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Built for balance? Observe, predict, test, adjust

Third-graders in Billie Freeland’s class explain their balancing plans before attempting to make it all the way across a pool noodle.

Kent City — One by one, the third-graders in teacher Billie Freeland’s STEM class approached the pool noodle taped to the floor — some with trepidation, some with determination, others with gleeful abandon. 

Their goal? To “balance like a squirrel” and make it from one end of the noodle to the other without touching the floor. 

“What’s your plan?” Freeland asked each student before they began their teetering trek along the noodle. Some hoped extending their arms to their sides would provide enough balance to complete the challenge. One student tried hopping across on tippy-toes.

Willow Fisk decided on a different approach: For her first try, she decided to turn her legs sideways.

“I thought that if I had more room on (the noodle), I would be able to (make it across),” she explained. 

And how did that work out?

“Not so good. I fell.”

Noticing, Observing, Balancing

Freeland had her students develop a plan for balancing after the third-graders spent time examining the skeletal structure of a squirrel and exploring how the animals’ bodies are built for balance. 

“I have them try and jump or balance like a squirrel to see that they’re not as good at these tasks as a squirrel is,” Freeland said. “Then we analyze a squirrel skeleton to figure out why these animals are built for balance, compared to a kid’s body.

Makenna Mourer takes a slow, deliberate walk across the noodle

“As a teacher, I’m more of a facilitator for the science skills they’re learning — noticing and observing will get you far.”

Together the class explored skeleton drawings and watched videos of squirrels to see how they moved around an obstacle course. As they watched, they took note of some unique characteristics that could help with balance: a bone in the squirrel’s tail, for example, might help them stay upright, one student guessed. A squirrel’s claws might help grip the tree bark as they ran, another student noticed. 

Freeland also hinted at a key difference in leg bones: “When we stand up straight, are our legs bent or straight?” she asked. The class quickly pointed out that, unlike humans, a squirrel’s legs are always bent, which could very well help with balance. 

With their newfound knowledge of squirrel vs. human anatomy, the third-graders took to their computers to make a plan for their own balancing attempt. They used an animation tool to create a predictive model of movement using a stick figure drawing, and then got to test it out on the noodle — balancing like a real-life squirrel.

Next Up, Dinosaurs

After her first attempt across the noodle failed, Willow went back to her computer and made some adjustments to her balancing plan, based on how the first try had gone. This time, she created a three-fold approach:

“I’m going to go heel-to-toe, go really slow, and put my hands out wide,” she said. “I think if I went slow and did all that, I’d be able to not fall.” 

So how did that go?

“Amazing,” she said. “I made it all the way and it was great.”

Next up for the third-graders: a study of marmots, and how their skeletons compare to squirrels. And eventually, Freeland said, they’ll get to dinosaurs. 

“The big unit is all about why squirrels are good at surviving, but dinosaurs were not,” Freeland said. “Squirrels can survive the winter with their warm fur, their ability to find lots of food to eat, things like that. 

“But what could have happened to the dinosaurs? We’ll find that out together.” 

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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