In 1787, George Washington proposed the construction of the first lighthouse in Maine at Cape Elizabeth. After visiting this picturesque Portland Head Light, I returned to Texas lighthouse-smitten and determined to create a study of lighthouses for my class. I wanted a design project that combined history, geography, science, construction, music, and language arts. That’s how these interdisciplinary Lighthouse STEAM Projects emerged.
Introduction and Research
I introduced our lighthouse study by reading aloud about the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. In 250 BCE, the Pharos was a technological triumph of Greek architecture. This Greek cultural landmark, built on the Egyptian island of Pharos, combined a cylindrical tower on top of an octagonal tower rising from of a square tower resting on a larger square base.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria was the tallest building at its time and served as a prototype for future lighthouses around the world. After studying it, we compared the Pharos of Alexandria to the Colossus of Rhodes, another of the Seven Wonders. Students noted how the Colossus of Rhodes provided inspiration for the Statue of Liberty. Students then chose to research a lighthouse from around the world.
I provided a list of lighthouses from over twenty countries. Examples ranged from the Roman Lighthouse at Dover (50 CE) to the Jeddah Light in Saudi Arabia (1990). After choosing their lighthouse, students investigated its history, construction, and dimensions. The researchers also learned geography by making a physical map of their lighthouse’s country. Their maps encompassed land forms, bodies of water, meridians, major cities, and a map legend.
To incorporate science elements, I required each child to research ocean currents, tides, tide pool habitats, or food chains associated with the lighthouse seashore environment. After a week of research and comparing notes, children gave presentations on their individual lighthouse. They learned about the role lighthouses have played over millennia to guide ships past treacherous coasts.
They then eagerly awaited building instructions.
Construction of STEAM Projects
The next part of the project involved designing and building a lighthouse. Students had to construct a lighthouse at home out of recycled materials. The lighthouse needed to stand at least 30 centimeters tall with a functioning light bulb, circuit, and switch at the top. To provide challenge, the structures also had to withstand a simulated tidal wave, achieved by classmates simultaneously throwing three buckets of water at each lighthouse.
Students had the option of recreating the lighthouse of their presentation or designing their own tower. Children collected cardboard and combed their garages and recycling for cylindrically shaped containers. After experimenting with materials, most designers realized that the tower needed to be mounted on a solid base. By trial and error, children learned that the taller lighthouses needed even more stabilization in the base to survive the tidal wave.
Procrastinators ignored the engineering design process and created their hastily built untested models the night before their deadline. Submissions ranged from a detailed seaside diorama with a 100 centimeter balsa wood lighthouse to a simple cylindrical oatmeal box stuffed with rocks.
Several lighthouse models were glued directly onto a plate with rocks piled on to weigh the structure down. One memorable model consisted of a “Ken” doll dressed in Greek robes holding up a light bulb that emulated the Colossus of Rhodes. As the lighthouse models trickled into the classroom, students used Ipads to interview each other and record the lighthouse projects prior to the tidal wave testing. (See our YouTube video: Inspiring Curiosity in STEM at Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet School.)
Music and Language Arts
While children were designing and building lighthouse models at home, in class we continued the lighthouse theme with music and language arts. Using Nickel Creek’s song, “A Lighthouse’s Tale,” students learned musical components of rhythm, dynamics, tempo, instruments, and rhyming structure. Another day, we analyzed the lyrics of the ballad to identify the setting, protagonist, conflict, denouement, theme, and point of view. In this mandolin-infused song, a personified lighthouse narrates the events of a tragic story.
To make a connection with fiction and reinforce our literary terms, I read aloud The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (1942) by Hildegarde Swift and The Lighthouse Cat (2004) by Sue Stainton. These delightfully sweet tales used sparkling figurative language to showcase the theme of selfless dedication through pure-hearted protagonists. I wanted to continue the lighthouse theme with poetry.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Liz Rosenberg all wrote lighthouse poems, but their language seemed too elevated for my class. I did show them Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” which is inscribed on America’s metaphorical lighthouse, the Statute of Liberty. This moving poem provoked my elementary students to share their families’ immigration stories. The next day, we reviewed figurative language, and my students wrote poems about lighthouses. After poetry recitations, my poets couldn’t wait to get outside and throw water at their models.
On a sunny September Houston morning, students carried their lighthouses outside to the sidewalk for the tidal wave test. We lined up models made of cardboard, gator board, and balsa wood. Students were excited to see if their lighthouses would survive. I counseled the bucket crew to release the same amount of water with the same amount of force at the same time for each model. Trying to control the variable of the amount and force of the water proved quite difficult. In the future, I would opt for a sluice device to reduce the human variable.
Children watched gleefully as lighthouses cracked, toppled, slid, and teetered when the tidal wave hit. After each tidal wave, the builder checked to see if the light still worked. We wrapped up the demonstrations by reviewing which lighthouses survived and why. Students concluded that all models needed to be weighted down to survive the force of the water. They also noted that the tallest models needed the broadest bases to stay balanced. The children ended the session wet, tired, and happy with their lighthouse projects. Because we integrated history, geography, science, music, language arts, and the design process, we crammed a tremendous amount of study into the first few weeks of school.
A few weeks after our lighthouse tests, a Garden Oaks Montessori parent, Alice Fisher, compiled our video interviews and tidal wave clips. She edited them into a YouTube piece for an “Inspiring Curiosity” STEM contest sponsored by Houston’s Channel 11 News program and Halliburton. Our video landed in the top four. A Channel 11 news team visited Garden Oaks and featured our class in a TV news story which thrilled us.
Our Lighthouse STEAM projects won second place in the “Inspiring Curiosity” STEM contest. We received $250.00 and a free field trip to Halliburton geological and marine biology labs. This created many more writing opportunities for my students. We researched science paraphernalia and wrote persuasive letters suggesting ways to spend the prize money.
After consulting actual maps of Houston, students wrote a procedural paragraph explaining driving directions from Garden Oaks to Halliburton. Later, we wrote thank you notes to Halliburton for a fun tour. And lastly, we wrote thank you notes to Ms. Fisher for assembling the video and submitting it to “Inspiring Curiosity.” I have never squeezed so much authentic writing out of one project. Because of the prize money, our class now enjoys a beautiful eco-sphere that shows living algae and shrimp thriving in a closed system nourished by natural sunlight.
Thank you for inspiring me, Portland Head Light.