Engineers in the School Garden

engineers at work
Fourth grade students writing out their hypothesis for a recent experiment. During the experiment, students discovered how cold frames built of different materials affected soil warmth.

Engineer at work!
Fourth Grade Student posing with her structure.

As the weather gets colder, time in the garden gets shorter. However, indoor lessons can still have garden connections! Throughout December, the fourth-graders at Gateway Elementary observed and measured how different materials affected soil warmth. After discovering that cold frames effectively raised the soil temperature, they wanted to engineer their own solutions.


To become engineers, the fourth-graders first needed construction materials. Without knowing what they were going to create, the students had just a few minutes to collect natural materials from the school garden. Some groups scooped up as many pebbles as possible while others hunted for a few perfect sticks. Once inside, Gateway Greening Educator Tonia Scherer tasked half the class to create a waterproof structure and the other half to build a sturdy, windproof structure. Some students struggled, while others quickly problem-solved. They realized that certain materials were better for different functions.


Soon, the fourth-graders learned that engineers also have to work within constraints. Each group was given only one piece of tape and they had to strategically incorporate it. When it was time to test their structures, many stayed sturdy and dry on the inside. The fourth-graders discussed design and material improvements – just like real engineers. In the end, they related their engineering process to cold frames and designs that help to keep garden soil warm in winter months.


Even in the winter, you can discover real-life examples of science lessons. The winter trimester of Gateway Greening’s Seed to STEM fourth-grade curriculum focuses on ecosystem energy flow, engineering solutions, and scientific writing. All three topics combined in the fourth-graders cold frame and engineering experiment. For more winter lesson ideas, check out the Seed to STEM tab on Gateway Greening’s website.

Engineers at work!
Fourth grade students posing with structure they had engineered to withstand wind and water as part of a recent STEM class with Gateway Greening.

Written by School Program Manager Lucy Herleth

Looking for more ways to incorporate the school garden into your lesson plan? Stop by:

  • Gateway Greening’s Workshops for Educators page to explore monthly workshops that address the challenges and opportunities represented by teaching in school gardens
  • The Gateway Greening Educators Facebook group to connect with other teachers throughout St. Louis with similar interests in school gardens
  • Check out our In the School Garden Youtube playlist for short, actionable how-to videos that are seasonally relevant.