the surface elements of an object do not become part of the shadow that it projects. This is quite a sophisticated idea, having to do with the difference between a shadow and reflected light, and although Modesto’s understanding of it is certainly still in its early stages and will surely develop over time, he encountered it and grappled with it in the course of pursuing his own investigation, and because of that it was a powerful moment.

This is, to me, the true power of a tinkering approach; whereas this concept might have been a difficult one to “teach” if teachers had set up a lesson specifically to communicate it, it was readily explored and understood when the context was conducive to it.

* All kids’ names are pseudonyms.

This project is supported through a generous grant from the Early Learning and Care Division at the California Department of Education.