STEM Makeover! Gingerbread Houses: How to Turn Your Activity Into Authentic STEM

STEM Makeover: Gingerbread Houses

Building gingerbread houses is a popular classroom activity this time of year. Although the activity can be craft-based (ergo, everyone does the same craft, and it’s just about your students creating something that they can bring home) here’s our STEAM makeover version that hits math and NGSS!

Any project that involves building can be adapted into STEM/STEAM with just a few tweaks. First, start by reading Sadlier’s Math Blog “Gingerbread House STEAM Activity – Math Connections.” They gave gingerbread houses an extensive math makeover and have conveniently provided suggestions to align them to the Common Core standards! Check them out first, then use this blog for the science and engineering side of things.

If you wish to avoid using food products to build your gingerbread houses, you can substitute with alternate building materials like cardboard, straws, glue, buttons, paper, etc. while keeping with holiday/winter theme.

Starting Out

For this activity, we suggest that you don’t show your students examples of other gingerbread houses. Otherwise, they may copy the example rather than exploring their materials and being creative. Instead, have your kids brainstorm on the structure of houses in real life. Lead them through a discussion of what they think the different parts and functions of a house are. 

Second, provide a “purpose” for their house. Does this house need to keep it’s inhabitants warm? Are they creating a scaled version of a house they know in real life? Maybe you want to recreate a small city (in which case, you want to ask what buildings does a city need). Perhaps students are recreating a city described in a book (can you imagine the epicness of a gingerbread Whoville? Or Hogsmead???) Engineering projects always solve some kind of problem. You can start with this scenario:

The citizens of Candyland want to build a new city. They’re asking you, my team of junior architectural designers, to design and create a 3D model of their city. Because they have a limited budget, they’ve given us the following materials for this project (pointing to the materials that they have). Architectural designers often work in teams, so each of you will be in charge of a building. We need to decide as a team what buildings we need to create, and then each of you will build one of the buildings using the materials we have on hand. 

Notice, in this scenario, students now get to explore being “architectural designers” as a STEAM field, and learn about the science, math, and engineering processes involved in this occupation!

Planning the Materials

If possible, have students plan out their designs. With the materials visible, hand out pieces of paper and have your students draw out plans for their houses. This will help them plan out the materials they want to use, and what their house or building will look like. They can also use these sketches to ask for materials and explain why they need them. If you ask them to bring up their plan and explain which materials they need and how much they will need to build their house, they will have to incorporate both mathematical and engineering thinking as they develop their plan.

If you aren’t able to give students time to sketch out a plan or if your students are too young to use sketches to plan, you can also just give the students the materials, but don’t tell them what each material is for. Let them figure that part out. Once they start exploring their materials, you can walk around and ask what they plan to use the materials for, which materials they plan to use, etc. 

Getting students to think about their materials also helps them practice the engineering concept of developing and creating models. Gingerbread houses are models of real houses. Many of the materials used in this activity mimic materials that are used in the building of houses in real life.

As a twist, you may want to give students a budget to “buy” the materials from you (each set at different costs), or constrain their use of the materials to a certain amount (although you want to be sure that the structure is buildable within that constraint). If you look at Sadlier’s math extensions for this activity, they discuss actually giving students a budget to buy materials for their houses. This is a great way to limit materials and also have older students do the math involved in figuring out their budget. In the real world, most of us don’t have endless amounts of supplies to use due to monetary constraints or physical constraints like the size of the land a building is being built on. 

Alternatively, you may also allow students to come back for additional materials as needed. This will give them an opportunity to explain why their initial estimates did not work and why they needed more. 

Breaking Up the Building Materials

If you’re addressing the 2-PS1-3 standard of the NGSS, have your students think about what materials they are breaking down and using to build their houses. While this isn’t an exact application of the standard, making gingerbread houses applies the same principle that we can break down one object and use components of it to build something new. 

Time for building

Once your students start building, walk around the classroom and ask questions to provoke discussions about things like structure and function. 

You can also discuss modeling and representation while your students build by asking about the materials they chose to represent different things. For instance, why did they use licorice to represent grass? Why did they choose marshmallows or icing to represent snow? 

An easy way to start this conversation is to simply point at a student’s project and ask about what they are creating. We have resources in our library that can give you ideas on how to start these conversations as well!

Let Students Redesign and Try Again

You can address another standard of NGSS by giving your students time to reflect on their first design, look at each others’ designs for inspiration, and either fully redesign it or improve their projects. Or, if you’re short on time and materials, have students write down notes on what they liked about their first design and what they would change if they had the chance to do it again.

If your students seem unsure about what to change, ask questions about the materials they used. Did the icing they chose work well as glue? Did all the pieces they put together stay in place? Are there parts of their design they wished looked different?

Other extensions:

  • Talk about the properties and consistencies of materials like icing. Which icing tastes the best? Which icing is the best for gluing vs. decorating? Students could do tests and see which icing will fit different parts of their project better than others.
  • Ratio, proportions and scale – With older students, you could have them try to create models that represent a 2000 square foot house, by having them convert square feet down to square inches. 
  • Have students write stories about the Candyland citizens who move into their city. Or, perhaps have students talk or write about how they were being architectural engineers, and what architectural engineers do!

NGSS Standards Addressed:

Physical Science

2-PS1-2 Analyze data obtained from testing different materials to determine which materials have the properties that are best suited for an intended purpose.

2-PS1-3 Make observations to construct an evidence-based account of how an object made of a small set of pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object.

Engineering Design

K-2-ETS1-2 Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps its function as needed to solve a given problem.

K-2-ETS1-3 Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performed.

3-5-ETS1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

3-5-ETS1-3 Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

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