4th Grade Invention Literacy Projects


Note: Since I heard the term Invention Literacy from Jay Silver in 2015 I’ve been a tad obsessed with it because it perfectly describes what I am trying to do in my library makerspace. My goal in makerspace programming is to help our students “understand the way the world works so they can create new stuff.” Read all of my posts about Invention Literacy here. I’ve previously done this project with high school students and adult learners, so this was my first year adapting the project for elemakers! Read on to learn about my process and check out all of the cool stuff Mason 4th graders made below!

From January to the beginning of March, I led each class of 4th grade students through the Invention Literacy project. Every 4th grade class had a dedicated week to choose an invention, learn how it works and recreate it with recyclables and the materials available in the library. (Note that I also lead Invention Literacy workshops for Makey Makey that focus only on utilizing the Makey Makey. At school, I allow students to create with whatever materials they are most comfortable with!)

I created an Invention Literacy journal for students to track their week’s work. In the beginning I tried to have it as an online document for 4th graders, but quickly realized they did better with it as a paper journal.

To start the project we watched videos of Jay Silver talking about the need for Invention Literacy. (This is currently my favorite video of him discussing this idea of a new needed literacy.) Then I asked students what they felt invention literacy means in their own words.  We also took some time to talk about and define prototyping, so students could understand that making is an iterative process and that their final invention doesn’t have to be polished.

After talking about inventing and prototyping, I gave small groups time to brainstorm and sketch invention ideas. This was one of my favorite things! Students quickly got to work talking about ideas they had and what they wanted to make! They LOVED being able to recreate any invention their little heart desired. (We did have to talk a lot about scalability and time constraints. They only had 5 days to make their invention! No you can’t make a robotic hand in 5 days, but you could create one out of cardboard or straws…. No, you can’t make your own computer in 5 days, but you can learn about all the parts of a computer, etc.)

On the second day of the project, students had to research the history of their invention online using Encyclopedia Brittanica or another library database of their choice. Once they had researched HOW their invention worked, they crowdsourced to find out how others had made similar inventions. After all the brainstorming and researching was done, it was time to get making! Students had 3 days to create their collaborative invention. On Friday, students presented their inventions to the next class that would be coming to the library. Next year, I hope we can share our projects with the whole school at a STEM night or something!

Some teachers also had students share what they made in Flipgrid. We also asked them to reflect on what new skills they learned making the project and talk about the most challenging aspect of their Invention Literacy project.

Make Time for Cleaning and Re-organizing

One important note is that if you try to have a project like this back to back each week, you will need to make time for cleaning and reorganizing your maker supplies after each group is finished. This is what our materials looked like at the beginning. Note that all of our materials along this wall are consumable (other than the sewing machine.) I learned my lesson last year when students sawed apart double-sided knitting needles to create catapults!

Maker Recess

One of my favorite things that happened during this project was that students asked if they could come work on their projects during recess. It made my elementary library feel a little more like the communal home I had in secondary!

Student Projects

The variety of projects due to student choice was astounding! Kids learned what they needed when they needed it! Some students learned cardboard engineering techniques, while others learned to sew, create circuits, build cars, and more.

Below are all of the awesome things these 4th graders made! I am so proud of them for taking risks and learning to make something on their own and fill their maker toolbox with new skills.

Harvey’s Class

All of Harvey’s Class projects!

Scott’s Class Mid-Project

All of Scott’s Projects

Honea’s Class Mid-Project

Nelson’s Class Mid-Project

Harkin’s Class


Next year?

Next year I hope to work on invention literacy skills all year long with younger students, so that as my students get more comfortable with more materials, their projects will get more and more complex. I loved seeing the variety of projects and the many ways kids design cardboard candy dispensers!


Cardboard Automata – Simple Machines and Storytelling

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Third grade spent about three weeks last month creating their own cardboard automata! It was a powerful combination of literacy and making. As the students were already studying procedural texts and simple machines, I thought it would be the perfect time to teach them how to make their own cardboard automata.

Prep Work

I printed the automata tutorial from The Tinkering Studio to help students build their simple machines. The teachers requested having the students attempt to create the automata by reading and following the instructions since they just finished studying procedural texts.

As I hadn’t made automata on a massive scale yet, I asked some of my maker friends about the best way to get mutliple frames made for quick automata building. J.E. Johnson ended up cutting them for me on long cardboard he uses when he leads his own automata workshops.

The marvelous Aaron Graves cut many many circle and oval shapes so 3rd grade students could focus on building a machine and not just cutting out shapes. (Even though cutting out shapes is a great activity for another time!)

It took quite a bit longer for students to make their automata than I initially planned. I told teachers we would focus on creating the automata in our first session and then the next week, let students focus on the story telling element. I mistakenly thought it would only take two 45 minutes sessions to build an automata with an amazing creative character on top. It ended up taking two sessions for most students to build the machine. While some students were still tinkering and trying to fix mistakes on their machine during the third week of making!

3rd grade figuring out how to build a simple machine #cardboard #automata #storyofmason

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Even though the machines took quite some time to build, it was a great exercise in simple machines AND storytelling.

As the time progressed, the stories got more and more intricate and interesting. Each class had a different dynamic. Some focused on quirky characters, while others had almost a diorama effect. Check out student work below:

Characters are coming along for 3rd grade #cardboard #automata ! #storyofmason #makered

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An Easter themed #cardboard #automata from Ms. Merritt’s class! #makered #storyofmason

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More 3rd grade #cardboard #automata at #storyofmason !#literacy and #mAkered

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Flat Panel Drawing

On the third week of the activity, I told students to create a flat panel drawing as this was the last week we would be working on our automata. I told Mrs. Schlung that I wished we were making automata twice. One build just to understand how to build it and how the machine works. Then have students make it a second time to add more focus on the storytelling element or character on top. Mrs. Schlung suggested that next year it might be better create an automata earlier in the school year with the two-sided flat drawing, and then later in the year we could build a second one with more character development or story background. (Especially as a way of building skills throughout the year.)

StopMotion Automata

Another idea for extending this project is to create stopmotion videos of the working automata. It’s actually a great way to introduce the concept of stopmotion with elemakers. It’s simpler than a LEGO minifig stop motion (which I did with second grade earlier in the year), but still a fun way to learn how to make your own stop motion animations.

A 3rd grader tinkering w stop motion and her #cardboard #automata . #makered #storytelling

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If you decide to make your own cardboard automata, make sure you have plenty of patience, and step back often to let your little learners problem solve on their own. This is a great activity for students to make something and gain independence in figuring out how to get their machine to work.  By the end of three weeks, almost all of the students had a working machine, and lots of kids had great ideas on characters and stories their machines would tell!

Those that didn’t finish, start every library visit with, “Mrs. Graves, can we work on our spinny things?”